Hearth to Hearth: Fishing – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – April 2004
By Alice Ross
The weather is warming, the fish are running, and in the 18th century it would have been the season for fish feasts. These large outdoor community festivals clearly showed that fish were held in great esteem and welcomed as a seasonal delicacy. And yet, remembering back to my childhood, for many, large numbers of fish were considered the food of the poor.
Fish, like most food in the past, was highly seasonal, according to the type of fish and its availability. Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife (1756), widely used in the Colonies, discussed “the various kinds, when in Season” throughout the monthly chapters. For example in November she recommended “Pike in very fine Season, and there are also Pearch in great Perfection: The Eels of our Trout Rivers are also now very fine. Our Ponds afford Carp…and from these a great deal of Variety and Elegance may be given to a first Course: For the second, there are Smelts now in their Perfection, and Soals [soles].” Despite the changed locale, colonists found American conditions similar, with perhaps a few small adjustments to the calendar according to where the colony was situated.
Springtime has always been a hungry time for agricultural people in northern latitudes. By this time the autumn fruits and vegetables stored in root cellars were largely consumed, surviving in small numbers and poor quality, used only because they were better than nothing. Although early spring plowing and planting may have been finished, there was as yet little mature enough to eat, with the few exceptions of early peas, young salads, and wild shoots. From pre-contact Native Americans to Europeans in the New World, everyone welcomed fishing as a source of fresh protein and a change from winter’s diet. For the highly specialized collector of prehistoric or early colonial artifacts, bone or ivory fishhooks, harpoons, spears, perhaps twined line of vegetable fibers, and basket traps are all wonderful evocations of our subsistence past.
Think of the early movies and conjure up the image of a spring or summer day in some rural area, a young boy in overalls and barefoot, walking down an unpaved road carrying a simple drop line or a supporting a simple fishing rod on one shoulder. The movie images were not wrong. Fishing was a choice pastime of country people — a relaxing and challenging out-in-the-air afternoon with the prospect of a good fried fish dinner at night. For urbanites with more affluence there were the rod and gun clubs, usually out in the countryside but accessible for weekend jaunters, offering well-stocked trout streams and lakes. And for the best fishing, others fly into wilderness “camps” in areas where the fishing is still good. For those with smaller budgets, coastal industry and tourism offer seasonal party boats; passengers are supplied with equipment and bait and taken out to the schools of bluefish, cod, and mackeral, sometimes tuna in the north, or marlin and swordfish in the south.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the catches were seasonal. Smelts, salmon, and shad, all ocean fish, moved into the mouths of coastal rivers and swam upstream to spawn. Shad was the earliest of all and a great treat. An incredibly bony fish, the fillets, deboned painstakingly and with great skill, and the roe had been delicacies from the early days of American prehistory. Apart from its value as food, the appearance of shad in the rivers was associated with spring planting, a true harbinger, and were announced by the simultaneous blossoming of the serviceberry (Amalenchier), a small decorative tree native to most of the United States, and appropriately called “shadblow.”
Similarly, the opening of trout season has been a spring marker, although probably more for sportsmen than farmers. The 19th century growth of cities had produced an affluent class of urbanites who welcomed the chance to get away to the country and who applied for membership to favorite rod and gun clubs. These were somewhat exclusive gentlemen’s clubs of a sort, which provided comfortable lodging, good food, and guides. A vestige of this remains in the Long Island Hunter’s Garden annual chowder feast, where the (male only) participants congregate in a secluded meadow to partake of large kettles of chowders of eel and cod. The equipment varied appropriately, from the simple drop line you could use in a small boat or from a bridge, to elaborate man-made poles with just the right amount of flexibility, and reels of all sorts and qualities. Woven creels for storing the newly-caught fish, or a simple line to thread fish on were comparably varied.
Fresh-water fish sometimes spawned in the small streams that fed their lakes. Fresh-water smelts swam into the rivers or streams that fed the Great Lakes, where they were taken by the barrelful by local fishermen. Like west-coast grunions, they were often eaten directly on the beach within minutes of being caught, having been fried over wood fires in large iron cauldrons. And large ocean fish such as sturgeon, moving into the warming salt water shallows, along with lobster and crab, speared and trapped, were equally sought. The traps were funnel-shaped structures that enticed the catch into a baited tightly confining cage, from which they could not find their way out.
Fish have been accorded different levels of status, depending partly on their merits and, more important, on their abundance or scarcity. Often the most common were the least valued: for example, during earlier centuries when salmon clogged the eastern streams, rivers, and lakes they were considered trash food. Competitive boarding house keepers were forced to promise to limit its appearance on the table to twice a week. But as salmon numbers declined, they became more desirable. Until the advent of fish farming, they were among the higher-priced and most fashionable entrees. Sturgeon, especially prized 200 years ago and commonly available, were fished out and weakened by polluted waters almost to the point of extinction. Today they are incredibly expensive and so scarce that few have ever tasted them.
