Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Parasitologist came to dinner

Warning: This post is R rated due to explicit parasite content. Proceed at your own risk.

"Don't worry, Helen -- I won't tell anyone at this dinner what I do," said Dr. Harry Palm as we were packing up the food to take to the Boston food blogger potluck. “Oh no, they are a very open minded crowd,” I assured Harry. “I am sure they’ll find your research fascinating.” I tucked the plastic wrap around a dish of home-made gravlax and thought for a moment. “Well… let’s just wait to tell them the details till after dinner.”

Harry is a professor of marine parasitology at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany. The fact that we ended up sitting in the same kitchen this weekend dissecting fish is a miracle of the internet and Google. I found his website while researching the risks of consuming raw fish. Since no chefs or fishmongers could give me the necessary details on the issue of parasites, I decided to go straight to the people who study these lovely creatures. The phone interview with Harry last summer turned out to be invaluable to my posts on Cod Worm, Anisakis and Tapeworm.

Imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from Harry telling me he is doing research at the University of Connecticut for a couple of months and is coming to Boston this weekend. Jason and I offered him to stay with us and promised to show him around Boston. As we were having tea and munching on croissants this Saturday morning, we asked Harry what he was most interested in seeing. He didn’t have to think long. “The sight of the Boston Tea Party and Stromateidae,” he said. It took him a little while to remember the English name of the species since he calls them all by their Latin names. “Butterfish!” he finally said. The butterfish we were looking for was a little fish (4-6 inches long) common to Atlantic waters, not the marketing name given to Sable in many stores and restaurants. I’ve never tasted butterfish before, but heard it’s popular in Chinese and Japanese cuisines, fried whole.

We packed a cooler and headed out to east Cambridge in search of butterfish. Luckily, we snatched the last 4 little fish from the New Deal Fish Market. The reason Harry was looking for them is that they are a host to a very unique parasite and this time of year, the chances of seeing parasites in this fish are extremely high. “Would you like them cleaned as usual?” asked Carl. “Not this time,” I said. To parasitologists, guts are as interesting as the flesh. We brought our catch home and set to work. While Harry was dissecting the butterfish and Jason was photographing the creatures that Harry pulled out of them, I sliced up some big-eye tuna for sashimi, and pan seared drum fish, sable, and scallops.

The first creature we found in butterfish was not particularly exciting.

It was a definite cod worm and those are common to tons of fish. It looks bigger in the picture because of the zoom. For reference, the fish fillet in the pictures is the size of a small sardine fillet.

The second one was much smaller and if it weren’t for Harry’s experienced eye, I would have never noticed it. It was a tiny, squiggly, and almost transparent worm (only 1/2 inch long and very skinny).

Harry told us it might be anisakis. The last one was a tiny little spec the size of a sand grain -- too small to capture with our camera. That’s the one Harry was most excited about since it might be Otobothrium cysticum. When we finished our parasite search, we cooked up butterfish and added it to our feast. It was excellent with a delicate flesh of a tiny fish (kind of like a smelt), but flavorful and sweet. If you don’t normally have a parasitologist inspect your fish, please don’t panic. Once the fish is cooked, the parasites are dead, and pose absolutely no health risk to you.

I realize that the creatures Harry works with are “icky” by most people’s standards. Hey, you are talking to the girl who screams at the sight of an itsy bitsy spider. Trust me, I was just as freaked out about parasites in fish as you guys when I saw my first one about 4 years ago. But even I find consumers’ reaction to parasites in fish ridiculous. I can’t even count the number of people who e-mailed me to say they’ll never eat fish again because they found a little worm. Apparently, my explanation that ALL parasites are harmless if the fish is cooked didn’t do much for them. Have you never seen worms in apples? Why not give up those along with fish?

I guess the part that frustrates me about this whole issue is consumer self-righteousness. We love to whine about being taken advantage of by anyone and everyone from FDA to our local fishmonger. On one hand, we want everything to be natural and wild; on another hand, we find the experience of unprocessed food too traumatic. I had one vegan woman tell me that she is giving up on her farm-share from an organic farm and going back to supermarket produce because the farm produce has too many bugs and worms. I asked if she was worried about killing bugs by accidentally swallowing them. “Oh no, I just find them so disgusting. Maybe pesticides are a good thing after all,” she said. Sorry guys, but fish doesn’t swim in Styrofoam containers, and lettuce doesn’t grow in plastic bags. Worms and bugs are part of life whether we like it or not.

Luckily, no one at the Boston food blogger dinner lost their appetite as Harry and I disclosed the details of what we were doing with the butterfish that afternoon. Not surprising, I guess, since Joan from Urban Agrarian blog raises and slaughters her own chickens and Tse Wei from Off the Bone blog volunteered to become a pig butcher’s apprentice just for the fun of it. We all had a great time laughing, sharing stories, and eating of course. This dinner was organized by Kathleen from the Seasonal Cook blog-- the very woman who inspired me to start Beyond Salmon. It was great to see her and Diana from Off the Bone again and to meet Tse Wei (Diana’s husband), Joan, and Tammy from Food on the Food (a new blog and most wonderful person I discovered thanks to Kathleen’s hospitality).

