American Seafood's Next Big Thing?


Photo Courtesy of L.D. Amory & Co. Inc.

In the decades since H.L. Mencken called the Chesapeake Bay an "immense protein factory," the bay has deteriorated into America's most fretted-over body of water. But in Virginia, the struggling seafood industry hopes to get a lift by reinventing the homely cownose ray as a new American delicacy.

Never possessing much commercial value, this type of stingray is known as a nuisance, sometimes called a "trash fish." Migrating north to the Chesapeake each summer, rays have annoyed Europeans more or less since they colonized Virginia.

In 1608, local legend holds, a ray stung John Smith, of Jamestown colony and Pocahontas fame. The stricken captain ordered his crew to dig him a grave. But he lived--and recovered in time to eat his attacker for dinner.

Gliding through the bay, rays are a majestic sight; up close, they're repulsive. For seafood, though, ugliness isn't always a problem, as monkfish shows.

Amid the Bay's spectacular bounty, however, rays never found a home in the Chesapeake seafood canon. "When they're here you don't catch fish," Mike Insley, a fisherman in Virginia, said. "They actually force fish to go out of the nets." Shellfish companies harbor a special animus for rays, which prey on the oysters and clams of their commercial operations. In the past, I was told, there were calls to eradicate the rays.

With support from the state government, local seafood producers have decided to push a more elegant solution: fishing rays and serving them up. A consumer market for rays would give fishermen a new revenue stream and allow oystermen to breathe easier. Even Mencken might have approved.

People in the industry like to talk up the environmental benefits of ray fishing as well. Oysters and clams help to filter the bay, so fewer rays means cleaner water. And industry blames rays for destroying underwater vegetation.

Some questions remain about the sustainability of fishing rays commercially. Dean Grubbs, a marine biologist formerly based at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (now at Florida State), says the bay could support a ray fishery but he thinks seafood processors protest too much about the rays' impact on the ecosystem. Because rays haven't been fished commercially yet, he says, we know relatively little about them. For instance, no one knows how many there are.

And it's not yet certain that there's much domestic demand for cownose ray, which marketers have rechristened as the Chesapeake Ray. Gliding through the bay, rays are a majestic sight; up close, they're repulsive.


Photo by Alex Halperin

For seafood, though, ugliness isn't always a problem, as monkfish shows. And ray has plenty of qualities to recommend itself to American diners. It's a bloody meat with a texture closer to veal than flounder. It has a high protein content and almost no fat. And, like veal, it has a "low-flavor profile," meaning it blends into whatever flavors cover it. This could be a nice fit for Americans, who are keen on red-meat substitutes and don't like fish to taste fishy.

At the Culinary Institute of Virginia, John Maxwell, a professor who has worked with seafood industry groups, showed off a couple quick ray preparations. The meat is an alluring pink, tiger-striped with magenta bloodlines. First Maxwell sloshed a few pieces in vinaigrette and browned it quickly over a high flame. In the second version, he flavored the meat with soy sauce and ginger, which I preferred.

The thick side of the filet browned into a steak very similar to tuna, while the thinner edge of the wing fanned out into two-bite strips. A few students picked at the samples, and most of them went back for more. One young woman watching us might have been channeling the finicky American public when she said, "Chef, I love you with all my heart, but no thank you."

So where can you find this domestic, nutritious, tasty-enough meat? Right now, you probably can't, though ray occasionally shows up on menus around the Chesapeake watershed. Recently Zoe's Steak and Seafood in Virginia Beach featured Chesapeake Ray with roasted beets, thyme, horseradish gnocchi, and parmesan.

Other ray preparations are on the way. Industry group Virginia Marine Products Board offers recipes like Chesapeake ray with mushroom crust, pan-seared ray with mocha red eye and Caul-wrapped Chesapeake ray with truffles, but their real focus is on a less rarefied dish. Last winter the group developed its great fried hope: breaded Chesapeake Strips and spicy buffalo flavored Chesapeake Stingers. Executive director Mike Hutt says these frozen products can "compete very well with your poppers and kickers and your buffalo wings" on chain restaurant menus.

He thinks the "value-added" strips are the best shot at generating interest during the recession. In the future he'd like to see ray, perhaps processed into cakes, incorporated into school lunches and military diets.

Hutt brought bags of the strips and stingers to one of those famous local holes in the wall, where they agreed to cook a few up. The first batch emerged overcooked, everyone agreed, the fish meat overwhelmed by the breading. The second batch was better, the chewy fish a nice contrast to the crust. If you dipped them in ranch, they could be anything.