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Hi, Matthew:

What can you tell me about monkfish? I have eaten and enjoyed monkfish in a restaurant or two. I call it the poor man's lobster, since the flesh is akin to that of lobster. What does it look like? If I were to go fishing for monkfish, where would I go? I hope you and your elves don't have to work too hard on this one.

-- Boies Whitcomb, La Mesa

Ever noticed how some food is cute until we get ahold of it and cook it? Okra and eggplant come to mind -- attractive vegetables on the vine, less comely on the plate. And the reverse is also true. We do occasionally eat hideous things that without cream sauce or cosmetic surgery would terrify small children and make even bold adults gasp and cringe. Boies, believe me, you will never, ever see a whole monkfish in your local seafood shop.

But you wanna catch a few? Well, pack a change of underwear and buy a ticket for some north Atlantic port (U.S. or European side, your choice). Then we'll row out about 10 or 12 miles and set our gill net. When we haul it in, the monkfish will be the flat, flabby, slimy, mottled brown thing with a fat tail. How can I convey its full unappetizing appearance?

Though it does hunt prey elsewhere, it's designed to lurk in the murk on the bottom. Up front it's wide and flat, like a skate, with almost leg-like pectoral fins, sneaky-looking beady eyes, a fleshy "beard" below its mouth, and a dorsal fin low on its forehead, modified to dangle like a fishing lure. But most of its front end is devoted to sharp teeth in a mouth that runs the width of its head. It attracts prey with the "lure" and anemone- or weed-like beard, then lunges, snaps, and swallows. They've been found with whole ducks and lobsters in their distensible stomachs. Full-grown, they're four to six feet long; the mouth is nine or ten inches wide.

To get us to buy monkfish, the industry has to get rid of all the ugly parts; strip the stretchy, slimy, scaleless skin off the dee-luscious tail meat; and change its name. On the hoof, "monkfish" is called goosefish, angler, all-mouth, molligut, frogfish, fishing frog, or sea devil. On the plate, it's monkfish or the French lotte. Well, orange roughy's common local name is "slimehead," so it could be worse.

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