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Fish Taco Revolution

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Fish Taco Revolution

In the Midwest, the words fish and taco have generally been mutually exclusive. For someone who has never tried one, the image conjured up, I suspect, is a bit disgusting. There are friends of mine who think the dish consists of a whole fish, scales and gills and all, its beady eyes staring back at you and pleading, "Why would you ever wrap me in a tortilla blanket?" 

Well, I assure you, that is not a fish taco. It is far more delicious.

And it is why in the last three months, my life has pretty much been consumed by one food. Let me rephrase that slightly: In the last three months, I have pretty much consumed one food.

Fish tacos.

I'm a food writer in the At Play section of the Chicago Tribune. And this summer, my editors and I decided to write a story espousing the virtues of the Baja-style fish taco.

I had my fair share during my college days in Southern California. The combination of lightly battered fish inside a corn tortilla, crunchy cabbage on top, velvety cream sauce and squeeze of lime made this one of the world's most ethereal and perfect food.

But in Chicago, there are few restaurants that serve a truly great fish taco. Sure, several places had decent versions, but none took me back to those warm beaches in Southern California, walking around in flip flops, a beer in one hand, a fish taco the other.

I realized that Chicago had a fish taco deficiency. Instead of writing a standard food story, a revolution had to take place. I wanted the citizens of Chicago to try fish tacos, embrace fish tacos, and make fish tacos part of their daily lives. We even got some teal Livestrong bracelets made up, only these read, you guessed it, fish tacos.

The reaction from readers stunned us. We received nearly 2,000 e-mails on the day the story published -- It was as if we had uncovered corruption in an investigative report, or perhaps a scathing editorial on a polarizing topic. Only this was about Mexican food.

Food blogs and trade magazines were mentioning us. We got booked on Steve Dahl's radio show. An entire elementary school class from Palatine wrote in, pledging allegiance to fish tacos.

I'd like to think newspapers are as relevant today in a civilized society as ever. We uncover wrongdoings, expose corruption, report in dangerous places in search of truth. This fish taco campaign, mind you, is no Watergate. But food is a shared experience, and that's important to me, and it should be to you. The best foods are more than about taste -- they take you to a time and a place, and create memories of their own.

As for my relationship with fish tacos? Well, I was starting to grow tired of it. In fact, I wanted to break up with them. But after the story ran, I heard from restaurants that added fish tacos to their menus because customers were demanding them. Then there were the readers who wrote in, telling me how they ordered a fish taco for the first time in their lives, and now can't get enough. And I fell in love with them all over again.

How this silly campaign gained traction still boggles my mind, but our motives were true. To introduce something so delicious yet so unfamiliar to the masses -- well, I don't care if it's just fried fish inside a corn tortilla -- to me, that's called advocacy journalism.

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