This will flow as the mood strikes. I'll keep adding as the memories emerge - Grease stain worthy restaurants and meals gulped down before I got my camera and started doing this site.
of the Trip
of the Trip
"Top of the trip" is fisherman lingo for the freshest of the catch. Fishing boats set out to sea for two weeks at a time. Their catch is stored in a refrigerated hold. Fish caught early in the journey wind up at the bottom of the hold. During the trip, the hold fills up. The last fish caught, the freshest fish, end up on top - the top of the trip.
I spent the morning at the Viking Village dock at Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island. A couple of "long-liners," the Provider and the Marion Frances, had docked the night before and were unloading their catch, mostly tuna, along with a few swordfish and mahi-mahis.
"Long-liner" refers to the single 30 mile long fishing line with 1,200 hooks that the boat sets each evening. The line, baited with squid, drifts overnight. The next day they haul it in - typically catching only 30 to 40 fish, sometimes less. Come evening they repeat the process, and keep doing so until they run out of either bait or fuel. Smaller boats like the Provider and the Marion Frances will head home with, maybe, 10,000 pounds of fish. "It's a democratic process," Marion Frances skipper and long liner Mike Schaub observes. "It's up to the fish whether or not they bite the hook."
Today's catch is mainly tuna. Mostly small yellow fins that weigh in between 30 and 70 pounds. The Provider also landed a good number of big eye tuna (100 to 125 lbs.). Tony says big eyes make the best eating. There is also one and only one blue fin tuna. Blue fins start at 300 pounds and can weigh in much heavier.
The yellow fin tuna are unloaded first. One crew member, down in the hold, passes a fish up, through the fish hole, to a guy above deck. He rolls it on a conveyor off the ship and onto a scale. There, a fish grader whacks the tail off each tuna, checking it for fat content, freshness and color. Saul Phillips who pretty much developed the premium tuna export trade to Japan, grades a good portion of the fish that comes through Barnegat Light.
If a tuna is over 50 lbs, Saul takes a thin hollow tube and sticks it through the gill, into the upper body. He pulls out a small core of flesh which he examines closely, looking to see if the meat is red and clear - the more red and clear the better. He's also checking the blood line that runs through the sample. It should be a bright red, not black.
Fish by fish, Saul calls out the weight and, if over 50 pounds, a grade - "one" is considered sushimi quality, "two" just as good, but better suited for grilling. Inferior tuna is graded "chocolate" because of it's brown color. "Chocolates" died on the fishing line and partially cooked in the ocean water before they were hauled on board.
Saul's always looking for export quality tuna - superior, fatty tuna that are destined for an evening flight to Tokyo where they are individually auctioned in one of Japan's twenty wholesale fish markets. Of the 180 tuna on the Provider, Saul only selected three for export. From the remainder, Tony found just two big eyes worthy of the Striped Bass. There were a lot more ones and twos which will end up at the regional wholesalers.
Next off, after the yellow fins, is the single blue fin - a whopper that weighs in at 493 pounds. All of a sudden Saul is the center of attention. Everyone stops talking, gathering around as he grades the blue fin. If export quality, that one fish will bring $20,000 to $30,000 dollars.
Saul hacks off the tail and examines it. Slices off a little more for a second look. He pulls a core sample. "Two." Not export quality, but it still will command a good price. "Big steaks." "Money fish."
Chris Einselen's ears perk up whenever Saul pronounces a fish export quality. Chris, owner of the Provider, has already turned a large bucket upside down and has placed a hacked-up piece of plywood on top as a makeshift cutting board. Saul hands him the tail from any export tuna.
Chris cuts off a thin slice of tuna, dips it in a sauce of wasabi and soy sauce that he carries in a yellow cup, and offers it around. Same premium sushi that is sold in expensive Japanese restaurants except we're getting it three days fresher than when it will be served in Japan - and the price can't be beat.
Bowen's Island, at the end of a winding dirt road, is an old shack of a restaurant famous among low country denizens for their Roast Oysters. A barbecue pit blazes away at one end of the room. Every afternoon the oyster cook digs up the day's supply of oysters from the marshes off Bowen's Island. All evening he empties bags of oysters onto the pit, covers them with a dripping wet burlap sack, and roasts the oysters to order - cooked a little, or a lot.
