He Who Smelts, Simply Melts

By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It turns out I belong to a cult. We are not organized, we don't have meetings and until a few days ago, I didn't even know we existed. Then I started calling around looking for smelts and realized I am not alone. Area fishmongers carry smelts every year for people who don't think winter's over until the tiny silver fish appear in markets.

That would include me. I grew up in Minnesota, and for Upper Midwesterners, spring means the ice will melt and the smelts will run. As soon as the waters of the Great Lakes reach the mid-40s -- any day now -- the smelts leave their winter homes deep in the cold lake water and swim into rivers to spawn. It's like the running of the shad, the mid-Atlantic rite of spring.

No Washington fishmongers move a lot of the tiny fish. Mark White of Captain White's Seafood City on Maine Avenue says he sells 50 to 100 pounds a week compared with 800 to 1,000 pounds of salmon. However, the smelts sell steadily.

There are many species of smelts. The ones we get, cheap at $4.95 a pound and silvery with a touch of green, are bigger than anchovies yet smaller than sardines. Most smelt lovers say the fish smell like cucumbers, while the more poetic perceive the fragrance of violets. I just smell the clean, refreshing scent of spring.

The little fish have lean, white flesh and soft, fine bones, meaning you can eat the whole thing: skin, bones and all. They are usually sold dressed (no head, no guts) but can be found whole. You want them dressed.

Smelts can be baked, stuffed, pickled, broiled, marinated, smoked and even done au gratin. I firmly believe, however, that the only way to prepare smelts is to pan-fry them. They are crunchy, fresh and flavorful that way. Drizzle them with a little parsley butter if you feel the need to embellish.

I think of them as an Upper Midwestern thing, of course, but most smelts these days are caught in Canada and Maine in addition to rivers off the Great Lakes.

They were not always unknown in mid-Atlantic waters. Smelts once were introduced into some Maryland reservoirs as forage, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and fishermen recall loads of smelts in the Chesapeake Bay until about 25 years ago. My 88-year-old mother-in-law, a Baltimore native, remembers her mother pan-frying smelts. And "Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Maryland," a 1932 book by Frederick Philip Stieff, includes a recipe for broiled smelts from the old Southern Hotel in Baltimore.

Various reasons are given for the decline of smelts in the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. An increased number of larger predator fish that eat the smelts is a common explanation. Disease is sometimes suspected, as is change in water quality.

Besides us Midwesterners, the cult of smelt lovers includes Canadians, New Yorkers, New Englanders and all manner of Europeans.

Smelts still run in French waters, though far fewer than before. A profusion of them near Caudebec in Normandy must be responsible for the three smelts on the town's coat of arms. Scandinavians, Dutch, Poles, Russians and Greeks also are members of the smelt club.

Maria Calomiris, proprietor of Thomas Calomiris & Sons Produce at Washington's Eastern Market, grew up in Sparta and remembers her mother preparing smelts, called marides. "She would take three little fish and stick their tails together with a little flour, then throw them in some hot olive oil," she says. "They were delicious."

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