INDIGENOUS INDUSTRY: The Island’s Fish Monger

fishmonger

A pioneering Cutchogue family probably supplied the seafood on your plate.

When you drive east on the North Fork’s Main Road, just past the center of Cutchogue village, look south as you round the corner after the Methodist church. Behind a tidy white farmhouse, you’ll see several picnic tables scattered on a shady lawn, and a driveway marked with the image of a striped bass, the logo for Braun Seafood.  From its cluster of modest gray-shingled buildings, accented with optimistic blue, you wouldn’t guess that Braun is the heart and soul of Long Island’s seafood business. Since its beginning in 1928 as a simple oyster-opening shed, Braun Seafood has grown to become the East End’s largest distributor of seafood. At 600 prime markets and restaurants in Suffolk County, much of the seafood comes from Braun.

Venture into the first building, “Seafood 2 Go,” and order up some oysters, flounder, salmon, scallops-whatever suits your fancy. The retail shop connected to the takeout store has an even greater selection. All of the fish you buy at Braun’s comes directly from its source, usually within 24 hours (except for a few items like shrimp that are always shipped frozen in the Northeast).  During the summer months, Braun handles 100,000 pounds of seafood a week in its refrigerated facility, adjacent to the takeout and retail shops, with 45,000 cubic feet of freezer capacity, 20,000 cubic feet of coolers and a 15,000-pound lobster holding system.

From bluefish and tuna to codfish and porgies, every kind of fish is custom cut the day it is sold. Braun’s fleet of 20 refrigerated trucks travels around the clock between ports and markets from Boston to the Chesapeake Bay, returning to Braun’s for cleaning and packing, then sending seafood back out to restaurants and retail shops throughout the Northeast.

True to its origins as an oyster company, with an off-bottom culture permit in the pristine waters of Cutchogue Harbor, Braun is still a major supplier of fresh Long Island oysters to Philadelphia, Boston, New York City and California. Their oyster beds are in a prime location between Nassau Point and Robins Island where the vigorous tide keeps the sea open and clean.

Despite this scale, Braun Seafood remains a family business with long roots on the East End, expanded in recent decades by Jim Homan, who took over Braun Seafood in 1958, and Homan’s son, Ken. It has grown even as foreign trawlers have scraped the sea bottoms barren, ecological disasters have decimated once-reliable shellfish crops, and economic recessions have shrunk consumer spending.

Born on the East End in 1928, Jim Homan has roots, originating in 1698 with Mordecai Homan, that go deep in this community.  In 1813, two of his ancestors, James and Henry Homan, were lost at sea while seine fishing off the south shore. The surviving generations combined farming, fishing and politics here, often serving as town councilmen or supervisors, as Jim himself did in 1979.

When Jim was 17, his father died, leaving Jim to support his sisters and their mother (herself a descendant of the Searings, 1644 founders of Hempstead, and of printmakers Currier and Ives). He worked the North Fork’s last threshing machine, then turned to gathering worms and selling fishing bait. Making friends with local fishermen, Jim partnered with George Braun in the Cutchogue shellfish business, eventually buying him out.

Jim added electric refrigeration so that he could handle a wider array of seafood. He soon became the “guru” of Peconic Bay scallops.  Until a mysterious brown tide killed most of the bivalves off in the late ’80s, Homan often processed 15,000 pounds of Peconic Bay scallops a day. Braun has maintained its business by expanding its distribution and retailing of other kinds of seafood. It has only been in the last year that this fragile, and lucrative, crop has seen a resurgence.

Like other children of baymen and farmers on the East End, Jim’s son, Ken, was born into the family business. From the age of seven and into his teens, he accompanied his father to the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan. “It was a long trip,” Ken recalls recently.  “My job was to keep my dad awake.”

Fulton Fish Market was exciting for Ken. The fishmongers would show him exotic species like turtles or whole sturgeon. “It was eye-opening; there was so much diversity of wild seafood then,” Ken remembers, adding, “Many are protected today. Rightly so.”

Ken had chores to do in the shop, but being a boy on the North Fork in the ’60s and ’70s, he also had the freedom to explore the neighboring woods and beaches, hoping to find arrowheads or pottery shards. He still knows his native shores intimately.  “When I go outside,” he tells me, “I envision how people lived 300 years ago. Wildlife was plentiful and diverse, including beaver and otters. I know where the last wolf was killed [off Cox’s Lane, Cutchogue] and the fate of the last bear, too.” (According to legend, one Native American (possibly Shinnecock or Poospatuck) wounded the bear, but it swam to the other tribe’s territory. Lion Gardiner, Lord of Gardiner’s Island from 1639, mediated the tribes’ dispute over who owned the bear by giving the bear skin to one tribe and the meat to another. Gardiner, according to his own testimony, fancied himself both a friend and successful manipulator of his native neighbors.)

Both Ken and his father are appalled at the diminishment of wildlife that has occurred in their own lives. “We worry about sustainability more and more every day,” says Ken. Concerned for the future of the seas, they will only deal with people who are “catching things correctly.”

The Homans have been in the business as long as anyone, so they know the honest dealers from the scoundrels. At international seafood conventions, they hang out at a sushi bar where they trade contacts with friends, and find new sources. “They send their best fish to me for a reason,” explains Ken. “We pay more for quality.  And we always pay our bills.”

Ken will talk about his business, but he won’t gossip. Modest, like his father, he conducts his business “in a positive, forward way.” Still, he has no illusions. His sophistication has grown since he wrote his first business plan back in 1978. That 80-page plan was his thesis for graduate school, which he attended in Zurich, with holidays spent traversing Europe on a Eurail Pass.

Today, it’s not enough to keep the flow of seafood going; he has to work with futures markets, too. Even if he guesses right on the price of shrimp a year out, he can’t predict the effect of a recession.  In the past year, although Braun has kept its prices low and quality high, restaurants in the Hamptons have seen a 70 percent decline in seafood orders, while Braun’s LIPA bill has increased from $70,000 to $137,000.

It’s risky business, but the Homans take satisfaction from their work. Ken is in the warehouse cutting up fish on busy summer weekends. Although officially retired, Jim still inspects the market every day and samples the prepared fish for quality. His recipes are still used for their chowder, fish cakes and clam pies.

Ken thinks constantly about how to improve Braun’s. Sometimes Hollywood celebrities come into the market, and he’ll satisfy their special demands, but he’s not impressed by the excitement around them; he wants to please his regular customers foremost.  His thoughts jump back to Braun’s original, uniquely indigenous treat and the nascent efforts to restore it. Scallops on the half-shell, anyone?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of seafood Braun handles during busy summer months. Braun sells 100,000 pounds of seafood a week during busy summer months, not 100,000 pounds a day.

Louisa Thomas Hargrave, after 27 years as Long Island’s pioneer vintner, is now with Daniel Gale Sotheby’s (Cutchogue), consults for WineWise, and writes from her home in Jamesport.

Newsletter

Categories

Tags