Once the oysters are roasted, the oyster cook scoops them up with a shovel and dumps the oysters in the center of your table. You do the shucking and the eating. These are marsh oysters, clumps of oysters welded together by nature. The oyster cook keeps them coming until you convince him that you're full. Then he brings one more shovel full in case you're just being polite. Back in the mid 90's the bill came to $11.00 for all the oysters I could handle and a $5.00 tip for the Oyster Cook. (Nowadays, the price is $17.50 and we sent $10 per person the Oyster Cook's way.)
Figure on investing another few bucks for dry cleaning and Band-Aids. The oysters are still muddy and their shells have sharp ridges.
Wooley Pond Marina
The summer of 1976. We had sailed out of Patchougue, Long Island and spent a rainy evening in the Shinnecock Canal, which separates the Great South Bay from the Peconic Bay. The mast had sheered when we lowered it to get under one of the bridges that crosses the canal. We had the boat repaired by the middle of the next day. Even though it was still raining we decided to motor across to Long Island's North Fork hoping to get a head start the following morning.
Our boat was equipped with a small outboard which pushed us along at a lazy 5 knots. Between the storm and fighting the current we probably averaged closer to two knots (for those who don't know the difference between land miles and nautical miles, nautical miles are wetter). The rain was pouring down. Our foul weather gear did a better job keeping the water on us than off. I was at the helm, steering the boat by arm of the outboard motor. As the waves were crashing over the bow, we relished in our misery and the yarns we would someday spin. Then the thunderstorm broke.
The first bolt of lightning hit about 20 yards from our boat. I felt it an instant later through the handle of the outboard motor. I immediately turned the boat hard to the starboard and headed towards what appeared to be a narrow inlet about a mile away. We finally made it into the channel and a small harbor named Wooley Pond. We found refuge at the only dock there, the Wooley Pond Marina.
We were broken. Shivering cold, wet, soaked to the skin, we didn't even take time to find dry clothes. We headed straight to the marina's cafe, in search of anything warm. The dining room was closed. It was between lunch and dinner service. The bartender took pity and threw a pot of soup on the stove.
And what soup it was - incredibly rich, creamy New England Clam Chowder, chock full of tender clams, thick chunks of potatoes and a bouquet of fresh herbs. Between the three of us, we finished off the stock pot. That chowder is probably not have been the best meal I've ever had, but it is the most soul quenching.
A few years later I drove back to Wooley Pond and the Wooley Pond marina. Ordered a bowl of clam chowder. It was very good, but just didn't taste the same. Probably the dry clothes I was wearing.
Driving around the Northwest I turned left at Nevada. Ended up in the town of Winnemucca and the Hotel Winnemucca which, since 1863, has been famous for its basic and plentiful Basque cuisine.
It's not really Basque cuisine - unless the Basque normally dine on spaghetti and t-bone steaks. Rather it is Basque family style service. Diners are herded together in the bar area until enough have gathered to fill a table. I was lucky enough to share my table with a geologist, searching the Northern Nevada mountains for gold, and a couple of Union Pacific railroad workers.
On the table, a big tureen of soup, a basket of crusty Basque bread. and an unlabeled bottle of red wine. The rest of the meal - baked beans, green salad, spaghetti, a pasta pilaf, and the two main courses, liver and individual t-bone steaks. Seconds and thirds of everything as needed.
The geologist told of bighorn sheep at the foot of the Grand Canyon and of wild horses in the Sierra Nevadas. The railroad workers talked me off of Interstate 80, directing me to the spectacular Feather River Canyon where they had been working that day.
The cost of the meal, back in 1986, $10 including tax.
Seems like some of my most memorable meals happened while sailing the New England Coast. This time we had sailed out of Newport, heading to New Bedford. On our way into the harbor a lobster fisherman hailed us.
"Got any beer?"
"Got any lobster?"
The deal was struck - we traded a six pack of Bud for a basketful of Lobster Culls. Culls are unsellable lobsters - mostly those missing a claw. They eat just as well.
That night we chilled some more beer, melted a pound of butter, started the water boiling and commenced steaming lobsters, a basket full of lobsters. Kept eating until the basket was gone.