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A Talk on the Wild Side.

The Fish & Wildlife Service You Don't Know: What's For Dinner?

Today we bring you another in a series of short features about little-known aspects of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by David Klinger, a writer-editor at our National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

They claim it’s the mission.

That our admirable goal of conserving the fish, wildlife, and plants of the globe (“for the continuing benefit of the American people”) accounts for the almost-maniacal devotion to duty that motivates most Fish and Wildlife Service employees.

But, as most of us know... it is really about the food.

Well before training center smorgasbords, decades before regional office clambakes and central office holiday spreads (graced, occasionally, with gustatory delicacies and delights contributed by field stations and the occasional congressional office, intent on promoting home-state agriculture, from salmon packing to peanut raising), food played a central role in the life of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

It has something to do, naturally, with being an agency populated by hunters and anglers who shoot, spear, trap, fish, net, seine, or otherwise “reduce to possession” the fowl of the air and the fins of the sea.  We simply recognize – more readily than most, perhaps – the importance of conservation of animals and plants to people … and that part of the value in their preservation consists of … well, eating them.

Long before deliberations over global warming and strategic habitat planning, the Fish and Wildlife Service was engaged in a much more perplexing question:  “What are we going to have for dinner tonight?”

Fish for dinner

For nearly two decades, the answer came from four ladies-in-white, cooking in an obscure kitchen in suburban Maryland, whose public voice was the most famous writer in American conservation.

“With holiday parties now in full swing, this year’s hostess will find something different for her holiday guests when she serves such intriguing hors d’oeuvres and canapés as spiced shrimp, smoked salmon rolls and crab salad in puff shells,” one 1947 holiday advisory recommended, dishing up recipes for tuna a la king and “angels on horseback” (bacon-and-oyster concoctions, skewered on festive toothpicks).

“Whatever your nationality, for pre-holiday religious fast days and those post-season “tired of turkey days”, there will be an abundance of various species of fish and shellfish with which the homemaker may add variety and substantial value to the table,” added another agency missive.

That most in this profusion of chirpy household homilies were penned by agency biologist Rachel Carson is a fact glossed over by most conservation historians.  (It wasn’t all prize-winning pesticide exposes and lyrical undersea rhapsodies that typified Carson’s literary career.)

Few now recall that, in its day, the Fish and Wildlife Service was one of the most enterprising chefs in the Federal Government -- the Julia Child of the capital bureaucracy.  Operating out of test kitchens at the nearby University of Maryland, four agency home economists – Rose Kerr, Jean Burtis, Dorothy Roby, and Sarah Weems – cranked out an amazing variety of recipes for cooking everything from burbot and marsh rabbit to green turtle soup and wine-fried muskrat.  Their results were repackaged into a profusion of cookbooks and promotional campaigns and demonstrations that started after Pearl Harbor and lasted well into the 1960s.

“It may seem alien to a Government agency with such virile responsibilities as the management of fur seal herds and the destruction of predatory animals, but the Fish and Wildlife Service works up recipes for the housewife,” a 1948 agency feature trumpeted manfully.  “It concocts and tests fish recipes, then distributes them in printed form to restaurants, homemakers, food editors, and even Army mess sergeants.  Its kitchen-counseling activities are part of a plan to make America more fish conscious.”

“Beginning in World War II, our fisheries division had a mission to market the oceans.  By logical extension, the fish cookbooks are a post-World War II outgrowth of the ‘Fish are a Fighting Food’ era, as men and women returned to the home front,” notes Service historian Dr. Mark Madison.  “During the war, efforts began to make shark, sea lion, and other exotic marine species palatable to a protein-starved citizenry.  And perhaps recognizing that people still weren’t increasing their seafood consumption, efforts were made to foster fish-eating in schools, hospitals, and prisons, where the denizens don’t get to choose their food.”

Cooking options for fish and shellfish

Perhaps our most enduring contribution to American cuisine, however, was made years before, by an obscure trapper of wolves and collector of ticks who roamed the backwoods of the American West on studies for the Biological Survey, predecessor to today’s Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In 1910, collecting specimens in New Mexico and Arizona, the junior naturalist “really demonstrated that he would eat anything,” according to one Penn State Historical Commission account half-a-century later.  “(He) made a soup by boiling the meticulously prepared carcasses of mice, chipmunks, gophers, and packrats in a cheesecloth bag.  He declared this to be delicious.  In Labrador, the piece de resistance (sic) was lynx meat, which had been soaked for a month in sherry, pan stewed, and served, in a brown gravy made from the sherry in which the meat had been cured.”

It was while in the frigid north that the man became intrigued by how duck and caribou meat retained its taste and texture when quick-frozen out-of-doors.  Cabbages, he noticed, could be preserved in barrels of seawater, later to be chipped from the ice and enjoyed in mid-winter. Those cabbages, according to the account, became “the foundation of a great industry.”

For the novice biologist neither invented the freezing process, nor was the first person to freeze food commercially.  “My contribution was to take Eskimo knowledge and the scientists’ theories and adapt them to quantity production,” he confessed.  “I do not consider myself to be a remarkable person.  I did not make exceptionally high grades when I went to school.  I never finished college.  I am not the world’s best salesman.  But I am intensely curious about the things which I see around me, and this curiosity, combined with a willingness to assume risks, has been responsible for such success and satisfaction as I have achieved in life.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service employee’s name was Clarence Birdseye.  His handiwork can still be found in any frozen food locker in any grocery store in America.

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