The United States has four coasts—the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes—and is close to some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Americans aren’t as fond of seafood as they are of beef or chicken, however; about 60% of Americans eat seafood regularly, a full 40% once a month or less. Many Americans are concerned about levels of contaminants like mercury and PCBs in fish; at the same time, an American Medical Association report suggests that adding just three ounces of farmed salmon or six ounces of mackerel a week to the average diet can cut the risk of death from heart disease by more than a third. Many scientists consider that much of the alarm about chemicals in fish is unfounded; still they warn pregnant women and children under twelve to stay on the safe side by avoiding certain species that may tend to accumulate mercury: shark, swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and white tuna.
Ironically, though fish is generally considered a healthy food in the United States, it is often breaded and fried, a technique which would presumably negate any heart-healthy attributes of the fish itself, with or without the French fried potatoes frequently served as an accompaniment.
Because of the problem of depleted fisheries, fish farming has grown steadily in the United States. Beside claims that the farmed salmon, tilapia, trout, catfish or shrimp doesn’t taste as good as the wild variety, environmentalists are up in arms over pollution effects of large fish farms and the possibly devastating ecological effects that could occur when in-bred fish escape and add their genes to the original wild stock of their species. Parasites and fish diseases are also in issue. Much of the fish sold in American supermarkets, specialty fish markets, and even natural food stores, is farmed.
Despite the availability of fresh fish, even inland, canned tuna meat is an American favorite. Americans enjoy sandwiches made from tuna salad, essentially crushed tuna mixed with mayonnaise and bits of crunchy celery, or they may enjoy the salad without bread. Canned tuna is also the basis for that American home staple, tuna casserole, usually a mixture of the tuna, noodles, some kind of cheese, onions and spices, perhaps a can of prepared creamy soup, baked to have a crunchy top. Tuna is sold in three main grades: “white,” the most expensive, often taken from albacore tunas, “light,” which is actually dark in color, and “dark,” which is even darker. It is available whole or in chunks, packed in salted water or in oils of varying degrees of quality. Concerns about mercury levels in canned white tuna have led to declines in the market over the last several years; in 2001, for the first time, shrimp overtook canned tuna as the nation’s most widely consumed sea food. Fresh tuna is available in American fish markets; the highest grades of fresh tuna and related fish are also highly prized by Japanese sushi restaurants, which are popular in the United States.
Other canned fish widely enjoyed in America are sardines, smelts, herring, and mackerel. These are available in many varieties: smoked, in oil, in cream or tomato sauce.
Independent seafood restaurants tend to be found in large cities and especially in coastal areas, but seafood chains can be found anywhere in the United States. Long John Silver’s is the largest fast-food seafood house, with 1200 units worldwide. The fish filets, shrimp and clams are generally fried. Most general fast-food chains, like McDonalds, offer fish filet sandwiches. Red Lobster, the nation’s second largest casual restaurant chain (after Applebee’s), offers seafood in a variety of preparation methods: fried, broiled, steamed, “blackened” Cajun style; their occasional “Endless Shrimp” promotion allows diners to choose from shrimp scampi, popcorn shrimp, fresh shrimp (that they have to peel at the table), and other varieties on an all-you-can-eat basis.
Lobster harvesting constitutes the largest seafood industry in the northeast United States, from New York’s Long Island north through Massachusetts and especially the state of Maine, which has a heavy cultural association with the popular crustacean. In 2004, Maine produced more than 60 million pounds of lobster valued at more than $250 million. Maine’s 7435 commercial lobster harvesters put more than three million traps into the water. Once a lobster is caught, it is kept alive through a sophisticated system of temperature and salinity-controlled storage centers, trucked or air-freighted inland, and made available still alive for fish market sale or restaurant preparation. Seafood restaurants often keep their live lobsters in visible tanks to allow customers to choose the one they prefer. Animal rights activists claim that lobsters are not subject to standards of humane slaughter; producers counter by insisting that lobsters cannot feel pain. The true problem for the lobster industry, however, involves the complex environments in which lobsters live and thrive in the wild, complicated by issues involving the trend toward global warming.
