The recent explosion of culinary holidays has filled October with paradoxes.
It's National Pork Month and National Vegetarian Awareness Month. It celebrates wholesome apples and spinach, and not-so-wholesome pizza, popcorn and pickled peppers.
But one pairing seems uncannily appropriate in the Fargo-Moorhead area: October is National Seafood Month as well as Gourmet Adventures Month.
For some area residents, seafood still counts as a gourmet adventure. And a quick glance at a map gives them a solid geographical argument. Fargo is just about as far away from a coast as Midwestern cities get. How can local gourmets with less than an oversized sense of adventure be sure they are getting fresh fare?
These concerns have coupled with the increasing insistence by discerning seafood lovers of responsible, environment-friendly fishing.
The Forum traced the journeys - by land, sea and air - of three popular types of seafood, from their favorite ocean hangouts to the kitchens of two area restaurants and the counters of a local grocery store.
The journey of the American lobster to Fargo starts about 25 miles off the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, sometime before dawn. That's when East Coast lobstermen head out to sea, armed with traps full of "rack-of-cod," or what's left of the fish once the fillets come out.
The lobster would rather nibble on fresh food, from crabs to sea urchins. But something about cod skeletons awakens the scavenger in it, and, against its better crustacean judgment, the lobster ambles into a trap.
A funny creature, the lobster. Its kidneys are in its head, and its brain is in its throat. It tastes with its feet and listens with its legs.
Perhaps that limb hypertasking might explain why the lobster's four pairs of legs don't take it very far on its way out. "The lobsters climb into the traps, and they can't get out," says David Madden, manager at Lobster Trap, Red Lobster's supplier. Only those petite enough can sneak out through so-called "ghost" hatches, or escape hatches for specimen whose size suggests they haven't yet had a chance to reproduce.
Lobstermen haul the traps out, don their heavy-duty gloves and start taking the lobsters out. They strategically snatch them by the backs, so the animals can brandish their claws all they want without achieving much in the way of nipping.
The captives have several chances of terminating the trip to Fargo there and then. If the lobstermen spot an egg-bearing female, they let the creature go. They also need to measure the distance between the eyes and the base of the tail, and a length of less than 3¼ inches disqualifies a lobster from a Red River Valley visit.
"We take sustainability and environmental research at heart," explains Roger Bing, director of seafood purchasing at Red Lobster.
The qualifying lobsters are shipped to Lobster Trap's Bourne, Mass., facility. When an order comes from Fargo, they are placed in cardboard boxes with partitions forming 24 private, if somewhat crammed, chambers. "It's for their own comfort," Bing says.
You see, the lobster is a recluse and doesn't like to mingle much in its natural habitat. Even with its claws secured with plastic bands, it likes to pick fights and has been known to exhibit cannibalistic tendencies in captivity.
Along a conveyor belt, the boxes slide into the belly of a FedEx truck. It takes them to Boston, where they board a direct flight to Fargo.
"Within a day, they are in the restaurant," Bing says. "It's the ultimate in fresh seafood."
There, the lobsters are placed in a saltwater pool to rest from the trip and then moved to the aquarium in the lobby, where they enjoy salt water with minerals, vitamins and electrolytes. Not for long, though. They spend a maximum of two days there before catching the eye of a hungry Fargo resident and heading to the kitchen.
Icelandic Cod at Hornbacher's
The cod's voyage to area Hornbacher's counters starts in the cool waters off the jagged coasts of Iceland, a glacier-covered island slightly smaller than Kentucky, to the northwest of the United Kingdom.
In these waters, medieval accounts have it, cod used to be so plentiful that you could scoop it up in a basket. That catch fueled the explorations of the Vikings, a number of medieval wars in Europe and the New World-bound journeys of Spanish and British sailors.
It also set off three Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland in the past century as Iceland attempted to push the limits of its exclusive fishing domain. The most recent one, complete with ship ramming and net slashing, brought the two NATO allies to the brink of war in 1975.
After cod numbers dived to an all-time low a few years ago, the fishing industry took steps to cut down on fishing and stay away from the hangouts of baby cod. Numbers have nudged up since, though it's still too early to retry the basket test.
Instead, Icelandic fishermen employ bottom trawls, cone-shaped nets towed along the bottom of the sea. When it falls prey to these appliances, cod, which sports a broom-shaped tail and a barbel under the jaw, is usually 4 to 7 years old.
Once on the ship, cod is gutted, washed, filleted, packed and quick frozen, generally within three hours of being caught.
"This stuff is processed right on the boat," says Bruce Anderson, meat buyer at Hornbacher's. "That to me is the Cadillac of all cod."
Carol Tompkins of Icelandic, Hornbacher's supplier of choice, says quick-freezing locks in the just-caught flavor of the fish and kills parasites. "If you defreeze a quick-frozen fillet and put it next to a fresh one, you can't tell the difference," she says.
The cod then embarks on a sea journey across the Atlantic, with a final destination the harbor town of Cambridge on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. There, anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of it are loaded on semis bound for the Quality Meats and Seafood facility in West Fargo.
The cod arrives at Hornbacher's in 50-pound boxes and lands on counters in 5-pound packages. "A lot of people are afraid of fish because they don't know how to cook it," Anderson says. "But this is one of the best movers in the store."
Atlantic salmon at Great Northern
The Atlantic salmon's trip to Fargo starts in the fjords of southern Norway, in a land where the ancestors of many a Fargo fish lover kicked off their own journeys to North Dakota.
Those cliff-lined saltwater inlets hosted the '70s overhaul of the Norwegian salmon industry, which today relies almost exclusively on domesticated catch.
Salmon swarm in floating net pens accessible by boat or dock. After stints at freshwater hatcheries, juvenile smolts make the pens their home and proceed to bulk up on a gourmand's diet of protein-rich fishmeal pellets. As a result, they reach optimum size of 4 to 10 pounds sooner than their wild cousins.
"They are fed a more steady diet, so they grow faster," says Ross Bredesen of Morey's, a seafood supplier in Minneapolis.
The fish also receive additives to attain the pink hue wild cousins owe to their appetite for shrimp.
The salmon farming industry has sparked controversy in recent years. Its critics, some of them aligned with ailing Alaskan wild salmon fishermen, warn of toxins and pesticides found in the fish. The industry counters by boasting increased heart benefits from fatty-acid-rich feed and touting advances such as the replacement of antibiotics with vaccines.
The Norwegian Seafood Export Council recently pronounced salmon Norway's healthiest domesticated animal, far healthier than humans.
In any case, the fish meets U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, so after it's harvested, filleted and frozen, it boards a plane to Boston. There, it's loaded on trucks and shipped to Morey's facility in the Twin Cities. There, "We eat it right away," Bredesen jokes.
Then, it goes on another truck ride to SYSCO Food Services of North Dakota in north Fargo.
Its final stop is Great Northern restaurant, where it's defrosted, rinsed and grilled. "I recommend it medium-rare," owner Heather Gibb says. "Most customers want it well-done."
Customers can choose between a classic fillet with steamed vegetables or the restaurant's best-selling Greek salad topped with salmon.
Forum readers can reach reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529