As FoodFeasible takes physical form, I find myself crossing paths with all sorts of intriguing people and events. I sometimes cannot differentiate between overpowering feelings of excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. Usually all overtaking me at once and I find myself at an aquaponics house or walking across a freshly plowed field ready for planting once our Upstate winter flare ups subside. Blustery winds blow my hair around and bite at my cheeks. I turn to look at the landscape and view. I feel fortunate.
I spend evenings at social events like Farm to Fork 101 where I am privileged to dine with local farmers such as Allan and Bob Cat of Main Street Farms CSA and aquaponics. Allan openly discusses his own personal experience of discontent and exit from the conventional working world in order to pursue passions and fulfillment, while we listen to local chefs demoing the dish we are currently savoring. Our conversation is highlighted, for me, by the planning of a farm visit including a tour and possibly catching one of the tilapia swimming freely through a “Fish Swim” — Bob Cat’s rendition of the more commonly termed Runway, which is part of Main Street’s sustainable aquaponics system complete with floating microgreen islands and solar energy.
Did I mention the colorful prayer flags hanging between the Fish Swims, or the loosely strung Christmas lights? As I scan the Allan and Bob Cat built aquaponics house, my eyes can’t help but rest on the two white stuffed animal tigers peering at me from the corner of the room, as if they guard the stronghold of 3,000-4,000 white and silver tilapia swimming directly in front of me. Bob Cat graciously shares Main Street’s story and patiently answers my questions. I am taking notes, like always. My organizational skills seem to be emerging as underdeveloped, but that is part of my journey. Saving every scrap of paper and jotted note.
Today standing in the room full of fish and wild cats, I am writing things like “we want more people doing less.” This note describes a potential job opening at the farm. More people doing less. I think, how polar opposite of a statement than my “conventional” world. I also record Bob Cat saying that “every year is different, and there is no normal for us.” Considering that Main Street has a talented chef on staff who cooks delicious lunches for the farm crew daily, I’d say yes, far from normal. But in a refreshing, almost make me want to farm vegetables and catch fish for a living sort of way.
The aquaponics talk ends with Bob Cat drawing me a map to the newer parcel of Main Street Farms, next to Reeds Seeds, on a hill that includes an outstanding view of rolling hills and clouds. As Bob Cat adds landmarks to guide me, and finishes with a quick self-portrait, I smile, both on my face and somewhere within because I know I will keep this map along with my scribbled notes in a disorganized binder somewhere, only to stumble upon them later by random delight.
That night at the Farm to Fork event I learned that filleting fish yields only about 30% of the fish’s original weight. Meaning the rest is waste, hopefully composted. This inspired the start of my note page for that evening (jotted on the back of a local whiskey brochure) I write “Catch Fish. Eat Whole. Write about it.”
My Friday afternoon aquaponics visit ended with the netting of a beautiful white tilapia which Bob Cat kindly helped me “ice” or “put to sleep”. The sleeping tilapia was then packed in a cooler for the trip home. Bob Cat left the aquaponics house briefly, only to return with an armful of fresh kale, carrots, red onions, and a turnip which I gleefully accepted.
Wanting to really experience fresh, I set up my grill the following day and mentally prepared myself to prep, cook, and eat the whole fish.
I set about gutting the fish, a new experience for me. I had just reached ease again while washing vegetables when my fly fisherman of a father said “you aren’t done yet,” after he inspected my amateur work. Once the fish was properly gutted and rinsed off, I prepared the vegetables and got out fresh turmeric root, garlic, powdered cumin, coriander, and chili powder. I set to work stuffing the fish with the vegetables and spices. I used grapeseed oil on both the fish and vegetables. I wanted to use only food from Main Street with the addition of spices and oil for flavor.
Grilling the fish was quick! The skin became charred and I was able to stab it with a fork easily. Thanks to Bob Cat, I knew that once the fish “cut like butter” it would be ready to eat.
I looked over the whole fish, its eye now a cloudy white color. I thought about how eating a whole fish like this used to be normal. Here I am creating an event, inviting friends to it, and sharing on social media as if it is a new idea, or uncharted territory. Strange. I set about eating the fish. I tried the skin first, crispy and unexpectedly tasty. The texture of the freshly cooked fish under the skin was soft and chewy. Different and relatively foreign to my mother and I. She sat next to me throughout the entire meal experience. She tried some as well, and the stark difference in taste was almost too much for her.