In the New England region, the lobster roll—simply lobster meat with a dressing like mayonnaise served on a soft frankfurter-type roll—is a perennial favorite, particularly at informal seaside restaurants all over the region. Serious lobster eaters will attack boiled or steamed lobsters wearing bibs to protect their clothing from the squirting juices; special utensils assist in cracking the bones and picking out the hard-to-reach meat.
The American crab industry is widespread: Maryland and Gulf Coast Blue Crabs, Alaska King Crabs, Dungeness Crabs from the Pacific Northwest, Stone Crabs in Florida. Restaurants like Red Lobster sell platters of King Crab and Snow Crab legs in the shell; diners crack them at the table using special forks to extract the meat. From the Chesapeake region (crab cakes and soft-shell crab), through the Carolina low country (she-crab soup), around Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, crab is a frequently served specialty. In Florida, between October 15 and May 15, Stone Crabs are harvested just for their large claws; the crabs are not killed; thrown back into the water, they will grow new claws in about 18 months. At the famous Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach (in existence since 1913) eating the stone crab legs is simplicity itself; the diner cracks open the shell, takes the meat out in clumps, dips it into Joe’s distinctive sauce, and enjoys.
Shellfish (clams, oysters and mussels) are subject to stringent regulations to prevent spoilage, contamination, parasites and disease; these are promulgated and monitored by the federal Food and Drug Administration, by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, and by the individual states themselves. Shellfish suppliers must register with and be approved by these agencies before they can do business. The shellfish must be delivered in non-returnable containers, subject to maximum temperature restrictions, and live shellfish lots must carry special shellstock identification tags. The tags, which indicate the origin of the shellfish and the date of receipt, must be kept on the container until it is emptied, and then must be filed so as to be available to authorities investigating cases of foodborne illness.
Live clams and especially oysters are considered seaside delicacies, usually slurped down with special sauces in locations like Grand Central Station’s Oyster Bar in New York City. Steamed clams and mussels are more widely consumed. Breaded fried clams reach more into the realm of fast and popular food. Spiced fried oysters, served on a plate or inside a po’boy sandwich, are enjoyed in the south, particularly in the New Orleans area. Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Bienville are two luxury dishes associated with that city’s Creole cuisine.
America’s most popular seafood, Shrimp, is available fresh, frozen, pre-cooked, shelled, unshelled, and canned all over the United States. Most of the domestic industry is concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico, yet more than 80 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States is produced on shrimp farms in Central America, Vietnam, China, Thailand and Indonesia. Trade friction on this issue between the United States and these countries is ongoing. Food experts believe farmed shrimp is less tasty, and that industrial-level shrimp-culture can be detrimental to the environment. The non-profit corporation Wild American Shrimp Inc. now helps industry and government coordinate quality efforts and has a program to certify that shrimp is indeed taken from wild (and yet sustainable) sources in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
Unadorned cooked shrimp is served cold as a fancy appetizer with a ketchup-based cocktail sauce; the menu term is “Shrimp Cocktail” (though no alcohol is included). Shrimp scampi is of Italian origin: shrimp broiled in a garlic butter sauce. Breaded and fried shrimp is popular, sometimes using shredded coconut in the batter, usually served with a dipping sauce (honey-mustard, spicy, ketchup or mayonnaise-based).
As with shrimp, the American crayfish (or crawfish) industry deals with major competition from foreign aquiculture, though this industry is much smaller. The crustacean, a small relative of the lobster, is largely appreciated in the south, where it is sometimes the subject of popular song. The Cajun specialty Crawfish Etouffee is a thick stew made from crawfish meat and hot spices. The rice dish Jambalaya may mix crawfish with chicken and sausage. A Crawfish Boil is simplicity itself; crawfish boiled in a large pot of spiced water, often served in vast quantities at community events and family gatherings. Fried crawfish tails are another popular dish.
Though alligators are neither fish nor shellfish, they do live in water, and fall roughly within the same culinary category. Alligator meat, particularly from the reptile’s tail, is served grilled, in stews, or made into sausages in various regions of the southern United States.