When I was a kid, my grandmother would pick up my sister and me on Saturday mornings and take us to do her weekly shopping. First to Uncle Andy’s Bakery in South Portland. There she would trade her fresh farm eggs for her weekly baked goods and a treat for us. Then across the bridge to Harbor Fish Market. Howard Latham would take eggs for fish, and then trade some of the eggs with another vendor while holding some aside for his family. After that we’d go to the corner grocer for other items, and then finish at a farm near Gram’s house for milk.
At the time it just seemed like something she did to keep us out of our mother’s hair for the morning - going to all those places for weekly supplies. Why didn’t she just go to the big grocery stores like my mom did?
My grandmother was onto something: knowing her grower, farmer, butcher, fisherman. Supporting her neighbors; supporting her neighbors by spending her money locally and building relationships with the people who produce her food. Admittedly, Gram would tell me I’m over thinking it; this is just the way she fed her family for the past 70 yrs.
Fishermen in Maine still remember selling their fish that way, too. Going out before first light. Coming home the same day well after dark. Icing their catch at the dock until they could sell it to the local fish markets the next morning. That’s day boat fish: fish that swam in the icy Maine waters yesterday and is on your plate tonight.
Mainers are leading the way back to the practices our grandparents accepted as daily life: Buying produce from the growers instead of the grocers. Now, my mom did that in the summer. Stopping at Hawke’s Farm Stand on Rt. 302 when the CORN sign was out. But I don’t think I ever wondered about how bananas got to my cereal bowl in Westbrook, Maine. Nor did I ever wonder, while tucking into a special dinner, how those jumbo shrimp arrived in my shrimp cocktail.
When was the last time you went to a PTA meeting or the voting booth or to church and stood next to the people who bake your bread, harvest the vegetables you eat or catch the seafood you prepare? Stacy Mitchell, author of The Big Box Swindle offered this statistic on November 26th, 2007 on the Beacon Broadside website:
“We assume that the chains represent economic progress, but in fact they take far more out of our economy than they contribute. The chains also return very little of what their stores take in back to the communities where they operate. A study in Maine by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that only 14 cents of a dollar spent at big-box store remains in the state's economy.” If you instead spend your food dollars with local growers and fishermen, you know what economy you’re supporting: your own community’s economy. And that’s always a good thing.
It’s also important to know where and how your seafood was caught. Every other day the news reports children’s toys coated with lead paint or farmed seafood that is treated with chemicals banned in the US. And at some foreign seafood farms it’s not the fish that are being treated the worst, it’s the workers.
I suggest you experience local seafood that you might not otherwise come in contact with. When is the last time you ate a redfish? Or a monkfish? Or ate a lobster when you weren’t celebrating something?
Community-based local fishermen follow strict guidelines about what seafood they can catch and when. These important rules allow ocean populations to spawn and reproduce. In some cases fish are migratory and aren’t even swimming in our waters when you see them for sale in the store courtesy of the Big Box Boats that operate pretty much like the big box stores do. Walk down to the dock in the late afternoon and see what’s being unloaded. Chances are you can buy dinner right there. If you ask nicely, your fisherman might even fillet it for you.
Maybe taking to the docks isn’t your cup of tea. Try a Community Supported Fishery (CSF). Like Community Supported Agriculture, a CSF is a prepaid purchase of a set amount of fish for a set number of deliveries. This prepayment puts some much needed funds in the hands of local fishermen to make repairs and purchases before going out to sea.
As a member of a Community Supported Fishery you’ll always have the freshest seafood on hand- Fish that doesn’t have a scent. That fishy smell? That’s old fish; decaying fish. It’s no wonder some people don’t like fish if that’s all they’ve ever known. As a member of a CSF, your fishermen should give you guidelines for when the food you buy will be caught. Was it swimming wild last night or last month? You want to know.
Fishermen receive a surprisingly small price for wholesale fish. Given the price of fish at the supermarket counter that fact shocked me. With a CSF, the fisherman can charge you less per pound than you pay at the market and still earn more per pound than he does by selling wholesale. It’s no secret that some fisheries are in trouble. Less fish for more money is also a benefit to the ocean ecosystem.
So what’s in season right now here in Maine?
This summer look for cod in early July. Alewife and whiting have a long season: May through late September. Plaice, mackerel and witch flounder you’ll find June through July, then mackerel might show up again in the fall. Bluefin tuna and striped bass will be around until the end of August, just in time for monkfish to take their place. Lobster is available all year; it generally has a lull in June while shedding and will show up in abundance mid to late July. If you have to have shrimp and scallops this summer, look for Maine products in the freezer section. Both have a winter to early spring season and will not be out on seafood counters until then.
This summer expand your seafood palette and try the freshest most local seafood available. Your taste buds, and the local economy, will thank you for it.
Jennifer Plummer is the Community Supported Fisheries Coordinator for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA). You can contact her at Jennifer@namanet.org to set up a CSF in your community or to find out about an existing one.