I had a farm-raised lunch the other day.
Unlike the farm food I'm used to, the main components of the meal didn't once frolic in a barnyard, or shimmer in amber waves of grain. Instead these examples of farm food came from the water. They were seafood.
The lunch marked the beginning of a month-long, fins-from-the-farm cooking endeavor. During May, Stouffer's chef Guy Reinbold in cooperation with the Aquaculture Office of the Maryland Department of Agriculture will be preparing seafood using Maryland seafood. The seafood have been raised down on the farm, not out in the wild.
While farm-raised seafood is common in the other parts of America, it still raises eyebrows and sometimes tempers in Maryland. Many Chesapeake Bay watermen who make their living hauling fish, crabs and oysters from the bay are not fond of aquaculture. They regard it as a threat to their livelihood. And, alternately, they say that farm-raised seafood can't compare in quality and price with the "wild" product fished from the bay.
So far, the watermen have been right, at least on the price side of the argument. Farm-raised rockfish, for instance, runs about 50 cents a pound higher in seafood markets than the wild or "God-made" rockfish netted in the bay.
But aquaculture advocates say their day is coming. They say increasing environmental pressures on the Chesapeake Bay lead to on-again, off-again supplies of seafood. They say that as the fish-breeding technology improves, seafood farms will be able to deliver a consistent supply at a stable price. And that, the aquaculture folks say, is what a growing number of seafood eaters want these days.
I didn't get into any of this debate the other day at lunch. But I did get quickly into the raw oysters. They were the first course, and I polished them right off.
Later I learned about their lifestyle by calling Frank Wilde who owns the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Culture Co. in Shady Side.
He told me that my appetizers had been hatched in Shady Side, and that their parents were special extra-large oysters that Wilde uses for breeding. Then the oyster hatchlings moved to St. Thomas Creek in Hollywood. There they took up residence in wood and plastic trays designed to provide the good life, for oysters.
The trays float. The way Wilde made it sound, the oysters in the trays live in "better neighborhoods" that their bottom-dwelling "wild" colleagues. Not only is the water cleaner when they are off the bottom, but security measures are also taken to ensure that the upwardly floating oysters are safe from most predators.
Lots of critters -- birds, fish, eels and cow-nose rays -- like to eat oysters and try to break into the trays, Wilde said. But only small eels have had much success and they do little damage.
Basking in such treatment, the tray-raised oysters grow quickly. They get a steady supply of food, microscopic nutrients in the creek. And there is no overcrowding. As the oysters get bigger they are moved to larger quarters, the "big rooms" of the oyster condo.
In such conditions, oysters grow to serving size, about 4 1/2 inches long, in nine months. It takes wild oysters about three to four years to reach a comparable size, Wilde said. A bushel of farm-raised oysters costs more than that bushel of wild oysters. But Wilde contends that tray-raised oysters have more meat and survive the rigors of shipping better than their wilder colleagues. Therefore, by his method of accounting, farm-raised oysters make economic sense.
The tray-dwelling oysters I had for lunch the other day had a remarkably clean flavor. If I had my druthers, I would have oysters that were saltier, like the raw Chincoteague oysters. But these farm-raised fellas were respectable.
At the lunch I also had some soft-shell crawfish grown by Martin Sterling in Crisfield, some hybrid striped bass, raised by Bill Councell in Goldsboro, and some tilapia raised by Erroll Jenkins in tanks in Salisbury.
Tilapia is a warm-water fish that originally hailed from Africa, but now is the darling of the indoor-tank fishermen. These fish are not picky eaters, they gain weight fast and they have mild, white flesh. Apparently if you want to sell an immense amount of fish, such as the amount used by fast-food restaurants in their fish sandwiches, you want to raise a mild-mannered fish like tilapia.
The other day Chef Reinbold livened up the farm-raised tilapia by "blackening" it: loading the fish up with Cajun peppers and spices.
I liked that approach. Sometimes when you come from the farm, you need a little help to develop an urban edge.
After the lunch, I called a few fellows in the fish business and asked them what they thought about farm- raised seafood. Both Bill Devine at Faidley's Seafood in the Lexington Market, and Buddy Harrison, whose family operates seafood restaurants in Baltimore and Tilghman, were polite.