Again, interesting thoughts and questions entered my head. Dining out is enjoyed by many, fresh fish or whole fish like this is often considered high-class or fancy…. I peeled the face skin off to try the cheeks and head meat. The cheeks are tiny, just as the articles I read pre-fish had stated. But delicious! Then I spotted the exposed gill. It resembled an organ — which I suppose it is. But, as I fondly pictured my anatomy class from college, specifically the animal dissection unit… My appetite experienced a slight speed bump. Laughter broke my silent brain work. I looked up to see my mother snapping photo after photo of my facial expressions, the fish and all of its parts, and the huge smile on her face only sparked my own laughter which was soon mingling with hers.
After I had my fill of fish and vegetables, which I overcooked neither, leaving plenty of texture contrast between the buttery fish and crunchy vegetables – I sat back and found myself almost immediately craving the chocolate pie that was sitting on my parent’s kitchen counter… I took note of this, because despite considering myself a healthy eater, I was still experiencing cravings for sugary and sweet. I thought about ancient people eating whole fish never eating refined sugar or sweet processed desserts. Maybe craving different things like raw foraged roots or fire cooked game.
That afternoon with a picked over whole fish sitting in front of me, I felt like I had confirmed a concept that I have already learned. Nutrition is more than food. Eating is more than eating. It is about the experience of being present in each moment. From the Farm to Fork event, to visiting Allan and Bob Cat, to sharing my experience with old and new friends alike. Preparing, talking, eating, laughing, and loving every second of it. I admit, the gutting of a whole fish for my first time and the sight of it cooking triggered some new feelings. I call them new, and yes somewhat uncomfortable, but not unwelcome. This is what I say to my clients trying to make eating habit changes. Be okay with being uncomfortable. The newness of feelings or heightened anxiety are natural. Part of your body preparing you to handle change and challenge.
Next time, I will do this with a more experienced whole fish consumer. I want to waste less and taste more. What are the chances that at the next Farm to Fork 101 event we will be learning how to scale and fillet a tilapia?
Farmed tilapia gets a bad rep. But, do your research and ask questions. Don’t write off farmed fish when farmed fish might mean solar-powered, microgreen fertilizing, antibiotic-hormone free fish. Also, what are the fish eating? Something you should ask when consuming any animal product. Like humans, animals can be nutritionally sound or deficient. I encourage you to research your local farmers, markets, and food hubs. Ask the farmers questions! Take pride in what you are putting into your body, it’s really only one of the things that you have control over. I believe in the balance of all things. As confusing as the food industry is today, there is a lucid movement occurring now which is shifting the balance in favor of clarity.
A little more on tilapia nutrition: A 4oz serving of tilapia contains 21 grams of protein and only 2 grams of fat. This is 45% of an average females Recommended Daily Allowance, (RDA) for protein and 37% of the average males. Basically, for $7.50 per pound or $1.88 per 4oz serving, you can meet almost half of your RDA for protein. Eating tilapia can boost your immune system as it is an excellent source of selenium. Further providing an unfortified, natural source for vitamin D, B12, phosphorus, and niacin. Although tilapia has less omega 3’s than fattier fish choices, there are still about 106mg of DHA in a 4oz serving and minimal EPA. Between 250-500mg of EPA/DHA daily are what most experts are recommending. The research surrounding omega 3s is current, varying, and vast. If you find yourself lost in choosing “the best” supplement, or you don’t know what these letters mean: EPA, DHA, ALA, then check this article out for more information: http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/050515p14.shtml.
Frozen Fish – Yay or Nay?
The tilapia of Main Street Farms are harvested, iced, scaled, gutted, rinsed, vacuum sealed, and frozen within only 8 hours. As my mother and I discovered, freezing may affect the flavor, but freezing foods actually locks in most of the nutrients and provides both a budget and time friendly option for meal planning. They live and are kept in a sustainable environment complete with solar energy. Main Street’s happy tilapia are technically farmers themselves — fertilizing the microgreens above.