Making The Old -- and The Good -- New Again

By James Parrish Coleman -- a/k/a Jimbo Coleman

A later edition. Early Editions had a white

spine, and ads for long extinct local business.

Gulf Coast Gourmet was compiled by my late mother, Jane S. Coleman, in the early 1960s. The book was a fund raiser for the Foley Woman's Club.

The illustrations are the original work of a very talented artist named Marion Dyer. The book has been in print for many, many years; but has the simple fault of assuming you know about Gulf seafood and really know how to cook. I'll cook through the book (and my childhood), explain how Jane Coleman cooked, and tell a lot of family stories in the process. I like to cook. I will share what I have, and hope you like it. That's the spirit of this blog. Bon Appetit.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Fish, Red Snapper

Order: Perciformes
Family: Lutjanidae
Lutjanus Species: campechanus
Of all the fish in Gulf Coast Gourmet, the red snapper is only my second choice. (Pompano is number one for me, but that's just a personal preference.) The next dish will be Snapper St. 
John, which is really a common take on red snapper cooked with tomatoes. 

The red snapper is, of course, a highly prized food fish on the Gulf. When going shopping, you'll find a lot of confusion on just what fish really is a red snapper. 

Snapper are part of the family Lutjanidae, of which there are almost 200 types. When is a snapper a snapper? What kind of snapper are you supposed to buy? How do you know that the "red snapper" you got at the market is not a "silky snapper" or a "mango snapper" or any of the other names that you hear, but are not familiar with? 

The "Date Dish." For the 11 or so years during
which my son James has been bringing girls home
for dinner, we have a sinister and evil practice of
serving a whole fish -- with its head on -- and placing
 it before some hapless young teenage girl. Because
one of his early, and perfectly lovely, flames reported to
her mother that the Colemans had a "big old fish
 with its head on"  for her first visit to meet the parents,
any dinner must  include something like what
you see above, ever dubbed "a big old fish with its
 head on."  When James was younger, the fish would
often sport a pirate eye patch and carrot cigarette --
his teenage idea of a riotously funny presentation. 
This is, of course, a common problem with food fish everywhere. The names change for the same fish from place to place. Cobia, ling and lemonfish are all the same fish. What is served in every resturant as “Mahi-mahi” (As in, “chef''s special is lemon pepper grilled Mahi-mahi, served on a bed of wild rice with kiwi fruit and shaved horseradish”) was and is known on the Gulf Coast as dolphin (no, not Flipper).

With snapper, there are many names for the same fish -- and many fish by the same name. (Would that be 108 species to the power of the number of names each?)

If you are confused by fish names, welcome to the club. So, what do you do when the cookbook calls for a fish that you can't find? There are rules:

RULE ONE – So what? Learn how to choose fish based on various types, rather than a specific specie. Mark Bittman's wonderful cookbook “Fish” groups recipes this way, as does the Gulf Coast's own Frank Davis in Frank Davis' Seafood Notebook ISBN: 882893092; Author: Davis, Frank, Pelican Publishing 1985. Davis' book is a wonderful instructional romp though Gulf seafood. His later books are also great!

RULE TWO - See rule one. Cook what's good and fresh, make the dish fit the ingredient. And use what's fresh! 

The Laws Of Fresh Fish...

GFR (1) Whole, that's the way to buy
fish. You can tell what you got, and
tell if it's fresh!
GOLDEN FISH RULE -- Learn how to tell a good fish from a bad one, and apply that simple knowledge. Like with everything, there are rules and regulations that apply. Read the statute! There is a law on this! A complete understanding of the GFRs (Golden Fish Rules) can be broken into five parts:
GFR (1) Buy a whole fish. That way you can see what you are getting.

Here's looking at you, kid!
The eyes should be bright!
GFR (2) Look into his eyes. If they are clear, he is fresh; if they are cloudy, not so fresh.

GFR (3) Gills -- yes, the red things. If they are bright red, that's good. If they are a dull reddish brown color, that's not good. If they have been removed, you can bet they were not bright red when taken out.

This pompano's gills and eye are not perfect
and bright. He is a Gulf Coast Gourmet reject!
GFR (4) Skin -- Distract the person at the fish market. (Point and shout, "Look at that!!") When she turns away, gently poke the skin with your finger. If the dent does not spring back -- not so fresh. 
                      (a) If you must buy fillets, buy them with the skin on, so you have a fighting chance at figuring out what kind of fish this is.
                       (b) If you buy fillets, and there are "gaps" between the muscular striations in the fish, the fish is not fresh.
Fish can't smell you, and you should not be able to smell them
If it smells "fishy," get something else.
GFR (5) Smell -- This is the most important of the five. Fish should smell like nothing, except maybe cold water. I have never been able to smell the fresh salt air of the ocean or gulf or whatever (like the more poetic among us have). Still, it should not smell like "fish". What we associate with "fish" smell, is usually spoiled fish.

What's your name, little snapper, what's your name?

