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The banana leaf pollock dressed in a cilantro peanut tamale did it. I am no chef, but I like to cook and explore new interpretations of dishes I thought I knew. Growing up in New Orleans meant a vast menu of cool, authentic dishes that often transcended expectations.

I still remember the smell, taste and texture of the corn husk-wrapped tamales the neighborhood kids would buy from the old man pushing his cart up and down Napoleon Ave. We had no concept at the time of ingredient sourcing, labor, etc. We just knew that a couple of those tamales for $1 after playing football in the streets made for a great cap to the afternoon.

So biting into Chef David Vargas’ spin on the cod tamale opened my eyes and fired my taste buds. I would not have thought of this combination as a kid (I may not have wanted to try it). But it was a stark reminder of the beauty of culturally diverse approaches to seafood.

Chef David Vargas discusses his roots in local sourcing.

Deep roots

Chef David spoke about growing up in a Santa Ana (California) neighborhood of little means but deep cultural roots and strong food traditions. His family grew its own vegetables. If they wanted fresh seafood, they went to the local pier and caught it themselves. Local sourcing is ingrained in his DNA and is the bedrock of his menu at Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, N.H.

Chef David spoke about growing up in a Santa Ana (California) neighborhood of little means but deep cultural roots and strong food traditions. His family grew its own vegetables. If they wanted fresh seafood, they went to the local pier and caught it themselves. For him, local sourcing is ingrained in his DNA and is the bedrock of his menu at Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, N.H.

That explains his enthusiasm for hosting a KNOW FISH Dinner®. It was not too far of a leap from the community dining he grew up with, and the embracing of locally sourced food.

Cod ceviche, courtesy of Chef David Vargas and Capt. Tim Rider. Now that’s boat to table…with flair!

Capt. Tim Rider of New England Fishmongers provided the cod, haddock and pollock (that had been swimming the day before) Chef David turned into south-of-the-border feast fancies: cod ceviche served with a thin, but lightly crisp jicama tortilla and fresh mango, serrano and seeds; charred haddock taco paired with a crispy caper tartar sauce and marinated avocado; and the aforementioned tamale that also came with a mouth-warming charred arbol salsa.

Appreciating fish tales

Capt. Tim also provided some perspective on fishing for a living. He shed light on the passion, drive and unrelenting commitment required just to survive. The long hours, sometimes 20-hour days, sometimes 36 hours, are physically and psychologically draining to be sure.

Charred haddock taco. That marinated avocado complemented the charred coating on the haddock beautifully.

But the attendant pressures to make a living for a captain and crew outside of the actual harvest can be staggering. The expenses can drain bank accounts quickly, which leads to heavy debt. Beyond the table stakes of boat costs such as monthly payments, insurance, fuel, gear, maintenance etc. are, for many, the staggering fees just to be allowed to fish. Someone like Tim may have to pay in excess of $100,000 a year to someone else for the right to fish for cod, pollock, haddock, scallops, flounder and a host of other species in the Gulf of Maine.

It’s the complex, and often debilitating nature of the current fisheries management structure in New England and elsewhere in the United States. Without passion and commitment, facing those kinds of costs and demands on personal well-being would be a short-lived fool’s errand.

And so, KNOW FISH Dinner attendees at Vida Cantina last week gained new appreciation for the fish harvesters who produced the seafood they were eating.

Tim Henry of Bay Point Oyster Company describes the extraordinary patience and commitment to start and run a successful oyster farm.

They also heard from Tim Henry, owner of Bay Point Oyster Company, LLC., who also described the effort to produce top quality oysters right out of Great Bay in New Hampshire. It’s a three-year commitment, requiring tons of patience, significant capital, physical fortitude and an ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstance. Heavy rains can force the state to shut down the harvest, and alter scheduled deliveries, for example.

Dessert. This is the first good sopapilla I’d had since childhood.

As we dined on light, crisp sopapillas drizzled in chocolate sauce and local honey, we discussed why knowing the story behind the food we eat, especially the seafood we eat, matters. This is an important point for both classroom and community discussions. When you know when, where, how and by whom your seafood was harvested, you can appreciate the effort that went into producing that seafood. Moreover, you can trust it.

Frozen shrimp from Thailand? Not so much.