Years ago, I was a guest on the network TV show "To Tell The Truth," and I met Peggy Cass. She was a celebrity on the panel that guessed who I was. Peggy was at the peak of her career, having come from her role as Auntie Mame's befuddled secretary, plus being a Boston Irish colleen of charm and talent.
After the show was taped, Peggy said to me, "I almost asked you about corned hake, but felt the subject over the heads of our West-coast viewers, and shifted instead to yellow eyes." On the show I did tell the truth and told Peggy that yellow eyes are a dried bean for baking, a favorite Down East. Peggy did guess that I was I, and that left corned
hake for this morning.
I quote from an old Fair Haven, Vt., whaling ballad concerning the greatest harpoonist out of New Bedford, Mass.: "So Cap'n Symmes comes for'rd with tears in his eyes as big as corned hake fishballs, and he says to me, sezzee," etc.
On that evening in New York City, when we taped the show and talked about hake, Peggy said, "I've not seen a corned-hake fishball in a long time. Do they still have them?"
Let's do some homework. The hake is a saltwater ground fish related somehow to the cod, and is of commercial value at New England fish piers.
It is often called silver hake for its gleaming color, and since Colonial times it has been considered the best fish for breakfast cakes, or balls, although other fishes also serve if you lack.
The hake has a curious way, never explained to me, of washing up and being stranded on a beach, as if it were, perhaps, a lemming. It doesn't happen every year, as if it has something to do with seasonal spawning, but at times great schools of silver hake will wash up on a full tide, often on a moonlit night, and come daylight great quantities will line the high-tide mark.
Along the sea wrack, good edible fish may be picked up by longshore folks who get there before the gulls do. Two or three times as a boy, I gathered hake on the beach and sold them to the neighborhood, same as tinkers in season.
Salt-slacked, or lightly corned with Liverpool salt in a brine that will float a slice of raw potato, a split hake will later make an ample breakfast for a family.
Mix cooked corned hake with cold potatoes to form patties, and fry in salt pork fat until crisp on both sides, but soft inward. You may care to freshen the hake to taste.
I believe corned-hake fishballs - preceded by oatmeal porridge and with warmed yellow-eye baked beans on the side - can be the basis of an adequate Maine Sunday breakfast.
Some years later, I heard that Peggy Cass was doing the circuit of Maine summer playhouses, starting with Ogunquit, and I caught her on the backstage phone during a rehearsal there.
I said, "You leave after the Saturday matinee, and we'll hold the yaller eyes until you arrive. Corned-hake fishballs on Sunday morning."
Miss Cass said, "How do I find your place?"
She came with her niece and two polite terriers, and left late Monday morning headed for a theatrical week at Lakewood Theater. She opened there the night a Wesserunsett Valley thunder-bumper pelted a bolt and blew the front door off the playhouse. The play was played in the dark, and Peggy Cass always said her visit to Maine, all in all, was unusual.