Bill Heavey shot his first deer, a five-point buck, in 1999. He was 44 years old. Like most first-blooded deer hunters, he found the experience transcendental--but it was eating a plate of the buck’s tenderloin that rocked him.
Heavey realized it was the first meat he’d ever eaten that didn’t involve gestation pens, genetic manipulation, hormones, antibiotics, or giant agribusinesses with congressional lobbyists.
He was simply a man sitting down to a supper of meat from a wild animal that he’d killed himself—something that has been occurring for as long as humankind has existed, but has somehow gotten lost in this modern age.
That epiphany became the catalyst for his latest book, It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It: Misadventures of a Suburban Hunter-Gatherer. The book recounts Heavey’s quest not just to learn how to “eat wild,” but to learn from those people and cultures that do not rely solely on a neighborhood supermarket for nourishment.
Over the next five years, Heavey’s locavore adventures range from the mundane (making salads out of edible weeds in his front yard) to the bizarre (searching for watercress near homeless camps just yards from the D.C. beltway) to the embarrassing (showing up bloodied at his daughter’s dance class after a clumsy dig for cattail roots). He travels across the country, learning skills such as the Cajun style of frogging in a Louisiana bayou (“you don’t want to grab anything has red eyes,” says his mentor) and cast-netting for smelt on the California coast (“snag that sea lion and it’ll be your last ride”). And he participates in a moving, spiritual hunt with the Gwich’in, an Alaskan native tribe that has been subsisting on one caribou herd for the last 20,000 years.
The book has been a critical success. Heavey, Editor-at-Large for Field & Stream and author of the back-page column "A Sportsman’s Life," says the experience has changed him in a number of ways. “I’ve basically replaced beef with venison in my daily diet. I gather serviceberries, wineberries, mulberries, figs and other fruit. I grow my own tomatoes. Supermarkets--which have ripe fruit of every description 365 days a year--now seem like very odd places to me.”
The following excerpt of Chapter 3, “A ‘Savory Little Fellow’ Rediscovered,” describes Heavey’s experience harvesting and smoking herring from the Potomac River, near his Arlington, Virginia home. --Mike Toth
© 2013 by Bill Heavey; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Not long after the perch run ended I went fishing with Paula to help replenish her herring supply. We were armed with rods carrying a Sabiki rig, a diabolical little gizmo consisting of a length of fishing line with six dropper lines attached, each carrying a tiny gold hook dressed with a colored bead and an iridescent hackle. Just getting a Sabiki out of its plastic packaging and onto your line is a feat. The hooks seek each other out as if magnetized, and I’ve turned many a Sabiki into a useless bird’s nest of tangles in a twinkling. Fortunately, Sabikis are cheap. And if you can get the thing into the water intact, a Sabiki rig is a baitfish-catching machine. You drop it right next to the boat, using just enough sinker to hold bottom in the current—usually an ounce or two. Once it reaches the bottom, you animate the tiny dressed hooks by popping the rig up with your rod tip and allowing it to fall. Strikes usually come on the fall, when the lures seem most vulnerable. Herring feed on zooplankton, so nobody knows why they hit Sabiki rigs. Maybe it’s a chance to try something new, maybe there’s something about the gold flash of the hooks that aggravates them. Whatever the reason, when the fish are running thick it’s not uncommon to have two or three on the line at once.
During a lull in the action, I idly asked whether herring were any good to eat. “Oh, yeah,” Paula said. “Kinda bony, but I like ’em. You can’t fillet the bones out but they soften up when you cook them.” Why, then, didn’t she eat them? “You kidding? I get three bucks apiece for a fish that has maybe two bites of meat on it. They’re worth a hell of a lot more to me as bait than food, honey.” She said she liked herring roe better than the more popular shad roe. And while nobody today fishes for herring except for bait, a hundred years ago people came from all over for the Potomac’s herring run. “Gordon and his family used to catch them like crazy when he was a kid.”
This was a minor thunderbolt. Here I was helping Paula load up on fish she would sell for bait—bait I could be eating. How had a local, readily available protein source escaped my notice? I regularly hunted deer, but that involved driving an hour or more each way. Herring were almost in my backyard, a fifteen-minute drive. I remembered eating creamed herring as a child and fancying myself something of a connoisseur because I liked it. But I was like most Americans. Herring had simply fallen off my radar.
