When I conceived the new incarnation of the Livingston Bar & Grille in 1995, I was determined that it be a unique establishment, the best to have ever existed in the northern Rocky Mountain states. The mission statement was clear: to offer only the finest products, simply and classically prepared, and served with casual yet professional dignity.
Because of the ease and efficiency of air transport today, chief among those products would be top-quality fish and shellfish. Using purveyors I had known and trusted for years, I could bring in with confidence items unheard of in a Western cow town, such as Icelandic rock lobster, wild Gulf shrimp, Australian cold-water spiny lobster and wild Nigerian tiger prawns.
This being the case, nevertheless one of the things I most wanted for my guests was Pacific salmon. To obtain salmon, and all other products indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, I planned to use a family owned business in Seattle, one of the most responsible fish dealers in the country.
Our first order consisted of two king salmon weighing about 15 pounds each. It would be filleted, oven-baked to medium rare, and served with a light dill cream sauce with bay shrimp. With it would be blanched snap peas laid on a light tomato coulis. Fresh chopped dill would be the garnish on a plate sent from heaven.
That evening I went to the restaurant with several friends, anxious to treat them to a beautiful salmon dinner. When the plates arrived, I was literally squirming for joy, and rudely launched into my meal. Within moments, I was as close to throwing up in a restaurant as I ever hope to get.
Looking furtively around, hoping it was only me who had been served a highly treacherous UFO, I saw the others picking tentatively at their meals. A veil of depression settled over me. I apologized and suggested we start over with something else.
The next morning I went to the cooler, brought out a couple of filets, and cooked them myself. The result was the same: a strange, unpleasant fishy odor and taste.
Needing to get to the bottom of the problem, I called the company's owner and explained the situation.
"Those were farm-raised fish," he told me calmly.
"Oh," I replied. Then, because I didn't know what else to say, I asked, "Why am I getting those?"
"Because that's mostly what we sell now. If you want wild troll-caught fish, you have to specify. And they're a lot more expensive."
"Oh I get it, it's the American Way: Eat shit just because it's cheap."
And all I got was a little chuckle.
When I first heard about salmon farming I thought it was a good idea because it would relieve pressure on wild stocks. It never occurred to me that the fish had to be fed, and therein lay the rub.
A salmon farm is not unlike a chicken or pig farm: The livestock are forced to live in small, overcrowded spaces and fed the cheapest diet able to sustain life.
Salmon farms are anchored in coves protected from storms where there is only moderate tidal flow. Aside from a fish pellet diet, the salmon are not able to swim freely, so there is little development of muscle tone - the result being a product lacking in flavor, character and nutritional value. Were it not for a chemical added to their feed, these fish would be an awful gray color, which perfectly reflects their circumstances.
The sea floor under these pens is covered with offal, creating an environment for disease to breed. Sailing past a salmon farm is enough to gag a maggot. Some escape from the pens is inevitable, and when these fish crossbreed with those in the wild – which they do – it has the effect of diluting, or even poisoning completely, the genetic specificity all salmon have. At the same time, it introduces to innocent natives diseases they are unequipped to fight off.
The tragedy is that with intelligent planning, careful actions and reasonable expectations, it is entirely possible to have it all: some fish to eat, some to provide sporting enjoyment and some to be left alone in order to guarantee the continued availability of the first two.
Serving farmed salmon not only supports an irresponsible enterprise, it also says that the distinct flavor and texture of a wild creature don't matter. They do matter, and that's why I will never serve farmed salmon again at the Livingston Bar & Grille.