Sunday, May 1, 2011

Smelt Fest!

It's finally Spring in Wisconsin!  How can I tell?  The daffodils are blooming; the radishes, lettuce, and peas I planted three weeks ago right before it snowed are starting to pop out of the ground, and the Smelt are jumping!
What is a Smelt, you ask?  Well, either you're not from around here or you simply haven't lived yet!  Smelt are tiny fish, which are not local to the great lakes, but were introduced there in the 1900s as food for stocked salmon.  They are now one of the few fishes that I will eat out of Lake Michigan.  Because they are so small, they are not as chucked full of some of the contaminates that other, bigger fish (which eat the smelt) in Lake Michigan might have.

I remember my dad taking me to watch them fish for smelt when I was little.  I don't particularly remember enjoying it.  First off, you fish for them now, in early spring, when still technically feels like winter to everyone who doesn't live in Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Canada!  These guys live out in the deep water all summer, but come in to the shores to spawn in the spring.  Second, you fish for them at night.  Smelt are small, and therefore caught with nets, in one of two ways: either the fishermen lower big square nets down off of the piers, or they wade out into the lake with huge nets pulled between several people.  Either way it is done at night... or possibly very early in the morning.  For the pier nets, they shine lights down into the water to attract the fish.  So, I remember being cold, tired, and a little damp.  Not my idea of a good time then or now!
from JSonline:

Then, too, I was disgusted by the little things.  Smelt are TINY.  So you don't really clean them in the way that normal fish are cleaned.  You cut of their heads, gut them, and that's all.  Bones, tails, fins - all for eating!  When I was younger I grossed out pretty easily, as a lot of kids are, but I really didn't think I cared for meat.  In fact (and it might be a real shocker from reading this blog) I was well on my way to becoming a vegetarian.  Not sure when that changed, but something about tiny fish with crunchy bones is suddenly very appealing!  Lightly breaded and fried, served with french fries, cole slaw, and rye bread. 

So, I thought my re-introduction to smelt would be a perfect locavore activity.  These guys are really popular here, especially along the lake the further north you go.  So, my dad and I made the hike up to Port Washington to enjoy the 60th Annual Smelt Fry at the Port Washington American Legion Post.  It was not fancy, but it was delicious and the locals shared there butter and tartar sauce (which, for some reason were not provided with the meal - although a free beer was!).  The fish were very small, which my dad said is a good thing.  Apparently, when they get bigger, the bones get a little more pokey.  But they were light, and had a good not too fishy flavor.  I didn't really care for the tails because they got caught in my braces, but I read the signs saying that anyone who didn't eat them would get mocked, so I ate them.  And, possibly most exciting, the brandy old fashioned was only $3.50!

I don't have a recipe.  I would guess any light fish fry batter.  You wouldn't want something heavy with breadcrumbs as it would overpower the fish.  But, really, this is a once a year treat... I recommend making it special.  Head to Port Washington, or Manitowoc, or some other small town on the lake, and let the experts make it for you.  Get there a little early and take in the sights.  You won't be able to see the smelt fishing unless you're there VERY early, but you'll probably be able to figure out where they do the fishing from.

From what I understand, the smelt population is dwindling.  I've read it's because of pollution, and I've read it's a result of the zebra muscles taking over.  One one hand, it's hard to be too upset, because they don't belong in Lake Michigan in the first place.  On the other hand, this is a great Wisconsin tradition that might be on it's way out.  We may have been there too early, but there weren't a lot of younger individuals at the American Legion Post...  Maybe smelt aren't trendy.  It's obvious that they're not the sexiest food ever.  And yes, the concept of eating a whole fish is a little scary.  But it's good, and in the end that's all that matters.

And frankly, I'd be very sad to lose one of the last fish I'm willing to eat out of Lake Michigan.  I love fish, and it's a terrible thing to know that there's a big lake full of them right outside my window - but we've polluted our food source so badly that I don't dare eat any but the smallest of them. 

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