Fish Tales

Written By: Dorothy  Rappaport

Summer air in the Hamptons perpetually smells of freshly sheared privet, salty sea mist, melting asphalt, and an occasional wafting of fried fish. Okay, maybe the fried fish is specific to my memories. Long before the Contessa kicked off her shoes, there were other chefs concocting on the East End. Most notably: Craig Claiborne, Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin. But the hero in our Hamptons kitchen was my Dad.

My summers out east began in the 1960’s in The Springs section of East Hampton. My best memories are decidedly culinary. I am one of five kids and my Dad would take us “thoroughbreds” and his “beautiful bride” to Gerard Drive. First as renters and finally as the homeowners of a one bedroom Bonacker beauty perched above the blue-green expanse of Gardiner’s Bay.

Those summer days began early and seemed to last forever. Almost daily we five would walk down to the clamming section of Accabonac Harbor in our bald soled Keds that we kicked off at the water’s edge. Equipped with old canvas carpenter’s belts from Hildreth’s around our waists, we would prodigiously fill every pocket. We’d compete to find a bay scallop because they carried a $5 reward from Dad. He would pry their shells open to display their ring of blue eyes. Being the only blue eyed among the five kids, I would look over at my dad to catch a secret wink. Scallops were scarce, unlike the dozens of foot shredding razor clams that my father eschewed, literally the only creature I can recall my father not eating. Indeed, even sea robin chowder once made an appearance at our dinner table. Not twice.

Clamming required a license which my Dad somehow never felt inspired to acquire, so if the dreaded Bay Constable car drove up we knew to stay in the water with our harvest until he left. This became a true test of wills. Many days we would finally emerge as human prunes – our skin so wrinkled and waterlogged. Coming home without clams, however, was not an option. The littlenecks became slippery bites on the half shell with cocktail sauce that made our eyes tear. The cherrystones joined perfectly with al dente linguine, olive oil, garlic and white wine, a tab of sweet butter at the end, and the ubiquitous and absolutely necessary scattering of freshly minced Italian parsley. Woe unto the beautiful bride if she had forgotten to buy some at the Amagansett Farmers Market. The chowder clams of course became briny chowder – onions, celery, and white wine, with chewy little bits of salt pork finished in cream and celery leaves, cracked black pepper, and, of course, the essential parsley.

No less arduous, but certainly more exciting, were days spent out on the boat when the blues were “running, look sharp.” We had a 13 foot Boston Whaler with a cranky 33 horsepower Evinrude. We would test our strength and squeeze that rigid primer valve a few times and the motor would hopefully catch. Soon enough we’d be ankle deep in blues, my father gutting them with a surgeon’s finesse on the spot, entrails thrown overboard. The seagulls would follow us like paparazzi as we turned those waters crimson. If we all managed to escape being snagged by a lure amid our wild casting, it was a truly perfect day. The fate of the blues was the grill. They were served head to tail in a drench of melted butter and scallions. There was always a flawless demonstration of how the bone fell easily away because it was cooked to perfection. We would unanimously refuse to eat the dark bluefish meat that I’ve since heard referred to as the blood line. My father had no patience for that, so closed-eyed taste tests would ensue. If you guessed wrong, you knew you were cleaning that plate. Nonetheless, we loved these tests and the singular attention we got paid when it was our turn. Many times we were tasked to clamp our eyes shut to see if we knew white corn from yellow, green peppers from red, lobster tail verses lobster claw meat- that particular trial no one minded losing. We did, however, flatly refuse to eat both the lobster tamale and roe, as well as the rubbery tails of steamers, and in these cases were incredulously granted dispensation.

Sometimes a trip to Montauk was in our stars. Our destination: Gosman’s Dock. This was always fun because it meant five kids rolling around the back of our wood sided Country Squire wagon, pleading for faster and faster speed on Old Montauk highway. It was our version of a rollercoaster. We didn’t go for ice-cream or souvenirs – we had bigger fish to fry. Literally. We would watch all the fishing boats come in and marvel at their hauls. We never got tired of rubbing the sandpaper skin of sharks on display and looking into the gaping mouths of big ugly cod. My Dad would always manage to buy a fish from someone, and that would become our dinner. “Your dinner swam to the table tonight!”

One particular sea creature my Dad liked to catch required the cover of darkness, and these expeditions were anticipated with some trepidation. This nighttime exploit involved a full moon, a low tide, and a heavy duty, high intensity flashlight. We were off to go eel hunting in the harbor. The only necessary gear was the flashlight and our eel spear. Picture a small sharp trident at the end of a broomstick. When the light attracted an eel in the shallow water, it was a true test of both bravery and eye-hand coordination for whoever was delegated Poseidon that night. When successful, we would all scream in equal measures of delight and fear as the writhing eel was victoriously held aloft, backlit by shadowy moonlight. Eels were doomed to be gutted and skinned and then hung in our smoker, our latest culinary acquisition. Many porgies spent time there as well. Smoked eel on saltines became an appetizer during the martini hour that was observed at 6 o’clock every night on the patio. Before any cocktail could be consumed there was the ritual requirement of raising the martini flag up the flagpole. It looked like a regulation sailing flag, but bore the image of a martini glass. At dusk both the martini flag and Old Glory would come down, and we were all pros at the triangular folds. If any eel was leftover it would fall into our morning scrambled eggs with grindings of black pepper, and naturally, a flurry of parsley.

Cartwright Island was our destination for another low tide foray. This provided us with different eggs to scramble. We already loved visiting The Big Duck and eating duck eggs fried in bacon fat with their bright neon yolks. So we were game to harvest seagull eggs when my Dad told us that was the day’s expedition. When we came ashore, we discovered a beached porpoise that mesmerized us, but my Dad sorrowfully pronounced it “too far gone to be edible.” I don’t know what we were expecting, but this was no Easter hunt. We braved dive bombing seagull attacks to our heads as we confiscated their eggs. We ran screaming Hitchcock style back to the boat with many of them cracking open all over us. We were rewarded for the escapade when Dad whipped the eggs into a comforting stracciatella soup, laced with parsley.

Our Dad brought us to the glory of Gardiner’s Bay where we immersed ourselves in all that she had to offer. We were lucky for all that endless swimming, troves of shells and sea glass, the sheer blue beauty, and most of all for the incredible sustenance that my Dad transformed all summer long.

Today, I live in Connecticut. I feed my family clams and linguine, always flecked with parsley. The Long Island Sound stands in for Gardiner’s Bay, and on nights with very high tides I can hear the water lapping at the bulkhead across the street (close enough, I try to convince myself). I wake to the call of seagulls and the smell of the sea. Sometimes I imagine a whiff of fried fish in the air.