A tale of fish and a fish tale

By Joanne Bander | Oct 10, 2011

Ellen gave me a summer of fish tales when she, a summer friend from Spruce Head, surprised us in Miami one late spring morning en route to a nearby conference.  Heavy in hand from her recent week in Maine was the brochure for the new Port Clyde Fisherman Community Supported Fish.

“How about sharing a half share of the catch,” she suggested. “Just $90 each. We pick up the fish each Wednesday afternoon at the Good Tern Coop in Rockland."

“What kind of fish,” I asked, not yet convinced and with out the necessary eye glasses to read the brochure for myself.  At this point my interest was more about friendship than fish, and my own commitment of both time and money to support local farmers and fisherman in every way I could.  

“Well, it will be different every week, a whole fish.”

I made a leap of faith and said yes, already feeling my stomach clench at the thought of tying myself up around a Wednesday afternoon pick-up and then not knowing what to do with what I collected.  I was heading to Maine in time for the first pick-up of 12, June 18, and we agreed that I would collect the fish and we’d eat it together when she arrived that Friday.

Ellen wrote out the check for her share, leaving me responsible for sending in the contract, and we took off to visit art museums and drop her at the conference.  When I sat down with the form the next morning I learned what we had really committed to: 12 weeks of wild-caught fish harvested by the Midcoast Fishermen’s Cooperative of Port Clyde, Maine with our share consisting of five to six pounds of a variety of haddock, cod, flounder, hake, dabs, gray sole, monkfish, Pollock and redfish.  Not on the list were the swordfish, salmon or shellfish that were my normal purchases. But all but a couple — dabs and gray sole — were fish that had grabbed my line those many years  ago when I spent virtually every Saturday or Sunday from late spring into fall, other than when saved by summer camp, out fishing with my father.  

What was his escape from a business he hated was my opportunity to spend one-on-one time with him.  I knew all about the sea worms that others now dig for in the low-tide mudflats of my Spruce Head home, how to put them on hooks, how to troll and ground fish, the dead weight of a shark vs. the energetic fight of a haddock, yanking the line just so to firm up the hook.  And I remembered the sweet flavor of those freshly caught fish.  But what I certainly did not know anything about was what to do with the fish once landed.  That was Daddy’s department.   

June 18 dawned sunny and hot and I spent the day in summer mode — a workout, a walk and hours of gardening. Freshly bathed and dressed for the evening out, too stiff even to get out of the car, I arrived at the Good Tern parking lot around 4:30, stressed at my effort to make sure I got there in time, small cooler with ice pack in the back since I would not get home until late.

“Hi, I am here to collect my fish,” I announced from my rolled down window to the jean-attired woman on the back of the truck.

“Just a minute,” she responded, while she checked her list.  “Mrs. Bander, here’s your fish”, she responded, pulling out from the cooler a plastic bag with tag and large tail at the crease.  “But how did you know who I am,” I questioned even ahead of asking about what kind of fish it was, knowing by the people behind me that I was certainly not the last delivery of the day.

“Your pearls,” she responded. “And I see you are from Coral Gables,” typecasting me not just as a “from away” but also as an effete upper-class one.  And at this point in life, I guess that caricature was more fitting than my childhood memory of me with a line in hand.

The fish of the week was a whole cod, gutted but with head and tail.  I prevailed on the coop members to take the head off my sea monster so it would fit into my cold pack; they obliged; and I took off for an art lecture and dinner with friends with not a clue what I’d do with the fish.  Awaiting me, no surprise, was an e-mail from Ellen wanting to know what we had and what we’d do with it.  I had already checked in with Daddy, who suggested I could filet or bake and that the cod did not need to be scaled.  I e-mailed back to her that I was trying to get Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a well-known cookbook and food writer to join us for a cook-in, but that we’d figure it out one way or another when she arrived.  

I started thinking about what we could use to create a simple stuffing, some wonderful stale olive bread, sun dried tomatoes, garlic and herbs.  Ellen had fresh cilantro to contribute.  We stuffed and baked that Friday night, without Nancy able to guide us, and rated our efforts an A. One week down and only 11 to go!  Neither Ellen nor I were available the following week so we passed our share to a friend, and Ellen took Fourth of July week responsibility, giving me a two-week respite from trying to figure out how to integrate my pick-up schedule into my life, worried that I’d forget the pick-up and what to do with the fish when I got it.   

July 9 was silver hake, no head or guts, and after a Daddy check-in — soft fish, filet or bake — I filleted for the first time, baked in butter, lemon and salt capers and served to visiting cousins and Nancy Harmon Jenkins.  There were almost no bones on my first slaughter effort and another A.

By now I had added a fish filet knife to my abattoir and sought out advice from my old mentors James Beard and Craig Claiborne; found Aunt Goldie’s Brockton, Massachusetts Y.M. and Y.W.H.A, cookbook circa 1950 and dozens of fish recipes in the magazine clips in my recipe file; and reviewed my new Maine cooking bible "The New England Clam Shack Cookbook."

July 16 brought four whole flounders, not even gutted, and husband Michael to share the catch.  This time I didn’t call Daddy, but cleaned and filleted the fish under the watchful eye of a neighbor, to whom we gifted two fish.  I put the four filets under the broiler in a greased pan, topped at the end with melted butter, lemon and capers, and, in a final inspirational touch, with the leftover crabmeat from lunch. Combined with the first farm fresh corn of the season, and roasted vegetables, I made Michael happy.  The best result was a call from my neighbor, laughing as she told me how her husband, an experienced fisherman, had mangled their flounder to the point that they opted for fish chowder.

Now I’m into it and it is another fish day.  With a choice between cod and hake, I selected hake and will relax until Ellen arrives back Saturday to decide on preparation.  I’ll call Daddy after the fact to tell him what preparation I chose.  And, as I clean and prepare the fish, I’ll think about the support we are giving the local fisherman.  The 87 shareholders are making a big dent in paying for their escalating fuel costs and offsetting low market prices.  They are rewarding me with a fresh taste of the sea and a chance to reclaim memories of a time when we took for granted a reliable and accessible supply of superb New England ground fish.  I think we are the bigger winners.

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