A Fish By Any Other Name

When is lake trout lake trout? Almost never, or when it's whiting or silver hake or ... whatever.

January 14, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

What's in a name? When it comes to "lake trout" - that fried fish fare so unique to Baltimore it's almost a trademark - lies.

Two for starters.

Touted for decades on restaurant signs across the city, "lake trout" is filleted, breaded and deep-fried here at a clip of tons a week, then served up - usually in tin foil with two pieces of white bread - to customers who often assume that, based on its name, they are eating trout from a lake.

But "lake trout" is neither.

And if you are one of the few who already knows that, who has been told - perhaps by a frank fishmonger - that "lake trout" is actually "whiting," caught in the bay or ocean, well, that's not exactly right, either.

Brace yourself, Baltimore. As renowned as we are for our National Aquarium, our sidewalk fish sculptures, our Inner Harbor, oysters and crabs - a local seafood myth is about to sink.

What is sold here as "lake trout" is actually silver hake - merluccius bilinearis, to be scientific - an ocean-going, bottom-feeding, big-eyed, prickly toothed species belonging to the cod, or ganidae, family. They are caught mostly north of Connecticut and trucked to fish markets in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

"No doubt about it, it's silver hake" Martin Gary, fisheries ecologist for the state Department of Natural Resources, said after recently examining four "lake trout" supplied by The Sun.

The fish were purchased earlier that day from two fish markets where they were labeled as "lake trout," from fishmongers who, upon questioning, also identified them as whiting.

"Every fish got two names," explained Terrence Bell at Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market. At Cross Street Seafood, the fishmonger was equally ambiguous. Asked if lake trout was from a lake, he said, "No, from the sea." Asked if his sea trout - several trays down - was from a lake, he said, "No, from the sea also."

Confused? Welcome to the murky waters of fish nomenclature, where little is clear other than:(a) there are, indeed, plenty of fish in the sea, and(b) there are even more aliases that they go by.

Scientists, fishermen, fish wholesalers and fish retailers have difficulty agreeing among themselves - much less with each other - what to call our finned friends. Throw in regional differences, and it gets even more perplexing.

Despite efforts to bring some uniformity to fish names, it's not getting any simpler, with fish being farmed outside their normal environments and marketers still coming up with new monikers for old fish.

Today, the Atlantic salmon you buy may actually be from the Pacific. That Chilean sea bass served in upscale restaurants? It's just a sexy-sounding alias for a creature whose real name is the Patagonian toothfish. What is known as striped bass in most of the free world is called rockfish in Maryland.

And, in and around Baltimore, somehow, an ocean-going, non-trout - in a state that has no natural lakes, no less - came to be called "lake trout." Beyond both being fish, it is no relation to the real lake trout, salvelinus namaycush, a species found in big lakes in the far north, Canada and Alaska.

Whether it was a result of deception or misunderstanding - or more likely a little of both - the name came to be applied to a totally different species in Baltimore, sometime in the first half of the 20th century.

"Somebody must have thought that sounded better," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. True lake trout is popular in the north among African-Americans, he noted, and they are the main consumers of "lake trout" in Baltimore.

"I don't want to say deceptive advertising - I'll call it mislabeling. Sometimes it just made sense, with a box of fish, to put a name on it that local people could identify with. If people buy it, and they're happy with it, that's the main thing. Who cares what it's called?"

While fish-sellers may, in part, have been trying to cash in on the popularity of true lake trout, most believe the more innocent account offered in Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields.

Shields said the fish, which he called whiting, was brought to the docks in Baltimore by boats arriving late in the day. As workers unloaded it, they shouted, "Late trout." Amid the cacophony that was Baltimore's old fish market, some heard that as "lake trout," and the name stuck.

Fishmonger Jonathan Rich, who has worked at Faidley's for 26 years, also believes the name resulted from a misunderstanding, but said the fish was called late trout because they came in later in the year, closer to winter, after the sea trout season had ended. "I've heard the story from a number of fellow fishmongers," said Rich. "It's a popular story, but maybe it's not known by common man."

In fact, many people - Baltimore natives, even - are unaware that "lake trout" is not lake trout.

Dawn Jennings, with the media relations department of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, said that she ate lake trout all the time. "I thought it was trout from a lake."

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