Over some of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever had (courtesy of Kathleen and Tse Wei), Harry made an interesting observation: “You guys aren’t normal! Definitely not normal Americans.” We couldn’t agree more.


Anonymous said...

That sounds great! Educational and delicious. Wish I coulda been there. Send my love to Tse Wei and Diana. ^^

Anonymous said...

So did you cook the butterfish and eat it? I thought you would have shown us a picture of your fish dinner for that evening.

Ilva said...

Really interesting post! Thanks Helen! And I want to meet Tammy too....

SteamyKitchen said...

cooked little parasites = more protein for me!

Alex M said...

International travellers seem to visit the states and meet people with a little taste or education and commonly pronounce them "not normal americans."

I'm curious as to the Americans they are normally associating with...and why.

Helen said...

Yes, we cooked butterfish and ate it and as I mentioned in the post it was very yummy. No picture because once in a while I want to spend time with my guests and not my camera and won't put other people through eating cold food just so that I can post a picture on my blog.

Alex, I don't think Harry meant any insult by saying we are not "normal Americans." I think he meant we are a little different from most people in US and other parts of the world as well, actually. How many people do you know who are interested in finding parasites in their fish? Or how many people document what they eat and report about it on the web. Not that many (either in US or any other country). I am not saying we are more cultured or have better taste than anyone else. We just have a certain obsession that is somewhat uncommon and that's what unites us :)

Pyewacket said...

I think by "not normal" he definitely meant "a little crazy" - you know, in a good way.

Helen said...

Hi Pyewacket,

I couldn't agree more. We are "a little crazy in a good way" :)


Anonymous said...

harry palm? uh heh huh!! someone had to say it...fascinating post - thanks!

Kristin said...

Just so you know. I was joking about pesticides being a good thing. And I didn't give up my CSA.

I still don't like bugs. It sucks to clean all your food well, look it over, chop it up and put it in the steamer, and then find a worm crawling around with the kale scraps. It is not very appetizing. And your post about fish makes me happy that I am vegan (and I don't even care that I am ignoring your point). :)

Kristin said...

I asked if she was worried about killing bugs by accidentally swallowing them. “Oh no, I just find them so disgusting.

Oh, and on this point - this is a bit of a misquote and taken a little out of context. You were asking me this at work in a public area where I generally do not like to discuss my veganism at work. I was probably just trying to end the conversation.

Second, veganism is about doing as little harm to other beings as you possibly can. Many many more bugs are killed growing grain for cows than are by vegetables grown for human consumption. I obviously do not want to kill bugs, but I can't starve either and I do need to wash my vegetables.

Helen said...

Hi Kristin,

Great to hear from you! How did you know I wasn't talking about some other vegan woman? Just kidding :)

I feel like I owe you an apology. I didn't intend to misquote or
offend you. When it comes to writing, I often rely on story telling to make my point. The benefit of stories is that they are more fun to read that dry facts, but the downside is that they can get distorted in our memories. The point I was trying to make is that our relationship with food is very deeply rooted in psychology, culture, and politics, and the decisions we make about food are not always based on logic, but on our phobias. I am as guilty of irrational fears as anyone else. Yes, worms and bugs freak me out too -- just ask Jason :)

The reason I told the story of our conversation was to raise people's
awareness of these phobias. I am not saying that people should force
themselves to eat produce or fish that they find repulsive just because there is no harm in swallowing a bug. Food is supposed to make you feel good, not grossed out! I just mean that we can take
little baby steps towards understanding and accepting how our food is produced, even the not so pretty parts of it. I feel terrible for all the fishermen and fishmongers who work hard to provide us with wonderfully fresh fish and then have customers scream at them about the worms as if the fishmonger was intentionally trying to poison them. I write about this issue so much to help people learn which species are prone to worms and which ones aren't. This way they can make an informed decision about which species they are not willing to eat instead of giving up on fish entirely.

I hope you forgive the liberty I took in quoting our conversation. I was trying to keep it anonymous, but I guess it didn't work.


hello said...

This article was especially funny to me because I too believe that the consumer fear of parasites is ridiculous. I was working in a fine dining restaurant a few years ago and there was a table of two raving about our oysters and ordering plate after plate of them. Well, on the third plate the enthousiastic oyster-eater discovered a tiny baby crab in her oyster...Of course she freaked out and her date threatened to sue the restaurant because we weren't properly cleaning our oysters:) We all had a good laugh about that in the back.

Terra said...

As someone who is EXTREMELY phobic of anything wormy, I'll defend those who go off eating fish after finding worms like this. My main explanation for my extreme disgust is that 1. I don't want to eat DEAD worms either; and 2. some people's personalities just can't handle it! No need to be so judgmental. That said, I have decided after 1 year of fish-lessness due to reading your blog, to start eating CERTAIN fish, like Salmon, red snapper, and mackerel, since you explained in another post that they are pretty safe. Peace! :)