Perhaps the darkest days for rockfish research occurred during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. These problems were the direct result of a speech given by Senator Joseph McCarthy, junior senator from Wisconsin, on 9 February 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia. In that speech, Senator McCarthy declared that the State Department, with the full knowledge of the Secretary of State, had become infested with Reds.

In 1997, to get a more intimate view of what might have led to this speech, the Lovelab interviewed Ms. Lillian DesConzo. In 1950, she was the head chef of the State Department commissary. The interview with the now retired 77-year-old Ms. DesConzo took place at the home she shares with Anthony, her husband of 52 years, in Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

"I had been hired in 1949 as head chef at the State Department commissary and I was really trying to liven up the meals, particularly the dinners. My goodness, I don’t think they had changed that menu since the Wilson Administration, what with all those heavy sauces and whatnot. I think Mr. Acheson [Secretary of State] first brought it to my attention when he came into the kitchen and said ‘Mrs. DesConzo’, he was always so polite, that Mr. Acheson, ‘Mrs. DesConzo, I wonder if you could see about perhaps modernizing the menu. Perhaps you could add a more few fish dishes.’ And I thought he was right, because really all the fish we served was the Friday baked cod fillets dipped in breadcrumbs.

So, I contacted a fish distributor in Los Angeles, I’m from here you know, and he sent me, oh, I think it was 2 dozen red rockfish. And I was going to bake them whole, like the Spanish do with their seabass. Well, the fish arrived and they were just lovely, all bright red with clear eyes and really firm muscle. Just beautiful fish. And I had just lined them up in a baking dish when Senator McCarthy came in. As I recall he was asking about getting a second helping of the sweet potato pie. And as he passed those fish, well that poor man stopped dead in his tracks and looked and the veins in his forehead just started to throb. And he said, and I remember like it was yesterday, ‘What the Sam Hill are those?’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘those are reds’, because that’s what my father had always called them. He was a commercial fisherman in San Pedro [California] before the War and he called them red snapper, even though they aren’t real red snapper.

Well, Senator McCarthy gets all excited and he demands a box and just like that puts the fish in it and walks out. And you know what? Well, it was a good thing we had some frozen cod fillets in the deep freeze or else we wouldn’t have had much of anything to serve for dinner that night.

And I think it was, oh, 1963 or 1964 before I could serve a red fish in the commissary. And I had trouble with orange and yellow ones too up to maybe 1959."

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