Forty-six years ago, May Shute was a fish out of water. When she decided to open her own fish market in 1940, Mrs. Shute was ahead of the times, a woman invading traditional male territory. Even with her husband in the wholesale fish business, it was far from easy.
``My husband was a help in many ways,'' she explains, ``but he really didn't know any more than I did about boning and cutting fish and the preparation necessary for selling.
``That end of it I learned by myself -- asking and doing, mostly. It takes a lot of practice to scale and clean a fish, to bone it properly,'' she says. ``In those days fish was sold whole, cleaned, with head and tail on. It was not the neat boneless fillets you see in the case today.''
Back in 1940, when this mother of two wanted to find something that would utilize more of her energies than just running her household, her husband told her of a small business that was available. She decided she'd try it for a few months.
Today, the Winter Hill Fish Market is still going strong. Inside its sparkling clean interior, row on row of fresh fish and a delicious aroma of homemade seafood chowder greet early customers.
It's a neighborhood kind of market, with mostly local customers -- the kind of place people gather and chat while Shute is boning fish, making chowders, and preparing seafood dishes for takeout.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Shute was peeling potatoes for French fries for the day's fish-and-chip plates. She had also made fresh cole slaw from scratch and had cleaned and boned the fish.
Once considered poor man's fare, fish is now at the top of the list when it comes to status food. Its popularity has changed in this city over the years, as it has all over America. But with its increased popularity has come increased prices.
``I remember when haddock, probably the most popular fish in New England, was 19 cents a pound,'' Shute says. ``Today, it's $5.99. Codfish is almost as high. They both used to be common, inexpensive fish.''
Her business itself has changed over the years.
``Now I'm open only Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the busiest days, but years ago I had the market open six days a week,'' Shute says. ``Later, when the Friday fish day for Catholics was changed, sales leveled off. Fish was inexpensive in those days and made a good budget meal for large families.''
Today, as small mom-and-pop fish markets are fast disappearing, being replaced by elaborate seafood departments in the big supermarket chains, there is still a place, apparently, for a good neighborhood fish market.
Although there is a large supermarket across the street, Shute says its fish department doesn't bother her a bit.
``If anything, my business is better,'' she says. ``Customers know my fish is really fresh, and most can tell the difference. Some have been customers for three generations.
``I often have the newer kinds of fish and my customers may try something new once, like fresh tuna or monkfish.
``But the next time they come in they'll go back to their old favorites, haddock and cod, buying them over and over again.''
It was 50 or 60 years ago when Shute came to the United States from Newfoundland by herself, at 17. She was met at the boat by a friend of her mother, who helped her get a job and get established.
When she first opened the market, her husband sent a man to bring the fish from the boats at the fish piers each week.
Today, her son, Walter, does this part of the job. Having been in the business for so many years, Shute knows her suppliers well and they know her needs and requirements, so she orders by phone. Her sister-in-law, Dorothy, has worked with her in the market for about 11 years.
Shute says her favorite fish is gray sole, which she tasted for the first time on a trip to England seven years ago.
``It was so delicious I had it three nights in a row,'' she says. ``It was in a casserole with a lemon sauce and mashed potatoes. I really think it's an excellent fish,'' she said.
Her tastes range from elegant to everyday seafood.
``One of my favorite dishes at home is salt codfish with drawn butter and potatoes, chives, and onions. I like fish hash, too, and when I had a family at home I would sometimes stuff a large whole fish with a bread dressing made as I would make it for a roast turkey.''
Shute's daughter, Gloria, says that today she, too, likes sole better than other kinds of fish, but when she was growing up she liked the fish sandwiches her mother made.
``My mother would use cooked, cold haddock in sandwiches as you would a tuna salad sandwich, mixing the cold fish with celery and onions and mayonnaise. It was much better than a tuna sandwich,'' Gloria recalls.
Shute's huge kettle of fish chowder that she sells in her market may have several kinds of fish in it -- cod, haddock, gray sole. She adds whatever she has, including perhaps scallops or even lobster. It's made from scratch with potatoes, onions, and butter.
Shute remembers the days when she made chowder with a whole fish -- before the days when most everything was filleted because of the bones.
``Not many people want fish with the bone in today,'' she says. ``People used to say the fish heads made the best soups and chowder, too, but not now. Sometimes people ask for fish scraps for their cats, and I sometimes give them fish bones to put under their tomato plants, for fertilizer.''
``At Christmas I have salt codfish, which I soak before selling it because it's traditional for Italian people to buy it that way for their special holiday dishes.''
The shop still has the printed, tin wall-covering of years ago, and a sign of the endurance of this little market is an old cash register that only rings up to $2.
``It came with the place, and I can't part with it,'' Shute says.