The texts came within the space of an hour: “I’ve got a 67 pound fish if you’ve got a market” and then from another fisherman, “Merritt I’ve got a 37 pounder I’m bringing in now.” Halibut season. In the rush of spring I’d forgotten that Last year I’d played fish monger for the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op, running freshly caught halibut down to the markets in Portland for the season which runs mid-May to mid June. Then I’d driven from Tenants Harbor to Yarmouth at least once a week; running a fish down was easy enough and the price was better for the fishermen further south.
But now I was headed to Tenants Harbor for the night and then going on downeast to Stonington. The fish needed to go in the opposite direction and go quickly. A few text messages and I’d found buyers: One fish was split between a longtime customer, the Rosemont Market, and Gather Restaurant and Henry and Marty, a Brunswick restaurant which had bought halibut from us last spring; the other, thanks to my good friend Wendy, went to the Union Restaurant, the famed eatery of the Press Hotel in Portland.
Getting the fish south was more difficult than getting them sold. When I learned that John Tripp’s sternman was heading to Portland the following morning, I confirmed the drop off with Wendy, who confirmed it with Chef Josh at Union.
Union then posted a photo of their fish on Instagram with the caption “Can’t get much fresher than this 37 pound halibut arriving tomorrow from the @TenantsHarborFishermansCo-op” The photo and caption evidently prompted Travel + Leisure Magazine to request a photo shoot of the fish and its preparation. Wendy, who handles media relations for the hotel, sent me a text: “I hate to ask, but do you promise the fish will be here by noon tomorrow, Travel + Leisure is coming to do a photo shoot.” “Yes!” I replied (complete with triple underscoring my complete assurance.)
Moments later I learned that John’s sternman wasn’t going down to Portland until 5:30 in the evening.
While dealing with the fish traveling arrangements I was also prepping for a photo shoot at Luke’s at Tenants Harbor. We’d arranged to cook our “Fisherman’s Lobster Feed” and, appropriately, feed a bunch of our fishermen from the co-op for a cover spread. In addition to playing fish monger, my morning had been spent collecting various items for the photo shoot: I had picked up the Maine beer, Allagash White, at my daughter’s school in South Freeport (no, the school doesn’t serve beer; the mother of a classmate works for Allagash and offered to bring the beer to school, saving me a half hour of driving); steamers from Jess’ fish market in Rockland; and so forth. May being what it is in Maine, the weather was not cooperating – showers were predicted throughout the day, with the heaviest rain right when our scheduled meal would take place. I arrived at the wharf and got busy with preparations, lugging lobsters up from the dock and gathering the seaweed to steam them. Stephany, who is the chef at Luke’s, had baked 4 beautiful blueberry pies and set them out.
As I was rushing about it occurred to me that Luke Holden, who lives in South Portland, was coming up for the dinner. Maybe he could give the fish a ride. A quick text exchange as follows:
Me: “Hey are you heading back tonight?”
Me: “How would you feel about bringing a halibut back and delivering it to Union Restaurant.”
Luke: “Do we have something to put it in, I’m not in a truck.”
Me: “You have to hold it in your arms, just like your new baby”
Luke: “Okay, anything for the co-op.”
The lobster banquet and the photo shoot were a success despite the fact that for once, the weather prediction was right; the heaviest rain came right as we were eating. Afterward, several of us gathered round to help muscle the fish from the bait shed to the back of Luke’s station wagon. We laid down cardboard and plastic, put the fish in a bait tote, iced it in and sent Luke off. It reminded me of a story told by Luke’s father, who had run fish from Maine to Boston during the early part of his career. He had used rented UHauls for each trip, washing them out with Clorox to rid the truck of the smell. Despite his efforts he had to continually switch the rental places because his efforts the fish smell lingered on. I hoped the same wouldn’t be true of Luke’s station wagon.
Back in the late 1970s, the hey day of Maine’s groundfishing, there had been a lot of fish running to Boston. There are virtually no ground (or other) fish landed in Maine these days, but halibut is the exception and the game is the same: find the market, get the best price, transport the fish. What had changed was that today’s consumers like to know their fishermen; when I find a market they want to know not only about the fish but about the fisherman.
Luke left the wharf, announcing he was going to stop for one beer with Ivan and Josh, two of the co-op’s fishermen. I sent him off with the cell phone number of the chef, and, sounding like a mother, chided him, “Don’t stay too late at Ivan’s. That fish has to get down to Union before they close tonight!”
I awoke the next morning to a text from Luke that had arrived at 11pm: “package delivered.”