Most people don’t associate science fiction with canned fish. And yet, it turns out that there’s a deep connection between one of America’s most iconic food brands and one of the most iconic women on Star Trek. One of the best-loved actresses on the original series of Star Trek that aired in the 1960s was also a model and radio personality who had been associated with one of America’s biggest seafood companies for many years. Here’s the fascinating backstory of how outer space and terrestrial tuna share a common thread, in the form a blonde and beautiful young actress.
Grace Lee Whitney Was the Original Chicken of the Sea Mermaid
— Star Trek (@StarTrek) April 1, 2016
Grace Lee Whitney was an actress who appeared in the first season of Star Trek, as well as in some of the Trek feature films. She played Janice Rand, best known for her blonde, basket-weave beehive wig. She was also known for being the objection of Charlie’s affection in the classic Star Trek episode “Charlie X”.
But before her time in the stars, it turns out Grace Lee spent some time under the sea. At least, figuratively, in her role as the mermaid spokesmodel for Chicken of the Sea brand tuna. In her 1998 memoir The Longest Trek: My Tour of the Galaxy, Whitney explained that she came to play the iconic mermaid character while appearing on The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show on CBS Radio.
On page 36 of her book Whitney even included a photo of her in the iconic “Chicken of the Sea” mermaid costume. She notes in the book that the fishtail “suit” had no leg openings, so stagehands would have to carry her on stage to sing during radio broadcasts. Walking, apparently, was just not possible in the tightly fitted and unique garment.
Why Is It Called ‘Chicken of the Sea’?
According to the Chicken of the Sea website, the company’s name derives from the lingo used by old fishermen, who would traditionally refer to albacore tuna as “chicken of the sea”, due to its mild flavor and light color. It’s also worth noting that the same part of Chicken of the Sea’s website recognizes Grace Lee Whitney by name for being the “the inspiration for our spirited icon” back in 1952.
Fans of reality television may recall that Jessica Simpson once made headlines for being confused about whether “Chicken of the Sea” was a chicken product, or a seafood product. TODAY notes that incident took on new dimensions in 2017, when Simpson chimed in about a newsworthy food recall at Whole Foods, which had accidentally made one of its chicken products with tuna instead. She joked on Twitter: “It happens to the best of us”.
Chicken of the Sea is one of the most recognizable names in canned tuna in the United States, with the brand Bumblebee Tuna perhaps being the only other brand of equal consumer recognition. According to Bumblebee Tuna, the first recipes for tuna noodle casserole in the US can be traced back to the 1930s. The Bumblebee Tuna company has a mascot, a bee who is featured in their advertisements and on the packaging. The mascot is called Horatio, and he was first used in the company’s ads starting in the 1950s. The “bumblebee” in the company’s name is a reference to a fleet of fishing vessels, and not an actual bumblebee insect.
That Mermaid Has a Name, By the Way
The vintage Chicken of the Sea commercial above is definitely from a post-Grace Lee Whitney era at the company, but the iconic mermaid does draw its original design inspiration from Grace Lee Whitney herself. If you’re wondering why an elaborate costume was required for Grace Lee Whitney to perform in for a radio broadcast, there’s an easy answer. In her memoir, Whitney explained: “We did the show on a stage before a large studio audience, so the visual part of the show was still important. It was important that the mermaid who sang the tuna jingle look the part.”
One last bit of trivia for all you tuna lovers out there. It turns out the iconic mermaid mascot has a name. Sadly, it’s not Grace Lee, which would have been a move that delighted fans of her work on Star Trek. San Diego’s KUSI notes that the mascot was dubbed Catalina in 2014, during celebrations for the company’s 100th anniversary.
According to the FDA, canned tuna is safe to eat in moderaton. However, some types of tuna have the potential to contain higher levels of contaminants. As the FDA puts it, “Albacore tuna, also known as white tuna, typically contains three times more mercury than canned light tuna.” Therefore, the FDA recommends that women who are pregnant limit themselves to two or three servings per week of fish species that tend to be lower in mercury.