Surfing Through the Seafood Expo

When I was at USA Today, a colleague and I had an idea for a series of multimedia stories: “Tales from the Trade Show.” The idea was that there is a conference or expo or trade show for just about everything. Turns out Vice did it — or at least, two episodes. There’s PackExpo for those who are looking for the latest in packaging equipment. There’s the Adult Entertainment Expo. Do not expect that link to be safe for work. And, of course, Vent Haven, the world’s largest convention for ventriloquists. I’m guessing they don’t have a high demand for guest passes.

In Boston, one of the biggest conventions of the year come in March with the Seafood Expo of North America. This I had to see.

One of the other fellows, Rowan Jacobsen, is a renowned food writer and author of numerous books including the beautiful and encyclopedic, The Essential Oyster. He was scouting the expo and, lucky for me, let me accompany him. We wandered the halls and sampled salmon, shrimp, oysters, and a variety of other creatures.

We stopped at a vendor who was preparing farmed barramundi — “the next tilapia,” as Rowan put it. It was bright, fresh, and salty. I could easily see it kicking tilapia’s tail. But whether it will take hold — I guess that’s the point of showing it off at the expo.

We tried some oysters. “That was terrible,” Rowan said after sampling an oyster that had been previously frozen. He took me to an oysterman he knows and we sampled three of his. The sweet oyster was a smooth starter. The briny oyster delivered a jab to the taste buds. The salty oyster puckered my mouth and sent me searching for a drink.

A few booths over, we sampled some smoked salmon. It was good and we complimented the vendor. He smiled conspiratorially. “Do you like caviar?” he asked.

Why yes, we both answered. The vendor reached under the counter and pulled out an unmarked canister. He twisted off the top to reveal glittering black eggs. He spooned out a generous portion for each of us. We popped the caviar into our mouths and in unison gave our verdict. “Wow,” we said. So smooth! Where’s that from?

The vendor smiled, ready to reveal whatever trick he was playing on us. “Oklahoma.”

He explained that Oklahoma paddlefish (an ancestor of the sturgeon) can grow to six feet long and weigh 60 pounds. Oklahoma law says individuals can possess only three pounds of paddlefish caviar per person and it all must come from a single fish and cannot be transported out of state. Anything else must be handed over to the state. As a result, the state has become a major player in international caviar. And this vendor plans to get in on the deal.

As we continued wandering, we stopped by a booth hawking genuine wasabi (as opposed to the green horseradish-mustard mix most people are served), another offering a vegetarian’s take on smoked salmon (uh…), and another booth with girls in palm skirts urging visitors to sample some strange fish.

Finally we wrapped up at the oyster shucking competition. Think of it like the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee meets World’s Deadliest Catch. Eight contestants took the stage and were given a plate, some ice and a bag of oysters. Their goal: to plate 12 beautifully shucked oysters (six from the East and six from the West) as quickly and as perfectly as possible. Plating a severed finger or squirting blood from a sliced thumb is heavily penalized.

I don’t think I would have guessed that an oyster shucking contest would resemble a United Colors of Benetton ad, but that’s exactly what the stage looked like. Among the shuckers was Deborah Platt, a Virginia-based shucker nicknamed “The Black Pearl.” She opens the oyster in an a-typical fashion (from the lip rather than the hinge). I only know this because Rowan told me and apparently it makes her quite the shucking oddity.

Bella “Gator” Macbeth Cain, Rowan informs me, is a transgender shucker. The emcee is former world shucking champion, Pat McMurray, a Canadian with an iconic yellow knife molded to fit his hand. Clearly, they all know each other and travel in the same shucking circles.

The contest has a carnival flair to it. Bits of shell and saltwater spray from the shuckers knives. As they complete their 12 oysters, they raise their hands and step back. But because the contest includes a lenghty post-plating judging session, it’s not clear who won. For that you have to wait. And I didn’t. By then, the smoked salmon and oysters were sitting heavy and it was time to go.

Leaving the expo, I looked back from the top of the escalator. All you could see was an ocean of people looking to make their livelihood from the sea.

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