February 21, 2013
Peculiar fishes. Peculiar fishes.

This is devastating!

Is EVERYTHING a lie?

We are in the midst of a crisis — a serious, serious crisis in fish-labeling.

If the movies are any indication, this has been going on for years. I should have known something was fishy when I saw “The Little Mermaid.” I knew that Flounder wasn’t a flounder.

One-third of our seafood is mislabeled, the advocacy group Oceana reported Thursday.

We have no idea what Wanda was called, really.

The report found that if you ask for snapper, you will get Not Snapper 87 percent of the time. I don’t know what the Not Snapper is — it could be white tuna, or even escolar. All I know is what it is not. In fact, one of the safest ways to avoid snapper is to order it. It’s very strange and Schrodinger’s Cat-like, although I feel uncomfortable putting even a theoretical cat in such proximity to fish.

In a way, we brought this on ourselves. The insistence that fish sound remotely appetizing has given people carte blanche to change the fishes’ names. Slimehead became orange roughy and immediately stopped taking my calls.

Perhaps I am not the one to ask. The extent of my relationship with fish is that I once won a goldfish — and it died immediately of my loving care and attention. I think I smothered it.

Maybe I’m fishist, but I could not tell you the difference between most fish if you paid me. As far as I’m concerned, you could label it all salmon and Not Salmon, and I would need no finer distinctions. If you absolutely insisted, you could put in a section labeled Possibly Tuna. But further than that, you need not go.

“I just think these labels are so reductive,” the fish mutter.

Then again, I am the sort of trustful soul who eats the marked-down sushi after 6 p.m. to save money.

Maybe the problem is that we are Too Eager to Label Things. What’s in a fish’s name? An escolar by any other name might be less cheap. A tuna, by any other name, would smell as sweet. Or, er, as tuna-like.

So with apologies to T.S. Eliot, I give you:

The Naming of Fish

The Naming of Fish is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first that I’m mad as beer batter
When I tell you, a fish may have two different names.

First of all, there’s the name that it says on the label,
Such as Swordfish, or Catfish or Tuna (Bluefin),
But you’d be quite a fool if you thought you were able —
To guess what’s inside from what’s writ on the tin.

Should we all blame the man, stuck with selling the stuff
He had found off the dock but could not pass as scrod?
Who christened the Slimehead anew — “Orange Roughy” —
And made short work of names that we diners thought odd?

For after that watershed moment, it’s taken
A turn for the worse, like salmon gone downstream.
Quite unlike “Canadian” when added to bacon,
This moniker swap proved a fishmonger’s dream.
The fish sold like hotcakes with names more congenial
Than those they were given in past, blunter days —
If hotcakes still sell, that is (but the slip’s venial).

No if, ands or halibuts — this was a craze!

But now, like a goldfish that simply won’t flush
Or a whale that eludes a harpoon, a
Grim truth has arrived to make all of us blush:
In a nutshell: That tuna ain’t tuna.

But beyond all this crisis, beyond all the shoals
Of sorrows that cluster like grouper,
Beyond all the goldfish who mope in their bowls
One secret remains, and it’s super:

When the label is peeled, there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess,
The name that no human research can discover.
But the fish himself knows, and will never confess
(At least for three seconds; and then he starts over.)

(I used to say that poetry was dead. No wonder.)

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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