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The Shipwreck Rose: Low-Class Fish

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 20:40

The other day I bought four fat Maine lobsters from Nat Miller on Church Lane in Springs for $82, a good price in my view, when you consider the cost of an eight-ounce hamburger at sit-down restaurants these days. (Does anyone remember the famously, outrageously expensive $21 hamburger at that storied Midtown watering hole 21? It’s now $36.)

The problem with buying good, fat Maine lobsters from Nat Miller is that no one in my household will eat them with me. I don’t know where I’ve gone wrong as a parent. When I was young, lobsters were a once-a-year birthday request, and you ate them in the dining room, wearing good clothes, because it was a special day. I’d even eat the “coral” — the red roe — but especially delighted in the white, fatty stuff under the torso shell.

I’m told my nephew, Ellis, refuses to eat lobster out of sympathy, but that’s not my own children’s issue. I’ve just somehow raised them wrong. As I write this, my daughter is dining on a John Papas cheeseburger on the grass in Herrick Park with her new middle school friends — which I guess is nice, although there are always one or two sketchy dudes hanging around the park eyeballing the girls, have you noticed that? — and my son is eating pesto while prone on the couch watching “Tokyo Ghoul.” We are a family that does still usually eat dinner together around an actual table, with actual cutlery and actual napkins in our actual lapkins, but I’m giving myself and my lobsters a luxurious day off from the usual chore-bore of dinnertime.

I now eat my lobster alone in the kitchen, with my hands and a hammer. It’s like a scene from a Mel Gibson movie in which barbarians gorge themselves on the eve of battle, bits of food flying everywhere. I am in my workout clothes, even though I have no intention of working out. If you eat lobster alone it doesn’t matter how gruesome it gets. I somehow misplaced my lobster crackers when we sold our old place on Accabonac Road and moved home to Edwards Lane. For my first attack, I positioned the cooked lobster on the thick marble kitchen tabletop, swung a wooden meat-tenderizer mallet, and wham­med it on the claw, but that didn’t work, so I dug out a proper toolbox hammer. You will need a shower afterward if you eat a lobster alone.

Thank God my children like to eat fish. Delectating in clams and saltwater fish is evidence of moral probity in this household.

Indeed, the kids’ complaint this week is that I don’t serve fish frequently enough. They nodded, good children, when I explained that this is because even the maligned lower orders of fish, like bluefish and monkfish, have become — high irony! — too expensive on the South Fork to appear on the everyday plate of anyone whose parents aren’t daytime television stars or wolves of Wall Street.

My own favorite is the lowly bluefish, of course. This is a sentiment that will be understood by readers from old local families but puzzling to From Aways. If you weren’t raised on bluefish, I’m sorry, you wouldn’t understand.

It’s been impossible to get proper smoked bluefish in East Hampton for some time now, since the Seafood Shop of Wainscott stopped smoking its own. For a while the Seafood Shop sold smoked blue from some not-quite-adequate wholesaler, but it was the wrong consistency — gelatinous — and, anyway, as the man in an apron behind the counter told me, as I stood there forlorn, “No one buys it anymore.” If you want a nice, inexpensive slab of smoked blue, you have to take a jolly day trip to the North Fork and stop at Braun Seafood. (We piled into the car on Saturday for just such a jolly day trip, and, having been homebound all these months, it was like a week in Orlando. We drove home with affordable monkfish, flounder, smoked blue, corn, and bags of penny candy from Sweet Indulgences heaped up to our knees.)

Walt Whitman, my favorite poet and favorite person — top of my “Which Figure From History Would You Invite to Dinner?” list, alongside Joe Strummer — was a native son of Long Island, and he loved bluefish as I do. He wrote about broiling them over an open fire during a picnic jaunt from Greenport to Montauk, and of the bounteous “blue-fish” of the Great South Bay, and even talked about bluefishing (and lobstering) in “Leaves of Grass.”

Some people — the same people who won’t eat blue cheese or eel, people who make jokes about garlic — think bluefish is “too fishy” or “too oily.” I won’t dignify those assertions with a reply.

I was at supper once on Madison Street in Sag Harbor, tucked under the eaves of a cottage dating to the Whitman-bluefish-broiling era which had been rented by a pair of city-slicker friends of mine, and the hostess, very cool in her 1960s-Marimekko shift and with a retro highball in her hand, conceded that while she might eat bluefish if pressed, she “wouldn’t dream of serving it to guests.”

Well, I would!

My grandmother Jeannette Edwards Rattray was a great compiler and collector of recipes, but — according to my late Aunt Mary — not a great cook herself. Her best buddy was the storied chef Craig Claiborne. Somewhere I have a fading Kodachrome snapshot of the two of them in the early 1970s, grinning mischievously in my kitchen as they stand in front of her hulking, butter-yellow, coal-and-wood-fired range. The stovetop had been covered with a board and spread with a red tablecloth, to serve as a bar, set with martini glasses, gin, vermouth, whiskey, and rye.

My grandmother wasn’t a good cook, but she, like Walt Whitman, was fun to have around, and I did inherit her extremely tasty — even if you, quite wrongly, might consider it lowbrow — “secret recipe” for bluefish. Basically, you mix some Dijon with some Hellmann’s and slap it thickly on a bluefish fillet, then put the fillet on tinfoil and set it under the broiler until the top browns. I happen to know she served this “secret” trick bluefish to Craig Claiborne, and that he loved it, regardless of what you philistines might expect.


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