Bygone Bites: A Review of Fish Sticks

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As a Dallas native, I was raised at the original Highland Park Cafeteria. In addition to having worked at the Dallas dailies and PR gigs including Neiman Marcus, the Goodyear blimp and numerous restaurants, I now cover Dallas’ non-profit world for MySweetCharity.com and write “Scene” for D Magazine. I am married to D CEO Editor Glenn Hunter but hardly know the man.

Favorite restaurants: Cafe Pacific, Sal’s Pizza, Salum, Al’s, Parigi’s and Whataburger

Being raised by an Irish-Catholic mother back in the mid-20th century meant no meat on Fridays. That proved to be a challenge for mother. But coming to her rescue was a relatively new product — Gorton’s Fish Sticks. Why, it had even won the Parents Magazine Seal of Approval in 1953.

The sticks looked like flattened piano keys covered in crumbs. After spending time on a cookie sheet in an oven, they would emerge crispy on the outside. The interior was another story. Depending on our mother’s time-keeping, the fish fillets would either be overly done or borderline sushi encased in crumbs. Every now and then, they would turn out just right. But like hot dogs in need of mustard, the sticks required a dunking in either ketchup or tartar sauce. In our household, it was usually ketchup because tartar sauce required being made from scratch.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Today’s sticks looked more like three and a half inches of arthritic orange fingers. Oh, well, you can get more on the baking sheet.

Since microwaving was not recommended today nor even in use way back then, the sticks were placed in “a shallow metal baking pan, leaving space between the sticks.” Ah, perhaps they would blossom in size in the 425-degree oven.

While they baked for 16 minutes, there was time to review how healthy the sticks were. The front of the carton reported 100% real fish, no filler, no MSG and Natural OMEGA-3. Unfortunately, the back revealed a calorie count of 210 calories, 11 grams of fat and 310 mg of sodium for just five sticks. It also suggested using the sticks to make fish tacos.

Following the instructions, the fingers were turned over after 10 minutes. Once they emerged from the oven, they hadn’t grown in size but had changed in color from orange to a medium brown, looking like crispy critters.

The first stick was eaten without help of any condiments. The crust benefited from the time in the oven, but the fishy innards had no taste at all. The second stick was accompanied by ketchup which added some flavor but made you hunger for French fries. The third one was topped off with dollops of tartar sauce and was deemed the winning combination. Thus, the final two were smothered in the sauce that boasted 150 calories and 15 grams of fat for just two tablespoons.

Conclusion: Maybe the person who recommended inserting the sticks into a taco had the right idea. You can always “trust the Gorton’s fishermen.”

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Carol Shih grew up eating fish eyes and stinky tofu, but she’ll never pass up a good opportunity to heat up some Bagel Bites. Straddling the line between an American and traditional Chinese upbringing, she loves nothing more than trying new foods. Especially when it means eating whatever Glenn or Jeanne’s having.

Fish sticks were never part of my mother’s dinner repertoire, so these happened to be my first frozen fish sticks, ever. If I’d known better, I would’ve baked them in the oven instead of microwaving them inside our office kitchen. Mistake number one.

They came out limp, soggy, and wet with tears.

Fish sticks gained popularity in the 1950s, following World War II. Most of America was raised on them. I know a couple people who only eat fish if they are trapped in these breaded-crumb versions. It’s still a mystery to me.

Now that Dallas has a reputation of having fresh seafood, we’ve graduated from being just a steak-and-burgers city to a fine fish dining arena. In 2010, Nancy even wrote a piece that described how chefs in Dallas source from some of the best places in the country. And this was before Driftwood and Spoon came and changed our fishy landscape.

Has Dallas’ taste buds  evolved? If you consider how many people of the Fish Stick Generation bought seats to Dallas’ first lionfish dinner, then I would say absolutely. Yes.