The Middlebrow


Swimming downstream.

Salmon is a mercilessly agreeable fish. It can accommodate any sauce and be slipped noiselessly into almost any ceviche. It has more flavor than cod, yet it is just retiring enough to be served aboard an airplane, at a wedding reception, or wherever bland cuisine reigns. If you have never tried seafood, you would probably love salmon. (Correlative: If you have never tried sushi, you would probably love salmon sushi.) Fifteen years after it exploded in the American and Japanese markets, fresh salmon still sells at a brisk clip, often trailing only shellfish and tuna. In Seattle, where I lived for a time, salmon had become the local mascot, and the citizenry regarded it with a mixture of pride and resignation. “I’ll have the salmon!” was the compulsory civic motto, and those who failed to comply with enthusiasm were pelted with muesli.

These days, there’s a numb and slightly uneasy feeling when you see a lump of the pink fish dumped on your plate. The feeling, the opposite of the salmon worship of the late 1980s, is more like salmon fatigue—an abiding sense that the wonder-fish has become déclassé. Ordering salmon in a seafood restaurant produces a mild feeling of shame, the kind of embarrassment one feels when a dinner companion requests spaghetti bolognese at an Italian eatery or pad thai at a Thai joint. A survey of a few elite New York chefs confirms this suspicion. “It’s pretty much passé,” says Dan Barber, owner of the chic Greenwich Village restaurant Blue Hill. What happened?

It’s fitting that salmon should endure an identity crisis. Throughout its long history—Ken Schultz’s Fishing Encyclopedia calls Atlantic salmon“possibly the most important single species of fish in a historical and an economic sense”—the salmon has been dogged by issues of class. Salmon was once an ornament of the elite, enjoyed by Roman emperors and singled out for conservation in the Magna Carta. It was a consuming passion of European royals, from King George IV’s feasting on the “last” salmon of the Thames in 1832 to the Queen Mother’s salmon-fishing hobby a century later. Yet salmon has an equally compelling story as sustenance for the underclasses. British noblemen fed so much salmon to their servants in the 1600s that the vassals stumped for a law that limited salmon rations to three per week. Lox (from lachs, theGerman word for salmon) was a favorite of European Jews who crowded into New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century; they bought the cheap salmon that trundled in from the Pacific Ocean by rail. As it cured in tenements, lox became a symbol of the Jewish immigrant experience—a shoestring delicacy, a symbol of a newfound freedom and hope.

In the late 1980s, salmon shed its royal and proletariat roots and became the go-to fish of the American middle class. Health is the most oft-cited reason for salmon’s rise: It comes stuffed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But salmon also suits the peculiarities of the American diner. For example, its serving size—a thick steak about the size of a chicken breast—fits the continental diner’s lust for gargantuan portions. The salmon also satisfies the American urge to romanticize dinner. Since the days of Pliny the Elder, every time a salmon has swum upstream it has elicited a paean to its bravery and nobility. Typical example: “They will leap over any obstacle in their way, such as braving dams and waterfalls, hurling [themselves] many feet out of the water until [they] surmount the obstacle or die of exhaustion in the attempt; there is no turning back.” Nothing quite so stirring has ever been written about a monkfish.

So why has salmon’s star begun to fade? First, the fish has faced a nonstop barrage of bad press. Most of it has targeted the farm-raised salmon, a sad creature of “aquaculture” that is raised in offshore cages and steeped in pink dye. (Wild salmon obtain their color by eating shellfish.) Aquaculture often pollutes oceans and chokes salmon with contaminants. A 2004 report in Science found some farm-raised salmon so hepped up on PCBs and dioxins that the authors recommend eating it no more than once a month. Other studies discovered salmon with trace amounts—and here direct quotation is necessary—of an “industrial-strength fire retardant” and a “Chlamydia-like bacterium.” At this news, diners retreated to the more expensive wild salmon breeds. Then, in April, the New YorkTimes revealed that a half-dozen of New York’s best fish markets claiming to be selling wild salmon were actually purveying its farm-raised counterpart, sending the denizens of the Upper West Side into collective shock.

The rise of other upwardly mobile fish has also hurt the salmon. First came the Patagonian toothfish—whose name was changed to the more appealing “Chilean sea bass,” lest anyone confuse it with Augusto Pinochet. By the late 1990s, the Chilean sea bass had been overfished into scarcity; in any case, it seems far too rarefied to best the salmon. Fishmongers lay better odds on tilapia, the latest sharpie from LatinAmerica. Already claiming to be the sixth most-popular fish in the United States, tilapia stands as the anti-salmon—farm-raised with less threat to fish and ecosystem. Where salmon can boast of Roman bona fides, tilapia can claim that it was fished from the Sea of Galilee and, according to some historians, served at the Last Supper. Matt Hovey, a fishmonger at Wild Edibles in New York, pronounces tilapia the “white-meat chicken of seafood”—that is, even more aggressively banal than its pink cousin.

Salmon also has a branding problem. When it boomed in the late 1980s, it was positioned at the leading edge of the health-food craze, just as the specter of heart disease was in full throttle and the American middle class was making its reluctant lurch from red meat to fish. For many, salmon was a first such step—because it came as a “steak” instead of a fillet; because it was less fishy than some of the alternatives. Sadly, this is the source of salmon’s lament today. Salmon was irrevocably branded as a “starter fish”—seafood training wheels—and for many that’s where its image has remained frozen ever since. As the middle-class palate has grown more sophisticated and Americans have begun to embrace all manner of nouveau fishes—Arctic char, steelhead, tilapia—salmon suddenly seems charmingly retrograde: the bran muffin of fish.

Another theory: As we have outgrown salmon, it has also outgrown us. Salmon has gone upscale. Note, for example, the proliferation of boutique salmon “brands” which fetch absurd prices from the high-end fish markets. (Wild Alaskan King moves for more than $25 a pound.) The demand for wild salmon is so intense that some restaurants serve it only for a few weeks, during the salmon runs. Julian Niccolini, the co-owner of New York’s Four Seasons restaurant and a reliable tastemaker for the super-rich, described an uptick in salmon connoisseurship. Four Seasons diners, it seems, have begun requesting the wild salmon breeds by name. On a recent occasion, Niccolini even noticed a diner taking his salmon medium rare. “Can you imagine that?” Niccolini told me, with wilting Italian hauteur. “After so many years of being grilled to death, of being baked to death, the customers are finally getting it.” The upper-tier restaurant would be a fitting destination for the salmon, the fish that spends its life swimming upstream.