Turning the Tide

From “trash fish” to gourmet meal.

All over the globe, fish that have long been table fare are disappearing from ocean waters. Nearly one third of the most desirable fish populations have totally collapsed. During my thirty-five years in the fishing community, I’ve seen advances in fishing technology skyrocket. Unfortunately, many techniques used by today’s industrial factory trawlers – and to some extent commercial and recreational practices as well – are destructive, not only to the species being fished but also to the by-catch and the ocean habitat itself.

Our methodology of harvesting fish gives an unfair disadvantage to many species, including swordfish and more recently, the tuna family. Gone are the massive schools of cod that sustained New England for centuries. Menhaden, a member of the herring family traditionally used for bait and fertilizer, happens to be crucial to the diet of most of our large ocean fish, from whales to striped bass. But the rising popularity of menhaden’s rich omega oils has resulted in hundreds of millions of pounds being caught each year by large industrial factory ships.

I don’t know the answer to the dilemma of diminishing fish stocks, but we can help threatened fish species recover from over-harvesting if we encourage the culinary use of lesser-known fish. Commonly called “rough fish” or “trash fish,” these species include unattractive-looking fish, by-catch, and those whose meat is more difficult to separate from the bones.

This spring the Home Port Restaurant in Menemsha hosted the annual Dukes County Fishermen’s Association dinner. Home Port owners Bob and Sarah Nixon have changed the restaurant’s philosophy: To support Island fishermen and farmers by serving fish and meat in season, they are featuring foods previously deemed unworthy of gourmet dining – including trash fish. That night, we were served a delicious appetizer of braised bluefish with clams and squid. The entrée was whole black sea bass served with the head, fins, and skin. We worked a little harder for the meat but it was worth the effort, and although I have cooked many black sea bass myself, that meal was outstanding.

The Home Port’s new chef, Theodore Diggs, explained that Americans are starting to adopt European food practices and an awareness of food sources. He noted that meat cuts such as liver, tongue, cheeks, and marrow – along with scup, skate, and other lesser-known fish – are finding their way into mainstream dining. The public is beginning to understand that these foods, treated properly, can be delicious. The more we develop an appreciation for less popular varieties of fish, Teddy says, the better for the environment.

A taste of Old World eating habits

My brother Paul and I are baby boomers, born right after World War II, and although our mom was an English war bride and our dad was of Italian descent, we were raised on the basic American diet. Since both parents worked, we had simple meals of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable or salad. Fridays were the exception – we always had fish.

When we were young, on Saturday afternoons Paul and I would spend time with our Sicilian grandparents in their little second-story apartment in Lawrence. They had come to America when they were young children and had not changed their eating habits from what my grandmother referred to as “the old country.” Their home had a wonderful aroma of Italian cooking: simmering spaghetti sauce, homemade Italian sausage and meatballs, and fried breaded veal cutlets, along with the dreaded tripe and octopus.

My grandmother Natalina, whom we called Nana, always wore an old-fashioned house dress, black shoes with a fat high heel, and of course an apron. I can still picture her with a wooden spoon in her right hand, her snuff-stained fingers smelling of garlic. My grandfather – we called him Nanu – sat at the head of the little metal-topped table with a gallon of red wine, waiting for her to serve him his afternoon meal. I will never forget some of the foods, exotic and scary in our eyes, we watched him eat.

“Eww! Nanu is eating octopus!” I can still see the suckers on the tentacles. My grandmother coaxed us to try it, but as soon as it touched my tongue I was sure that it was something I did not want to chew. I look back now and realize that we were typical American children.

Changing taste buds

As a shore angler, I have used squid, eel, mackerel, butterfish, and many other edible species for bait. I worked as a waitress for more than twenty-five years and never served squid. Now calamari (Italian for squid) has become a popular item here on Martha’s Vineyard and around the country. The first time I ordered it in a fine restaurant, I felt uncomfortable with the fact that I was going to eat “bait.” Now I love it and serve it many different ways: baked, stuffed, sautéed in olive oil with garlic, or breaded and deep-fried. My aunt Angie taught me to make a rich and tasty tomato sauce with squid ink – “black sauce” – that she serves over pasta. Nowadays the squid sold in the markets are void of the ink sack, so when I am loading my bucket with squid for bait, I always put some aside for my aunt.

Squid are a most fascinating creature. Composed of two fins, a mantle, a head, eight arms, and two tentacles, they are cephalopods, with some three hundred species found all over the world. Squid can be caught around the Vineyard using a small lure with two sets of sharp hooks at the base. The lure is “jigged” up and down through the water until it attracts a squid, which grabs the hooks with its tentacles; you then lift the squid out of the water and deposit it in a bucket. A lighted dock at night during spring and fall offers your best chance to catch some. In the last few years, however, squid have begun to decline, though no one quite knows why.