Gordon confirmed that his family used to fish herring for food. “Oh, it was a big deal,” he said. “There were tackle shops on either end of Chain Bridge where you’d rent snagging poles. Fourteen- or sixteen-foot pieces of bamboo with a length of heavy carpenter’s plumb line and a weighted treble hook on the end. You’d stand out on a rock and rip that thing through the water, snag the fish, and throw them into a basket. I always thought a dip net was more effective. Stick it in, scoop ’em up. As boys we’d catch until our arms wore out.” Buyers paid boys a penny apiece for the fish. When the first herring showed up in late March, Gordon’s mother would always fry some with eggs for breakfast. The season lasted two and a half months, mid-March to the first of June. When the family had finally had their fill of fresh herring, Mrs. Leisch preserved them in ceramic crocks for use during the year. “She’d put down a layer of salt, a layer of fish until she filled it up, then start on another.” When she wanted to cook the fish, she placed that quantity in fresh water overnight to draw the salt out.
The more I found out about herring, the more they seemed a locavore’s dream: an abundant, potentially sustainable, extremely local fish. Human consumption of herring dates back at least 5,000 years, and they were a staple in Europe from the Middle Ages on. Even today, in some cultures herring is known as “two-eyed steak.” The Swedish, Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians consume vast amounts, eaten raw, pickled, smoked, and—for those exceptional individuals straddling the thin line between true connoisseur and certifiable whack job—buried underground until the fish have fermented.
For most of American history, the fish were hugely important, an abundant and inexpensive source of protein. Among the rivers most famed for their herring runs was the Potomac. George Washington, never one to pass up a quick buck, was an early participant in the commercial fishery. A May 1772 entry in his ledger records the sale of 11,000 herring. In 1895, the New York Times wrote, “In the Maryland and Virginia regions adjacent to the Potomac, salted herring holds about same place in the domestic commissariat that salt pork does in New England.” The article ends with the observation, “No well-regulated household in this region finds it convenient to do without herring at this season, and there is always regret when the savory little fellow returns to the sea.” In 1891 the herring take from the Potomac alone surpassed 7 million pounds. The world’s largest haul seine was in use on the Potomac at Stony Point on the Virginia shore at that time. It was two miles long and took a team of horses to haul it in.
The day after learning of herring’s edibility I was back out in the river, busily embedding Sabiki hooks in my hands, neck, pants, hat, oars, and anchor line (the hardest to get out) and—eventually—in the mouths of a few herring. I eventually figured out that keeping the line under tension at all times, even when letting the raised rig fall to the bottom, reduced tangling. I was soon sliding herring into the basket at a steady rate. Almost upon dropping the rig, I would feel the electric wiggle of a herring. The fish average a quarter to half a pound and are on the menu of virtually any swimming thing that exceeds them in size. Herring seem strangely resigned to their fate as baitfish. Each one not slipped directly into the basket fell to the deck of the boat and then flapped from bow to stern and back again, one hand clapping madly in a bid to return to water. The display lasted less than a minute, however, and then the fish lay down and died as if practiced in it. In death, a herring lacks the stunned and vaguely accusatory look of a perch. It looks pretty much the way it did alive. In short, a great starter fish for the squeamish locavore. It’s all but impossible to feel more than a passing twinge of guilt at the death of a herring. Something was bound to get it sooner or later.
On my second or third outing, I was boating fish at a nice clip when abundance mania kicked in. “Abundance mania”—a phrase so apt I’m surprised no one thought of it before me—describes the cocktail of neurotransmitters that unleashes the irresistible compulsion to collect more and more of something having three characteristics:
• It has just come into season.
• It’s suddenly everywhere.
• It won’t be for long.
I had already felt abundance mania when catching perch. Though I didn’t know this at the time, I would experience it in numerous picking-and-gathering situations to come. At the moment, the object was herring. I once saw an interview with Richard Pryor in which he was asked “how cocaine makes you feel.” He replied, “It makes you feel like doing more cocaine.” Abundance mania does the same thing. Catching a bunch of herring made me want to catch a bunch more herring. My state of mind combined intense focus and an insatiable appetite to collect the thing in question, with an overlay of euphoria. When you’re in this state, when you’ve got a fish on almost before your rig hits bottom, the only thing you can think about is the next fish. And the next. And the next. The idea of saying “enough” never crosses your mind. You know that you’ve become a lab rat pushing the lever that squirts an addicting chemical into its bloodstream, but it doesn’t slow you down. What finally interrupted my mania was a brief moment of clarity during which I realized that every fish I caught was a fish I would also have to clean. I stopped immediately. Hoisting the basket back into the boat required both hands. Then, because I hadn’t reeled in a fish in sixty seconds, I had to drop the rig down and catch a few more. Days later, relating the story to Gordon, I learned that any rig employing more than three hooks was a violation of local fishing regulations. (Incidentally, it was no great surprise that I learned this fact from Gordon, not Paula.) I have since modified my Sabikis to conform. It’s a trade-off. I catch fewer fish but also sustain fewer injuries.
