How to enjoy every last bit of a seafood of spring.
NOYAC—It’s spring when I can eat fresh alewife roe and milt for breakfast.
This smallish herring, seldom a pound in weight or a foot in length, has been arriving in early spring along the East Coast for thousands of years as it exchanges its saltwater life for a brief breeding interlude in sheltered freshwater streams and ponds.
The Native peoples relished the fresh, oily fish to end the tedium of smoked or dried fish, venison and oysters. (Herons, seagulls, crows, muskrats, opossums and even rats eagerly take advantage.) The bulging roe (ovary) and milt (teste), loaded with thousands of fine eggs and millions of sperm, were a potent vernal shot of vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins.
Believe it or not, the alewife still arrives in the Hamptons, and I have personally indulged in this feast for a quarter-century. Sometimes there is only a trickle of fish and many expectant fishers, and I struggle to bring home just two or three. At other times, I am alone with thick schools, and can quickly catch 20 or 30 with my dip net. Tides are important for access to the fish: shallow water works best for me, although I’ve found the fish at high tide, not to mention on overcast nights under a waxing moon and in the middle of a sunny day under a waning moon. Once I witnessed so many thousands of fish, shoulder to shoulder, pushing and writhing to get through a narrowing in the stream that dozens were pushed up onto dry land.
But such scenes are now rare. Like the American bison and passenger pigeons, the sheer number of fish available—for free as a “commons” to be used by everyone—gave some the false idea that there will always be these multitudes. Fans of pickled herring, from as far afield as Queens, have descended on this spot. I have seen people collect a thousand fish in a night’s work, by stringing nets across the narrowest spot in the stream, preventing even one fish from entering the breeding grounds.
It doesn’t help that Southampton Town rules limiting the number of fish that can be taken are easily flouted, and New York State rules about game fish don’t apply to the commercially neglected alewife. The local police occasionally nab these greedy harvesters on littering violations—the fishing equivalent of getting Al Capone for tax evasion.
The alewife “run” can last a couple of months, and they might figure in my diet daily. When my children were young and we lived in Manhattan, we once took our very fresh fish to the beach where we started a small fire in the lee of a dune and roasted alewife on wooden skewers. It was cold and we were hungry and enjoyed this fish, though we needed to pick out the long, thin bones. (Children should not eat this fish without an adult to separate the bones for them so that they can enjoy this treat.)
The flesh of the alewife, as with some other herring species, is delicious. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington both enjoyed feasting on the spring run of a larger herring, the American shad.
The alewife has to be cleaned carefully if the roe and milt are to stay intact. I slit the belly from the anal pore to the ribs and tease out the yellow or white organs, rinsing them in cold water and putting them into a small bowl. Next, I easily scrape off the iridescent scales and place them in another bowl, which makes final cleanup easier. Then I fillet the fish with a sharp, thin knife, flip to the other side for the other fillet, then toss the skeleton with head attached into a pile for eventual disposal.
My best speed for this whole process is three minutes, so if I have 20 fish I will be working rapidly for one hour. But at the end of this work I will have a significant amount of fish and fish organs, maybe five or 10 pounds. And I get a reward, too. Because after I have cleaned a few, I season the generative organs and odd fillets with sea salt and fresh water to cook in the oven as I finish: a fisherman’s breakfast with hot coffee and crispy baguette.
When people ask me how I prepare this bounty I always think of the scene in “Forrest Gump” when Forrest’s shrimping partner describes the myriad ways to cook and eat shrimp, ending with the improbable “shrimp sandwich.”
In the case of alewife, I fry ’em, bake ’em, pickle ’em, chop ’em and even use some as bait. Hard frying, which blackens the outside of the fillets, makes the fine bones crunchy and easy to eat. With lighter frying you have to eat around the bones.
Pickling is a forgiving art with a subjective balance of water, sea salt, spices, onions, garlic and vinegar. I often wait just one hour before sampling the thinner pieces, which get “cured” quicker. But the fillets offer a different gastronomic pleasure the next day and the day after, after which there are rarely any that haven’t been consumed by friends and family.
You can’t be afraid to use the sea salt liberally since pickled foods are supposed to be salty. That’s what preserves them. Pickled alewife goes great with fresh bread, potatoes, rice or pasta. I like a cold dark beer with them but others prefer wine. Either way, winter is over.
Ronald Halweil is an author and physician practicing medicine in New York City and Southampton.