Fish Sticks

The Inside Story

Steven Robert Allen
7 min read
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The only kind of seafood I trust is the fish stick, a totally featureless fish that doesn't have eyeballs or fins.

—Dave Barry

Yes, landing a man on the moon is impressive. So is annihilating an entire city with the push of a button, shooting a short film with a cell phone or shopping for a new carburetor on the Internet. Yet of all the wonders of the modern world, nothing quite compares with the fish stick. Ah, the fish stick. It's delicious. It's inexpensive. Above all, it's convenient. Let's face it, if we had to choose a single, all-encompassing metaphor that best symbolizes the ingenuity of our species, we could do a whole lot worse than the modest fish stick.

But what are fish sticks exactly, how are they produced and why are they so darn popular? These are the burning questions that have haunted the Alibi's award-winning editorial team for much of the last decade. It took us years to develop this story, largely because it's proven so difficult to find clear and satisfying answers.

Finally, though, after years of shining our lights into every shadowy corner of the international frozen convenience food market, we've uncovered our story. Bit by bit, the pieces have fallen into place, and the mystery of the fish stick has been revealed to us. Here, finally, after 10 years of painstaking research, are the results of our careful study.

Land of the Fish Stick

The story of how fish sticks came to dominate the U.S.'s burgeoning convenience food market in the early '50s is a fascinating one. The raw figures tell the tale. According to the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, 7.5 million pounds of fish sticks were sold in 1953. By 1954, the quantity ballooned to an astonishing 50 million pounds.

What was it about the fish stick that so grabbed our nation's imagination at that crucial moment in American history? The truth is that high tech frozen convenience foods were a sign of the times. Both the Cold War and the space race were just starting to heat up. In that tense geopolitical context, the fish stick, more than perhaps any other cultural artifact, became a source of enormous domestic pride.

Think about it. While the Ruskies were struggling to choke down bowls of boiled cabbage and potatoes, every citizen within our borders had easy access to scrumptious, inexpensive golden sticks of fish. All we had to do was pull a bag from the freezer, place the sticks on a cookie sheet in the oven, hum a few bars of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and in a few short minutes we'd be blessed with one of the loveliest meals ever known to man. Such convenience and tastiness would be enough to make even a Ralph Nader supporter proud to be an American.

The Humble Pollock

Many different types of fish can be used in the fish stick manufacturing process. In fact, many of the cheaper brands combine up to eight types of fish into their fish stick concoctions.

By far the most popular fish stick fish, though, is the humble pollock. Nicknamed the “sea salmon,” the pollock is an enigmatic fish that goes by many names, including coalfish, coley, Boston bluefish and Pacific tamcod. A long, thin fish with large eyes, the pollock ranges anywhere from 4 to 35 pounds. It has a greenish-brown back and a silvery belly. The Atlantic variety has grayish, firm, slightly oily flesh, while the Pacific version is more tender and cod-like.

In the U.S., the pollock is the fish of choice for any kind of processed seafood. For example, fast-food fish sandwiches—of the kind served at, say, Dairy Queen or Carl's Jr.—are typically made with pollock.

Why is the pollock so popular, you ask? Simply because it's the most prolifically fished fish in the world. The pollock, you see, can be found in almost any body of salt water in the northern hemisphere, and it's relatively easy to catch.

Usually netted along with cod, the pollock must be filleted immediately upon being caught. If left ungutted, the meat will spoil quickly. These filleted pollock are the initial step in a complex procedure that ultimately results in the packaged frozen fish sticks every red-blooded American knows and loves.

The Process

Finally, we come to the heart of the fish stick mystique: the manufacturing process. How is it that natural-born, sea-swimming fish of varying sizes and weights are somehow transformed into golden sticks of perfectly uniform size?

The Rosenstiel School, one of the world's leading authorities on the science of seafood, claims that “fish sticks are made by freezing boneless fillets of fish together in blocks, which are then cut into regularly shaped, elongated sticks.” The Alibi, however, discovered that this is a somewhat misleading description of the actual method used to construct these delightful frozen convenience food items. The truth is that the modern mass-produced fish stick is generally made from minced fish. That is, the fish are shredded into pieces and only then formed into sticks.

These chopped, congealed fish bits are then dipped in batter before being cooked, frozen and placed into “consumer-sized” packages, typically ranging from six to 24 ounces, or “institutional” packages, which usually weigh five pounds. In this fashion, fish sticks make their way through the commercial distribution chain to your table—shining golden bars of edible joy that are a wonder for all to behold.

Cultural Impact

Much like reality television, yet with a much broader, more enduring appeal, fish sticks have infiltrated our culture in a way that really can't be overestimated. Take the popular seafood restaurant Long John Silver's, for example. James Dunlap, assistant store manager at the 5106 Central SE branch, right here in Albuquerque, illustrates how fish sticks can become an integral part of our eating environment without us even knowing it.

“We don't have actual fish sticks on our menu,” says Dunlap, “but we do have what we call fish planks. I'm not quite sure how they do it. They come in diamond-shaped pieces. They're the most typical food item we sell.”

See what I mean? Fish sticks have even pushed their way into the upper strata of culinary society. Nancy Chavez-Berg is the owner of Nantucket Shoals Seafood Market (5415 Academy NE, 821-5787), one of the most popular places in town to buy live lobster, wild salmon and other exotic fresh seafood. In her position, she might be expected to loathe fish sticks and everything they stand for. This, we discovered, is not the case.

“I love fish sticks,” says Chavez-Berg. “Actually, just the other day we took some leftover pieces of fish next door to Trombino's. We dipped them in rice flour, buttermilk and Trombino's seasoned breadcrumbs, then cooked up some homemade fish sticks in their deep-frier. If you keep the oil hot enough, you can cook them for five minutes, drain them, and they won't be greasy at all.”

In this and so many other ways, the fish stick has proven that it truly belongs in the same category as jazz, baseball and the Constitution, those rare artifacts of our proud civilization that truly define what it means to be an American. So next time you want to celebrate our national heritage, don't wave that flag, don't pin that yellow ribbon to your lapel. Simply prepare yourself a delicious platter of freshly thawed fish sticks, and thank your lucky stars you live in a nation where such glorious things are possible.

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