Onshore, I found that the fish filled my cooler to the point where there was almost no room for ice. I sped home, stopping for more ice at a 7-Eleven, and divided fish and ice between two coolers. I undressed by the washing machine in the basement. I knew I reeked—several people had motioned me ahead of them in line at the 7-Eleven. But I’d been exposed to the fish so long that the odor no longer registered. Herring scales winked up at me from my discarded shirt and pants. Scales lodged in the hair on my arms and chest. I felt happy as I loaded the machine. I walked upstairs and into a hot shower, where more scales rode the water down the drain. I was tired and hungry, but the last thing I wanted for dinner was herring. I grabbed a package of venison from the freezer, stew meat from the leg of a doe I’d killed six months earlier. I did a speed-defrost, dunking the meat in a large bowl of warm water. I fried some up and made a venison sandwich with pickles, mustard, and mayonnaise. I washed dinner down with one of the beers I’d home-brewed from a kit two months earlier. I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the fulfilled fisherman, which is similar to the state of a loose herring flapping around the boat when it finally gives up.
The next day, I was eager to try both cooked fish and roe. Most of all I wanted to inaugurate my new smoker, an electric Brinkmann Gourmet that I’d bought at Home Depot for sixty bucks. I’d bought it after happening upon a foodie radio program on NPR, during which the guy—who sounded as if he’d be happier mixing cement than a béchamel— had said that oily fish were the best candidates for smoking.
One of the more encouraging things I’d learned about herring from Gordon was that there was no need to gut and clean them. They could simply be filleted. He also said to leave the skin on and his say-so was reason enough, although I was curious about the rationale. As I worked, this became self-evident: herring skin was so thin that it would be next to impossible to remove. I cleaned fish for nearly an hour, and by the time I finished I had about ninety fillets.
The first order of business was to try some fresh herring. I slid four fillets into a pan with some oil, sautéed them over medium-high heat until they had browned, and arranged them on a plate with toasted sourdough bread, butter, and a bit of mustard. It tasted . . . okay. To be honest, I was disappointed. I’d hoped to find it wonderful, but it was neither objectionable nor particularly appetizing, the taste at once fairly mild and fairly fishy. This, I decided, was the invariable characteristic of an oily fish. And perhaps why few people of my acquaintance ate herring. It didn’t taste that different from sardines, and I later discovered that in fact small herring are sometimes sold as sardines.
I approached the two sacs of roe I’d saved with trepidation. They were kidney-shaped and sheer, with tiny red veins running through them. The eggs inside were pale yellow and appeared to have the texture of grits. I wished I’d known what the standard procedure was, because I knew neither how long to cook them nor whether the sacs should be kept intact or mashed in an attempt to cook the eggs evenly. I have always preferred ice cream mashed and softened, which may be why I did the same thing to the herring roe with a spatula, removing the pan from the heat when the roe started to turn gray.
For a guy who has eaten chicken eggs his whole life without giving them a second thought, I was surprisingly creeped out by herring roe. Maybe it was a numbers thing. One chicken egg meant one unborn chicken. But the roe from a single herring represented thousands of potentially meaningful herring lives cut tragically short. I found myself coining an advertising slogan for herring roe—“A school-full in every spoonful!”—and took a bite. For a food with no particularly strong flavor—it tasted of the fish itself, only more so—I found it surprisingly . . . repellent. But then again, I once had real Iranian caviar and didn’t like that either. I’m convinced that scarcity alone is what makes some foods beloved of gastronomes. If peanuts were as rare as caviar, the height of debauchery might involve wealthy degenerates scarfing down mounds of Jif from porcelain plates. In any case, herring roe and I had parted company.
