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Diners put the bite on Patagonian toothfish

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Through more than 40 years of insatiable newspaper consumption, I've grown brain calluses so thick and flinty that I can flip past all kinds of human atrocities on the reflexive rationalization of man's inhumanity. But this stuff about the Patagonian toothfish is starting to stress me out.

Oh yeah, I've got problems.

You have to fold and wrinkle a newspaper into a fine mess to get deep enough for this hideous creature's Warholian quota, but there's something about the Patagonian toothfish that keeps pulling me back.

Perhaps it's the occasional photo, depicting a long, dark, almost eel-like fish with a shockingly unattractive underbite, its sharp lower teeth wedged together like jammed typewriter keys, its eyes the essence of baleful indifference.

A lot of people would be creeped-out just sharing the same hemisphere with this oceanic beast, but through the miracle of 21st-century marketing and public relations, the Patagonian toothfish comes to the tables of fine dining establishments all across America as . . . ta da! Chilean sea bass.

Is that brilliant or what?

"I'll have the Stuffed Chilean Sea Bass Almondine, please" say the diners who made the tasty white fillets Bon Appetit magazine's Dish of the Year last year. Because nobody was ever going to say "How's the Patagonian toothfish this evening?"

Eeew.

When I first read about this inspired linguistic makeover, I considered it a deceit perhaps worthy of a good public scolding, but whom would I be kidding? Americans have done this exact verbal charade to just about everything that gets put on the table.

We order watercress because nobody's going to say, "I'll have the weeds, please."

Ballparks have hot dog vendors because nobody wants to carry a cart around screaming, "Nice long tube o' entrails and chemicals here; get ya pig fat!"

Sweetbreads? Surely. Pancreas? No thanks.

"I'll have the sirloin tip" sounds so much better than, "Got any cow ass?"

And how 'bout that honey-glazed ham? How do you think it'd look on the menu as "Suspiciously gooped-up pig butt"?

Rarely have American marketers failed us in this process, the notable exception being head cheese. Head cheese, in case you were curious, is essentially the head, tongue, skin, heart, snout, ears and other pieces of a pig that aren't put to better use, seasoned with salt, pepper and cloves and turned into a kind of coagulated lump to be sliced onto a doomed sandwich. Any or all of which still sounds better than head cheese.

We very much want things to "sound" appetizing. We seem to want it more than for things to be appetizing. You could open a five-star restaurant and employ the world's greatest chefs, but if you called it Hank Headcheese's Little Touch of Patagonian Toothfish, you'd get killed by the Burger King next store.

In any event, the toothfish didn't get into the news via this common deceit, but rather because it's vanishing due to illegal fishing. Some scientists estimate that unless there is better enforcement of the fishing laws in southern oceans, somebody in some fashionable restaurant will order the last Chilean sea bass sometime in 2005.

"Oh I'm sorry, we're out of the Chilean sea bass."

"Oh my, I'm so disappointed. When will you be getting more in?"

"Never."

Several factors are at work against the toothfish beyond its evident dearth of good looks. A fairly remarkable species that can live up to 50 years, the toothfish doesn't breed until its 10th year or later. While this keeps dating costs down, it also gets a ton of toothfish onto your plate before it had a chance to make tons of little toothfish. Estimates are that in some areas, particularly off the coast of Australia, 90 percent of the catch is taken by pirates.

Again, some will stop at nothing trying to pin things on Derek Bell.

Australia, which recently seized ships containing nearly $2 million worth of illegally caught toothfish, will reportedly ask the U.N. Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species to protect the toothfish, in part because failure to do so could put a sizable dent in the ecosystem. The disappearance of toothfish, for example, would mean the disappearance of the principal food source for elephant seals and a supplementary food source for sperm whales.

Restaurants in at least six American cities not including Pittsburgh have stopped serving Chilean sea bass, a move that could be made so much easier by just showing a picture of the thing. Nobody'd want it. More likely, somebody'd start the Society for Emergency Orthodontia for Patagonian Toothfish. There'd be a Web site.


Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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