fish heads

Elbow Deep in Herring Spawn

Chasing down ancestral traditions of food preservation, we learn that loving food can be messy

What does it mean to love food? Does it mean chasing Michelin stars or documenting your every meal on Instagram or religiously following each episode of Top Chef? When the distance between the source of ones food and the food on the plate is ridiculously short, you begin to realize the difference between loving food and just loving to eat. Loving food means you may find yourself elbow deep in herring spawn one January evening.

In the middle of winter, schools of Pacific Herring fill the San Francisco Bay, frantically rubbing against one another doing what is perhaps the most important mission in their short lives: spawning. The sexual organs of a mature herring account for one-fifth of its body weight and females lay up to 20,000 eggs. So the annual gathering is pretty significant and pretty popular — but not without its perils. The herring do their best to keep the exact time of the two-day or so affair quiet from land-dwellers, but inevitably the word gets out. Choosing a major port probably wasn’t the smartest. During the spawn-fest, herring can literally be scooped out of the bay by the thousands — it’s less fishing and more just hauling. Throw in a net and you would have to try not to catch hundreds of fish. The docks become crowded as fishermen and civilians alike fill coolers and even garbage bins with the small silvery fish.

Given how easy it is to catch them, you can see how one might be tempted to get a little carried away. Which is why, one January afternoon, we got a call from our friend, Ulysses, who lives on Sonoma Mountain, to say that he had returned from San Francisco with forty pounds of herring and did we want some?

fresh herring

Being of Swedish descent and raised in Minnesota, I have a strange relationship with Scandinavian traditions surrounding preserved fish. I tasted lutfisk for the first time as a young child and vowed never to come close to the stuff again. Living in New York, I discovered baccalà and lox and my prohibition against preserved fish began to break down. So the prospect of carrying on a proud nordic tradition and pickling my own herring was an intriguing one. And now would be the time thanks to Ulysses’ over exuberance at the bay that afternoon.

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click to enlarge

We arrived at Ulysses’ and sure enough, there were herring everywhere; in his refrigerator, in his frying pan, being picked apart on a serving platter; a bucket of heads and guts in the sink. He brought in a large cooler from the porch and told us to please, take as many as we wanted. The fish are really very pretty: ranging between three and four inches long, they are slippery and silvery, their bodies firm, their eyes clear. Towards the bottom third of the cooler, however, things got messy. “That is sex, right there,” said Ulysses of the mucesey mix of ova and milt.

The real thrill of foraging, whether hunting boar or digging for mushrooms, is perhaps turning something wild and alive covered in fur or dirt or scales into something that you may want to eat. The fish are pretty as fish but the process of getting them to resemble a meal is anything but appetizing. We recommend making yourself a cocktail before you even sharpen your fillet knife. (We also discovered fairly quickly that having a straw in that cocktail to enable hands-free sipping is important).

The recipe we used, from Hunter, Gather, Cook begins with the fish already filleted. Ulysses, an avid fly fisherman, deftly demonstrated how to cut off the heads and squeeze out what is almost entirely eggs and sperm (as food, caviar and roe). They are not complicated creatures.

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click to enlarge

Next, we gently scraped off the scales, making everything, our hands, the sink, the counter iridescent. Pickling fresh herring is a two-step process, so that first night you only have to worry about making salt water, into which you will submerge your hard-earned fillets. Don’t worry too much about bones because they are tiny and they tend to soften to the point of being unnoticeable during the pickling process. The following day you layer the fillets in jars with vinegar solution and your choice of seasoning.

Two weeks later we gathered in the same kitchen under more civilized conditions to sample, compare and of course compete. The fish gathered from the bay had become food. We were part of a rich tradition of food preservation; a tradition practiced by Scandinavians for centuries and spawned, if you will, by the life cycle and reproductive habits of one species of fish. Ulysses’ jar of herring, pickled in red vinegar he made from his own pinot noir vineyard, took first place.

For wine, we chose a bottle of Red Hook Winery skin-fermented sauvignon blanc made on the Brooklyn waterfront with grapes from Macari vineyard, North Fork, Long Island. It was salty, acidic and delicious and took the assault of fish and vinegar and sour cream in stride. We feasted on winter greens from Ulysses garden and potato latkes. It was a perfect meal.