Fish aren't what they used to be

HAVE you eaten any shark lately? How about fried mahi-mahi, blowfish, or puffer? I have tasted shark out of curiosity. If I hadn't known what it was, I would have thought I was eating the rubber mat from underneath the steering wheel of our Buick, with oil spots on it. One might say a shark tastes a good deal the way it looks.

Like many who have lived most of their lives in New England, I have a natural inclination to eat fish. But something is happening to normal fish. Delicacies such as baked halibut, stuffed flounder, and poached mackerel seem to be disappearing, while strange flatfishes with even stranger names are being pushed at us instead. Or else they have no names at all but are offered as ``batter-fried fish'' or ``fish sticks.''

Usually there is an effort to hide the thing under a prettier name; thus, when you read ``salmon shark'' you must translate, ``dogfish.''

Even high-class restaurants are changing their standards. ``What's calimari?'' I asked.

``Squid,'' the waitress replied.

``Why don't they say squid?''

A horrified look. ``People might not eat it!''

The United States now imports 70 percent of its fish, just as it imports 70 percent of practically everything else. No wonder once-familiar names, like scrod, have become almost unknown. The big name now is monkfish. One can be happy eating it as long as one never gets a look at it in its natural state.

One day I went into a fish house and asked for some halibut broiled in herb butter and lemon juice. ``We don't have halibut,'' the waiter said; ``we have pollock. You can't tell the difference.'' Pollock is a fish no one ever heard about a few years ago. Now it is a substitute for everything. Shredded, it passes for crab meat.

Scallops can be made from sea skates by using a cookie cutter, but let's not press this subject too far.

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