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."

The smelts of my childhood, known as rainbow smelts, are native to the Atlantic coast; they got into the Great Lakes by accident. In 1912, rainbow smelts (Osmerus mordax) were stocked in Michigan's Crystal Lake as food for an experimental salmon industry. The smelts did better than the salmon. Crystal Lake drains into Lake Michigan; some of the smelts escaped and began setting up housekeeping throughout the Great Lakes.

Until the mid-'80s, the Great Lakes were loaded with smelts. "There was a time when nets got so full you could barely lift them," says Don Schreiner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "People would fill garbage cans and ice cream pails. You'd see people filling the back of pickups. It was always quite the party atmosphere."

Smelts are light-sensitive, so they run at night. Near sunset, smelters in hip boots go out to the streams with long-handled nets. They build campfires and drink beer and start dipping for smelts around midnight. Because smelt numbers have plummeted, all-night smelting sprees no longer draw the crowds they once did.

Jean Goad, a public affairs officer at the Minnesota DNR, says the smelts really took off when they were introduced to Lake Superior but have been diminished by lake trout and sea lampreys, both of which feed on smelts. Even so, there are enough smelts to supply the needy with a fix in the spring.

Though most smelts are caught this time of year, when they're spawning and therefore most vulnerable, there are smelts in northern lakes year-round. (Because they're so perishable, many smelts available at other times of the year have been flash-frozen.) Particularly dedicated smelters sit in little huts on frozen lakes in the dark northern winter with lines dropped into holes cut in the ice.

It is in spring, though, that smelters become fervent. Radio raconteur and Minnesotan Garrison Keillor's most vivid fish memory, he told the New York Times 30 years ago, was of smelting near Lake Superior. "We would go out to the lake in late March and catch them, then take them, bread them and cook them," he recalled. "It was almost a biblical experience."

Sounds like a cult member to me.

Bonny Wolf , author of "Talking With My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories," is a regular contributor to NPR's Weekend Edition.

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