Undeterred, I moved on to smoking. First I rinsed and dried the fillets, then arranged them on the smoker’s two circular racks until there wasn’t an uncovered square centimeter. At the last minute I salted the fillets liberally, reasoning that it couldn’t hurt. I plugged the smoker in and soon felt the warmth coming off the lava rocks sitting atop the electric heating element. I covered those with a half-pound of hickory chips that had been soaking in water and put the top on. My new smoker looked like a big red suppository leaking clouds of smoke. I went inside and started working on a column about traveling to rural west Texas for a quail hunt with two other hunters and four highly trained dogs. In two days, we had failed to kill a single bird, which surprised the hell out of my companions but was in fact how most of my quail hunts have gone. Three hours passed before I remembered the smoker. I tore outside. Lifting the top, I released a ball of smoke. When it cleared, I saw that my beloved fillets had shrunk to one-third their original size, were nearly black, and were curling up at both ends. Moaning at my carelessness, I removed the racks to cool. I told myself exactly what I thought of myself, then opened an early beer to ease the sting of self-censure and bitter disappointment at the lost fish. Half an hour and two beers later, figuring that I had a responsibility at least to taste my work, I bit into a charred smoked herring. It was overdone, of course, somewhat crunchy and dry. And yet beneath the surface the meat still had an appealingly oily, smoky richness. What’s more, it had lost its fishy taste. I’d never had fish jerky and still haven’t, but I imagined this was roughly what it would feel and taste like. It was, I decided, against all odds, delicious. I would have liked it to be a bit less done, of course, but it possessed a pleasing combination of salt and fat, two essential traits of any commercially successful snack food product. And it was further seasoned by the knowledge that I had caught it, chilled it, scaled it, filleted it, washed and dried it, seasoned it, and smoked it myself. I felt slightly godlike, a state I can’t recommend highly enough.
Stoked to smoke more herring, I redoubled my efforts at catching the little fish. The bad news was that, as with everything else in the Potomac, the runs of herring today are but an echo of those as recent as thirty or forty years ago. The good news was that when they are around, you can catch a lot in short order. I decided to bone up on smoking, too. I found a website, 3men.com, that was a trove of information about smoking everything, including fish. I began placing the fillets in an all-purpose brine the site recommended: two cups salt, one cup brown sugar, and a dash each of lemon juice and garlic to a gallon of water. It was recommended that after brining for half an hour or so, you allow the fish to dry in a “cool breezy place protected from flying insects” until a thin glaze known as a pellicle formed. The pellicle was said to promote the retention of moisture and texture during smoking. The closest thing I had to a breezy place was the backyard, but it was anything but protected from flying insects. As soon as I set the racks down, flies appeared as if I’d just received a truckload of fresh horse manure and was throwing a block party. My God but those flies loved herring. I rushed the racks back inside and pondered. It wasn’t possible to screen the racks. The best I could do was create hazards to aviation in the flies’ vicinity. I hauled out an old attic exhaust fan that took twenty seconds to reach full throttle, at which point it roared like a vintage fighter plane. It damn near blew the fillets right off the racks. I moved it around, experimenting until I found the right distance. At five feet, the fillets stayed put while the flies repeatedly tried to land on the meat, only to be beaten backward. I was delighted at having created a localized tornado and the fish developed a nice pellicle in about ten minutes.
I began producing batches of gorgeous, mahogany-colored smoked herring. Two to two and a half hours seemed to be the ideal smoking time. I thought the quality was, in a word, astounding. I started eating smoked herring sandwiches for lunch and found myself opening the fridge at all hours of the day for just one more. Eating smoked herring was surprisingly similar to fishing for herring. You always wanted just one more. They were dense little things. I could put a whole one in my mouth—and routinely did when headed out of the house with both hands full of fishing tackle, to be savored at leisure while I was driving.
But there came a point when I began to doubt my own assessment of my work, questioning whether pride of authorship had clouded my objectivity. I decided to take some to Gordon and Paula. I was a little nervous, not least because Paula was incapable of diplomacy. If she thought my herring sucked, she’d tell me straight out. They both pronounced it “excellent.” Paula, who has surprisingly high standards of food preparation for someone who eats roadkill, found fault only with the fact that I hadn’t removed every last scale. I could live with that. A single scale was exactly one more than Paula could tolerate.
I cranked out about six batches of smoked herring before the fish left the river in late May. Paula called at one point to compliment me on my latest batch. I wasn’t home and was surprised to hear her on my voice mail. Paula almost never left messages. “I don’t know, there’s just something about talking to a machine that gives me the creeps,” she once told me. But she raved about the herring. “You know, really, this is the best thing you do,” she said, in a voice that sounded pleased that at last I’d found something I was halfway good at. Like nearly all of Paula’s compliments, it was barbed. With the praise for my smoked herring came the clear implication that everything else I did was okay at best. For once, I chose to focus on the unbarbed part of her approval. With Paula you learn to take what you can get.
Photo by Michelle Gienow