The red snapper called for here is known, variously, as the Northern red snapper, sow snapper, rat snapper, mule snapper, chicken snapper, Gulf red snapper, American red snapper, Caribbean red snapper, Pensacola red snapper, Mexican red snapper, red snapper, mutton snapper (Florida Museum of Natural History, Ichthyology Department).

New York Dressed? No, no. New York
Dressed refers to the way poultry
was once sold, with the feet and head
still attached. This let the buyer see
what she was getting, and how fresh
it was, like this example above. In 

buying fish, try to get the whole fish
so you'll know what you are getting!
All of these fish below are some kind of "snapper", which points up two problems. First, the worldwide fish industry has a terrible time telling you -- honestly and frankly -- what kind of fish you are buying and eating. Like the dolphin/Mahi-mahi, the name changes from place to place. 

Second, there are folks in the fish restaurant world who will actually ---- lie to you. I always, always try to buy fish whole. That way, I can see what I am getting. I am able to look at all of the indicators of freshness. The plastic-wrapped, skinless fillets stacked up on top of ice in the cooler case just don't get the job done. Know what you are getting and know
how fresh it is. You may not be able to buy chickens with their feet and heads attached anymore, but try to buy whole fish, so you can see what you are getting!!

What about those cute little fillets of fish stacked up in the grocery store? Those are fresh snapper, right?

Actually, you don't know what they are, and short of a scientific test of the muscle tissue of the fish, no one else knows for sure, either. If you could touch the fillet (impossible, because it is packed like a chunk of hamburger or chicken) you would see that the dent left by your finger remained -- a sure sign it has been frozen. 

Fish in the grocery don't come "New York Dressed." You can't know what you are buying. Are there regulations about importing fish, what they are, how to label them? Sure, and there are regulations that forbid driving cattle down Canal Street in New Orleans on Sundays, too.

There are, however, some interesting regulations swirling around red snapper.

Snapper Wars

Scientific Name: Lutjanus griseus 
Common Name: Gray Snapper
Market Name: Snapper
 There is a lot more "law" swirling around red snapper than the laws of freshness. Snapper, so prized in the Gulf, are the subject of long-standing debate and argument in the fishing community. 

Back in the day, when there were shrimp boats all over the coast (see blog entry shrimp), every self-respecting snapper fisherman knew that any shortage of snapper was caused by that evil death machine that is a shrimp trawl. 

Now that there are a fraction of the number of shrimp boats in the Gulf that there once were, a shortage of snapper does not find such an easy scapegoat.


Snapper live on the bottom, on a reef in one place. Finding the reef is the trick.

In the 1960s a snapper fisherman found his "spots" using his feel for where the place was, a paper recording depth finder and a LORAN "A" navigation system that would be a mystery to any person brought up depending on GPS.  These guys (mostly named Walker, Annan and Callaway when and where I grew up) could fiddle around with that old LORAN "A" set, look at the depth finder, take a look at the beach, drop the anchor and catch fish. It took a lot of skill and experience to find the reef, and they had it. 

Scientific Name: Lutjanus synagris
Common Name: Lane Snapper
Market Name: Snapper

As time rolled on, the 45-foot wooden boats they fished from were outnumbered by fast little fiberglass boats that were pulled on trailers to the Gulf from all over the Southeast. Modern technology has made even the goofiest Bubba from Prattville, Ala., an expert snapper fisherman. Armed with charts showing the location of every wreck, and a dandy GPS set that puts them within inches of the middle of the wreck, these folks now master snapper fishing in a fraction of the time it took the old-timers to learn the art. 

This new breed of fishermen, most of whom were not charter fishing, caught a lot of fish, and put a lot of pressure on the resource.

The latest buzz is that a halt to fishing last spring because of the BP oil spill has allowed snapper populations to increase.  (See

The increase will give the regulators a chance to reallocate who gets what part of the fishery. In other words, the commercial fisherman will get fewer fish and the sport fisherman will get more fish. 

This picture makes me happy! (Are those real?, photoshop?)
These recreational fisher(men)  are happy! The fish,
a huge mature adult, would be happy too, if he
weren't  dead. The fish is less dead because
he was caught by sport fishermen. He would be more
 dead if he had been caught by a commercial fishermen. 
This means that whole fish I want you to buy will be available to you only if you are wealthy enough to have your own boat. Your snapper will be a frozen fillet of something that came from somewhere that you know nothing about. 

Fresh fish? Not for you, pal. The portion of the public that fishes for fun will take the resource and you will be left with whatever import comes your way. One luxury importer of seafood with a direct-to-the-consumer approach to selling product brags that its "boneless fillets arrive from clean cold waters." Interesting, since snapper are a warm-water fish. What those fillets might be is a mystery, but they aren't red snapper.

Even 25 years ago, only 36 percent of the fish fillets sold as "red snapper" were the genuine article.  

One day, the Snapper St. John that I'm going to show you how to cook next week will not be made with red snapper, but rather some unknown fish, available only in skinned fillets. 

No more "big old fish with its head on." No more knowing what you get -- or feeling good about what you eat.

Next Week: Cooking Snapper St. John


  1. Add one more rule, ask if it was caught in American waters.

  2. Right you are, RR. I am with you there.

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