Daily sea rations
FRIDAY seems to have gone its way as compulsory fish day, and I have some thoughts. Here in Maine just about every day was fish day if fish came to hand, and it often did. The lobster, now priced into a gourmet goody, was once known as the poor man's food -- lobsters were so plentiful nobody needed to go hungry. Salmon, also plentiful, was frequently written into indentures, so lowly lads apprenticed to their masters could not be made to eat it above three times a week. (These were the true salmons; King Salmon, Salmo salar, Atlantic salmon, Finest Kind.)Today, if the market comes upon a good salmon, customers fight over it. I've always felt the historians, so intent on matters of great pith and moment, failed us in the most important part of the Plymouth Pilgrim story -- it says in the book that in time of need the pious progenitors ``subsisted on shellfish.'' Subsisted on shellfish, so abundant on Plymouth shores.
When did student, reading in the book about ``shellfish,'' render this to his understanding as ``clams''? Why didn't the historian come right out and say, ``CLAMS!''? What purpose was served by disguising the ubiquitous New England clam in the chronicles as ``shellfish''? Shellfish tells us nothing in particular, but the word ``clam'' is fraught with just about everything ``fraught'' ever thought up. When there was nothing else to eat at Plymouth, John Alden didn't even need a tool but could cut himself a stick in the woods and turn up enough clams on a tide to surfeit a week. Fried clams, clam soup, steamed clams, clam fritters -- he had it made. Fast days were happy days, when the Pilgrims didn't have to eat clams.
It's true. About so many clams and you're ready for beefsteak. The historians thus never came to grips with the truth about the austere visages of the Pilgrims, as we see them wending to church with musket and Bible. We all suppose those are the outward show of piety, fervor, and zeal -- the countenance of purposeful devotion. A likely supposition! Anybody gets to look that way if he eats too many clams.
We were coastal and boys caught cunners, flounders, mackerel, and pollock when they were running, right off the town wharf. When smelts showed, after ``ice out,'' there was always an April day when everybody in town had smelts for breakfast -- Friday or no.
We had home-made schooners that went to The Bank, and we had a local curing plant, so fresh and salt fish could be had anytime. So fishballs appeared at breakfast without religious context, and we could have creamed haddock and finnan haddie and thick haddock chowders on a Monday as well as any other time. I think it was the oysters that related our Fridays to fish.
In former times, oysters were common along the Maine coast, but ocean temperatures had changed and salinity had increased, and native oysters came scarce. We still have a few beds, if you know where they are, but in my time our oysters came up from Maryland. Because shipping oysters was geared to the Friday-fish custom, we received oysters on the Thursday morning trains, so customers of our markets (both of them) could prepare stews for Fridays.
The oysters came in tin gallon cans, well-iced for the journey, and were dipped by the grocer with a soup ladle into special cardboard containers, pints, and quarts. It was well to get your oysters early, as the grocers never overbought -- lingering oysters had no great future. So in the post office on Thursday mornings you could look for oyster containers and see who would have oyster stew tomorrow.
There's one thing to be added: Chesapeake Bay never grew into its oysters the ultimate excellence of a Down-Maine oyster stew. The secret was a dollop of ``clam juice'' that every Maine mother added -- she also put it in lobster stews, fish chowders, and about any fish dish. The broth from steamed clams. Bouillon. That braced the imported oyster for Maine pleasures.