New delicacies to discover

Vacationing in Sicily last year, I learned more about how tastes can change. Although Italy has also been affected by over-fishing, the outdoor marketplace in Palermo was piled high with appetizing displays of fresh fish. Fillets of swordfish, bonito, and mackerel took a back seat to our so-called trash fish. There were layers of scup-type pan fish, an array of anchovy-size tidbits, and many kinds of tiny whole fish I could not identify. Fresh octopus and a few different species of squid and cuttlefish were plentiful. Every restaurant had calamari and octopus on the menu, and my favorite souvenir was a package of squid ink that I found in a grocery store.

Here at home, many species are still plentiful but have not yet made it to the dinner table, including northern sea robin, dogfish, skate, and butterfish. I have taken and eaten many sea robins, physically unappealing but quite delicious. Their prehistoric bony heads hide the fact that their flesh is mild, white, and moist, and resembles lobster tail as it curls when it is cooked.

Sand sharks, also known as dogfish, have been used to make traditional English fish and chips for decades. Dogfish and skate are two of the many fish Teddy Diggs has been serving at the Home Port this summer. Skate are by-catch of fluke fishing. Usually fishermen cull out the skate and throw them back into the ocean, but most don’t survive because of the way they are handled. Some people cut scallop-like rounds out of the wings, and Teddy has been successful with his own skate-wing recipes.

Butterfish start showing up around the Vineyard in the summer when the water temperature reaches seventy degrees. I use them for bait to catch bonito and false albacore, but when I have extra, into the cast-iron frying pan they go! The name butterfish is perfect because they melt in your mouth and have a light, creamy flavor. Their average size is less than nine inches, so filleting is not practical; I remove the entrails, head, and tail, roll the body in a bit of egg, flour, and spices, and sauté them. The scales are so small and soft they don’t need to be removed. It’s a bit more work to eat compared to a fillet of a larger fish, but they are scrumptious and worth every bit of picking.

The ocean that surrounds the Vine-yard has much delicious, healthy food to offer. By being open-minded and adventurous and utilizing some of these little-known treasures, we not only support our local fishermen economically, but we help rebuild some of our damaged ecosystems. Through responsible fishing and eating, together we can have an influence not only today but for our families in the future. u

Lobster, a favorite of striped bass

Lobster is another bait fish turned delicacy. I sometimes wonder about the first human with a desire to eat a lobster. I can’t imagine someone saying, “That looks so delicious. I can’t wait to eat it!” as the lobster is standing on its tail snapping both of its claws trying to sever a finger. There is culinary evidence that the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed lobster. The British, especially those living near the shore, held them in high esteem long before they were accepted into the new world.

In America, lobster was considered poor man’s food until people started to acquire a taste for it in the 1880s, and colonial American servants negotiated an agreement that they could not be made to eat lobster more than twice a week. Lobster was so plentiful in New England that people walking the beaches reported that they would find thirty- to forty-pound lobsters in piles washed ashore after a storm. Today, commercial permits to fish for lobster are strictly regulated and those lucky enough to hold these permits work very hard to keep up with the demand.

Lobster was so plentiful that it was used as bait for striped bass during the days of the Cuttyhunk Fishing Club, which began in 1864 when some New York millionaire businessmen bought land on Cuttyhunk and built a clubhouse. They were referred to as “gentlemen fisherman” and they discovered that they could catch striped bass using lobster as bait. They fished among the rocks that surround the shores of Cuttyhunk, but instead of wooden swimming lures, they used lobster meat.

There were bass stands built out from the shore beyond the rocky coastline. Large striped bass feed among the weed-covered rocks that provide shelter for the smaller fish, crabs, and lobsters they prey upon. Young local fishermen – called chummers – were hired to do the messy work. Each angler had his own personal chummer, who would carry a gunny sack filled with bait to the end of the bass stand before sunrise. He would then scatter a concoction of chopped up fish such as menhaden, eel, and lobster into the water to attract the striped bass. After the angler had finished a large breakfast at the clubhouse, he joined the chummer on his assigned stand. The chummer would bait the hook with a large piece of lobster and take the first cast before handing the rod to the angler. He was paid one dollar for each fish landed, but if the fish was very large the payment was more. A hundred years ago, lobster was a delicacy for striped bass but not for human beings. Tastes have changed, and will likely continue to do so.