At benefit, eating snakehead to help the Chesapeake Bay

At a dinner benefit for the Oyster Recovery Partnership, an environmental threat is served to help save local waterways. The Northern Snakehead is an invasive species in the Potomac river and neighboring bodies of water, but it’s also a popular dish in other parts of the world. Local chefs and fishermen are teaming up to catch and cook the top level predator as a way to keep its population in check. (A.J. Chavar/The Washington Post)
January 29, 2013

There’s no nice way to say this, no way to spare any feelings. The northern snakehead is one ugly fish.

Seriously, just look at it. Like Lady Gaga says — baby, it was born this way, looking like a weird cross of three animals that strike fear in the heart: a Burmese python, a barracuda and an electric eel.

But even the invasive Chesapeake Bay snakehead can be prettied up by an extreme makeover, as a recent charity event featuring Washington Redskins legend John Riggins showed. The downside for the fish: It was dead — and sliced, marinated in a tasty chimichurri sauce, skewered, baked, then arranged on a nice white dinner plate with a sweet potato chorizo flauta.

The presentation had to be just right because, to the event’s organizers at least, the future of the bay was riding on that fish plate. The point of the second annual ProFish Invasive Species Benefit Dinner at Tony and Joe’s Seafood Place in Georgetown’s Washington Harbour was to persuade humans — Earth’s top predators — to develop a taste for the bay’s most fearsome fish.

Five main courses were prepared by what organizers described as “elite, high-end, white table cloth” chefs from restaurants such as the Hotel Monaco’s Poste Moderne Brasserie, the Rockfish in Annapolis and J&G Steakhouse at the W Hotel, near the White House.

Before it was served about 8:30, Rockfish chef Chad Wells’s snakehead dish was the talk of the evening among about 200 people who paid $125 a plate to dine with Riggins, a celebrity guest.

Not all the talk was positive. “I don’t like snakes, and I don’t like fish,” said Nicky Safari of Tysons Corner, who appeared to be in exactly the wrong restaurant on the wrong night. “I’m here because I know they’re going to . . . make me like fish,” she said.

Wendy Moore of Herndon, seated across from Safari, was ready to eat snakehead. “My expectation is it will taste good,” she said. “It’s an aggressive fish that’s taken over some of our wildlife.”

The snakehead is nothing but problems. It devours nearly every bite-size fish in its path but has no known predator. Females are baby factories, lugging an average of 40,000 eggs, although U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists found one with a record haul of 100,000.

On top of that, snakeheads might qualify as parents of the year in the Chesapeake. Males and females, which can grow to 47 inches long and weigh 15 pounds, shepherd their young in ball-shaped schools. As a result, the bay’s fish problem keeps getting bigger.

But humans could put a stop to it. Humans, after all, nearly ate their way through the bay’s native rockfish, blue crab, shad, oysters and sturgeon before realizing the error of their ways and taking aggressive steps in the past few decades to protect marine life.

Progress turned out to be a tricky dance — one step forward, two steps back. Just as Maryland and Virginia fought harder to conserve marine animals, along came uninvited snakeheads, probably poured into a Chesapeake tributary in the early 2000s by some clueless aquarium owner.

Despite the fish’s growing numbers, watermen aren’t interested in snakeheads, because there’s no real market for them. Fewer than half a dozen Washington area restaurants serve them. Only 3,800 pounds were sold commercially last year, the first year in which sales were recorded.

“It’s very low . . . because fishermen don’t have the right equipment to catch them,” said John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability and sales for ProFish, a seafood supplier and one of the event’s organizers.

One recourse was to turn the problem into a main course. “This is to raise awareness,” Rorapaugh said. The aim, printed in plain language on the menu, read like a wanted poster: “Snakeheads need to be eradicated. Not controlled, not managed. Eradicated!”

Riggins, the running back turned football commentator turned outdoorsman, said he loathes snakeheads and happily signed on for the event. “This is his passion,” said his wife, Lisa-Marie, a Montgomery County prosecutor. “He said, ‘I can’t keep talking about football.’ He’s into man and the land.”

The event was a sellout. It benefited Miriam’s Kitchen, which serves the homeless, and the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which works to restore the bay’s oyster habitat.

At last year’s dinner in Annapolis, every dish included snakehead. But this winter’s recent cold snap made snakehead, native to China and Korea, nearly impossible to catch. “Researchers don’t know . . . but they think they go in deep water and bury themselves in the mud,” said Austin Murphy of Whackfactor Outdoors, who, like many recreational fishermen, kills snakeheads by shooting them through the head with a bow and arrow.

This year, blue catfish, oysters, Maryland crab cakes, yellow perch, Spanish mackerel, rockfish and braised pork ribs were on the menu. But the second course, the snakehead, was all the talk.

After diners polished off Poste chef Dennis Marron’s Spanish mackerel, waiters started serving the snakehead. Wells’s beautiful description — fish soaked in chimichurri, napped with avocado sauce, Nopal cactus relish and chipotle crema, with Flying Dog ale to wash it down — left out a few details he shared earlier as he laid skewered fish on a baking pan.

Snakeheads have a wonderful dense coat of slime, Wells said. When frozen, the mucus protects the fish, so it stays fresh. He compared the flavor to that of tilapia. Wells described the texture as perfect.

“It’s more like a dense ocean fish, not a freshwater fish,” he said. “A lot of people are squeamish because of its name.”

People such as Safari. She sat with a fork and knife poised over the skewered snakehead. In it went, and Safari’s worried expression dissolved. “It’s yummy,” she said, mouth full. “It’s quite light . . . not fishy.”

At Table 13, Linda Strohecker, who lives with her husband, Bobby, on the bay in Shady Side, chewed on the fish as a measure of revenge.

“I love it,” she said. “Tastes like grouper.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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