HAWAII FIVE UH-OH Respect the Butterfish, or it may destroy your khakis
wo years ago Tom Duffy, a 37-year-old father of three, was vexed and perplexed by a bizarre case of gastrointestinal distress he experienced one Saturday morning. Unaware of its source, he initially blamed a Thai dish he'd eaten the previous evening. Laughing it off, he changed and drove over to Starbucks with his three children in tow. Unfortunately, it wasn't over. He found himself heckled by his youngest while they walked through the parking lot because he kept his hand strategically placed on the back of his pants to prevent an accident while waiting in line for his latte. The following week, feeling recovered, he finished off some the delicious fish they'd purchased (and enjoyed so much the week before) from the local market in the Wayne section of the Philadelphia suburbs. "That butterfish stuff," is what he remembered calling it. "That was delicious." It was
. But soon after consuming the fish, disaster struck again: The trouble returned, this time in more substantial, uncontrollable bursts.
The next morning before work, his wife asked him why his pants were all wet. He decided to take a sick day. Home from work and running back and forth to the shower, Duffy did some minimal online research and found out the ugly, messy truth about the fish he'd eaten: Sometimes it makes orange oil shoot out of your ass.
WHAT YOUR FISHMONGER ISN'T TELLING YOU Cramping and loose stool from Olestra? Kid's stuff compared to the side effects the butterfish is packing
Incensed, Duffy decided to fight back against the fish market. Over the next few days he faxed them 14 pages of highlighted information from the research he'd done. He attached a hand-scrawled note, accentuated with dollar signs and written in all caps, explaining that he missed two days of work and ruined five pairs of pants because of their "butterfish." He chastised them for not letting their customers know about the possible side effects. The fish market, like many around the country, plead ignorance and refused to respond further. Still, Duffy notes that since his oil-slicked hours of humiliation, he hasn't seen the butterfish sold again. A minor victory, whose only victims were five pairs of pants and two office chairs.
Duffy is like many other diners all over the United States who unwittingly eat escolar, the deep-sea fish found mostly in tropical waters. Sold in many restaurants and markets as "butterfish" or "Hawaiian walu," escolar usually runs as an $18 entrée special at many casual dining restaurants, and can be purchased in fish markets for about $11 to 13 per pound. Some trendier spots prepare it on the grill so that its true "richness and flavor" can be more easily savored. Sushi restaurants occasionally serve it as "super white tuna" or "king tuna." Most diners who try it love it, even those whose seafood consumption is never more adventurous than shrimp cocktail or Gorton's fish sticks. In 1999, the New York Times touted it, quoting Jeremy Marshall, chef of SoHo seafood palace Aquagrill, who likened it to the "foie gras" of fish. A quick Google search of "escolar dishes" results in myriad local and national newspapers praising restaurants for having it on its menu. Conversely, all of these reviews usually end with a caveat that often reads like this one pulled from a 2004 New York magazine story called "The 'It' Fish":
FOREWARNED IS FOREARMED Suggest pairing for Escolar: Tide stain stick, to go!
"[B]ut in places like Hawaii, where it's a by-catch of long-line tuna fishing, it's known colloquially as the Ex-Lax fish, thanks to its high content of indigestible wax esters (remember olestra?). In the Canary Islands, food writer Harold McGee has noted, it's considered a folk medicine."
For a follow-up online search, plug in "escolar" and any variation of "anal leakage" or "diarrhea" and you'll find plenty of message boards and blogs dispensing harrowing tales similar to Duffy's. Some of these stories offer disturbing, long-winded narratives that begin with a mysterious expulsion of gas and end with a destroyed pair of khakis at a romantic dinner, or, in some cases, a trip to the emergency room by those who feared that their insides had melted.