The industrialization of the fishing industry began with dried salt cod, a New England way to preserve the Newfoundland Banks catch and ship it inland with no fear of spoilage. This was particularly supported by the establishment of train lines, which also made it possible to speed fresh fish on ice to such nearby urban markets as the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan, and from there to restaurants and local dealers. The next major step involved new and gigantic fishing fleets, mile-long nets, and the ability to process the catch on board. At the same time, coastal fish farms worked to replace depleting ocean fish, producing inexpensive salmon or trout, for example, which were also, according to some, inferior in quality and nutritive value. Ironically, “wild salmon” is now the king.
Fish-cookery took many forms. Simple poaching required fish poachers, long oval “ovens” complete with a snug lid and an inserted footed tray to hold a delicate fish above the liquid. These also had handles for easy removing. Early European copper designs were translated into American sheet iron and later agateware. They were made in different sizes and could accommodate whole fish, from the smaller ones to those of more generous proportions. They worked like steamers and usually required a court bouillon or fish and vegetable stock as the steaming broth.
Broiling fish was a common 18th-century technique that produced food flavor and juicy texture on the hearth. Sometimes the fish were held over coals in a forged “basket,” a protection against damaging the delicate tissue. Some made use of special fish-broiling utensils, one of which worked on the principle of the kick- or drop-broiler, again eliminating the need to handle the fragile fish when turning. Some were set on gridirons, and some “planked” (nailed or tied) against the cut edge of a piece of firewood and propped near the fire to receive the heat.
Then there is a mystery piece, often called a fish broiler. Roughly triangular, this crude, hand-made piece has a projecting handle and is pierced with irregular holes. The question is: do you use it as a fish broiler on the smooth side or a grater on the rough side, or both. My own thinking, based on their large numbers appearing in antique shops in recent years and my travel to Mediterranean countries, is that they may be relatively new and intended as cooking equipment. It is common to see small fish being broiled there directly on the curb, in the street, just a step from the doorway of a modest urban house.
But fried fish was probably the most common form of 19th-century cookery. Needless to say, among the many specialized cast-iron frying pans devised at the time, some had to be dedicated specially to fish frying. Griswald, for example, made one that was oval in shape and came with a tight heavy lid. Nor should we overlook the numerous soups and stews that abounded throughout history, and the clay or iron or agate-ware pots in which they simmered.
The following recipes are from Martha Bradley’s The British Housewife, London, 1756, which was commonly used in the Colonies.
Recipe: To Fry Smelts
Put into a deep Soup Dish a Quart of Vinegar, break in four Bay Leaves, put in a Nugmet shaved, not grated, four bruised Cloves, some Pepper and Salt, and a few Chives chopped, not very small.
This is a Marinade for the Smelts, and vastly improves their Flavour.
Lay the Smelts cleaned in this Liquor, and turn them once in a Quarter of an Hour; and then take them out; wipe them very dry with a Napkin, drudge them well with Flour, and fry them. They will thus be of a fine brown, very delicate… This dish should be garnished with crisp Parsley, and nothing should be eat with the Smelts but Salt.
Note: The frying fat would likely have been butter or lard, which impart good flavor and texture. You may wish to substitute canola oil, which was also available along with grape-seed oil in the 18th century, but neither will produce superior results.
Recipe: To Broil Pearch with Anchovy Sauce
Chuse for this Dish Pearch of a moderate Size, and if that can be done have them brought fresh from the Water, scale them, gut them, wash them, and dry them in a Napkin.
Melt a good Quantity of Butter with some Salt, let it be thick, and when it is cooled a little dip the Pearch into it, roll them about till the butter sticks well to every part of Them.
Then set a Gridiron [a wrought iron broiler] over a very clear and brisk Fire, but let it stand at a great Height above the fire, for the Pearch must be soaked well [cooked] before they are browned up.
While the Pearch are broiling, make the Sauce in the following Manner: Set on a Saucepan with some Butter, a Pinch of Flour, and a whole Leek; add two Spoonfuls of Vinegar, a little Water, some Pepper and Salt, and a third Part of a Nutmeg grated; wash and bone three Anchovies, put them into the Saucepan cut into small Pieces, and keep shaking it over a Stove while the Fish are doing.
When they are near to done move the Gridiron a little nearer the Fire to brown them, then lay them in a hot Dish, and pour the Sauce carefully over them, keeping back the Leek.
Note: “Pearch,” or Perch, are an English river fish and not the same as American lake perch. You may substitute any not-too thick fresh-water fish, such as bass. Bradley also suggests using capers in subsequent fish sauces.
This recipe was one of four offered on the back of “Shad,” a trade card series called “Cooking Notes,” by Arbuckle Ariosa, New York, late 1800s.
Recipe: Baked Shad
When cleaned, make stuffing of bread crumbs, salt, pepper, butter and herbs; moisten with beaten egg and milk; stuff the shad, and tie or sew it up. Lay it in the pan, and baste with butter and a little Madeira wine.
Let the fish bake until tender and well browned, put on a hot dish, and make the gravy thick with browned flour; stir well, add juice of one lemon, and more wine if necessary to flavor. Decorate with sliced lemon and water-cress.
Note: Try a 350 degree oven. Browned flour is simply flour that you toast in a dry frying pan over a low to moderate heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning, until it reaches a golden brown color. Cool slightly before adding to pan juices.
Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Her web site is www.aliceross.com
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