Adventures In Coastal Living: Missing Your Timing

The Captain thought it a good idea. Because the Captain thought it a good idea, my wife thought it a good idea. If I hadn’t felt railroaded into it, I would have thought it a great idea. Spinney, Kora, aunt Martha and my friend Bob all chimed in, and the consensus was that it would be a “bullet product” for a carver to create and sell. The fishermen would buy it because it was useful to them, tourists would buy it in the shops because it was a genuine part of local life that they could take home. 

The item was a netting needle. Netting needles are still used by fishermen to make and repair all sorts of network. My only surviving needle is the first crude attempt that I made. I did improve. My first five or so were kindling ( ash burns with a beautiful sweet odor). But then I caught the skill of cutting out the tongue ( that small needle in the middle of the netting needle) without splitting the whole into pieces. At about six inches, my one remaining netting needle is on the tiny end of useful sizes. Needle size depends on the net size you are creating. You charge the needle with twine looped around the tongue and the fishtailed end of the needle, and then you are ready to go. The images here come from an exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum ( Visit it!!)

To make them traditionally, the Captain and Spinney had me split out local ash with a froe – a tool that looks like a sideways chisel. Spinney called this riving, and it is how planks were split off logs before pit saws, circular saws, and other machinery came along for creating planks. If you have ever split firewood, you’ve done it. Woods like ash and oak have tremendous resistance to rot when split this way. After riving the split piece of ash was planed smooth and flat, and then taken to the local tidal inlet, weighted with stones in the ebb and flow of the tide and left. Some months later, the salt darkened wood was ready to be worked.

The only additional equipment needed is a hook or ring, to attach the top cord of the net to, and a rectangular piece of metal or wood to determine how big the net’s boxes will be. If you must see the whole process, I advise a visit to Youtube. I just made the needles.

The needles are easy to make. When adequately finished, they have a nice feel in the hand and are useful. So why did I title this Missing Your Timing? Well, the wooden ones last for years as long as the tongue doesn’t break. You can whip one together in a pinch using a metal coat hanger and a pair of pliers. Any competent fisherman can make his own, and around the time I began to make them, they started to be available in plastic. 

They didn’t sell well in the shop where we placed them; people didn’t understand what they were for – they required too much explanation. A rubber lobster made better sense. So the stock I had carefully made were distributed to friends and their friends. I considered myself well rewarded if someone liked my needle well enough to make it a favorite.

My Brain Trust shook their collective heads, as did I. You can convince yourself that your newest widget is the best thing since Mayonaise, but that doesn’t mean it is. That’s why market research needs to be more than a group of people sitting around saying, “Hey! Here’s a great idea!”

I made some very sweet cutting boards with the remaining ash, and those sold well.

Coastal Cooking – Finnan Haddie, & Chowder

Sunday at a Farmer’s Market, I discussed smoked vacuum-packed haddock with a vendor. While she extolled the virtues of her process, I merely proclaimed sotto vocce ” finnan haddie.” She caught my reverential whisper. The promise in her look implied that with the tiny vacuum-packed candy bar sized piece of haddock encased in plastic, this sacrament of coastal eating could be mine. I resisted sneering as I turned away. I had been used to servings of smoked haddock cooked slowly in cream, browned nicely, that tested your capability to push the dish away. This tiny piece was not going to do it.

I was not always enamored of things like Finnan Haddie. I grew up in New York City where they made soup – I can no longer refer to it as Chowder- out of clams in a tomatoey base. Being allergic to bivalves ( clams, oysters, scallops – you know), I couldn’t touch the stuff. But I never knew about fish chowder. So, I got a real education when I left “The City” for points north.

I learned rapidly that from an old New Englander that Chowder had initially been the term for the pot in which you cooked the soup. That person, from Sargentville on the Blue Hill peninsula, affirmed that no chowder would be authentic without the head of the fish included in the pot. Getting the eye in your bowl was great luck, and the cheeks and tongue delicacies.
I also learned that the head, eyes, cheeks, and tongues were not universal to everyone’s recipe. To diverge a bit, I learned that tongues and cheeks were a specialty dish of their own. The cod cheeks can be about the size of chicken thighs, but much more tasty, and the best part of the fish. Not everyone gets enthused about tongues; they can be a bit slimy and not to everyone’s taste. I rarely found anyone who had kind words about the eyes.
Now you’ll find me tucked away in someplace like Gordon’s in Portland, or maybe Bob Lobster in Newburyport inhaling a heaping bowl of Chowder. But the first time that dish was put in front of me, I was so impolite as to ask, “what’s the main course?” Of course, the Chowder was the main course, with ample addition of sea biscuit. I was taken aback. In New York, my experience was that a cup of Chowder was an appetizer. Here was a massive bowl with a mountain of fish heaped in the middle.

With regards to finnan haddie, it seems to have originated in the area of Aberdeen, Scotland and spread widely throughout England. With good haddock stocks available offshore in New England, it became a popular dish on the coast. I became familiar with it as a dinner item, but I understand that some in England prefer it as a breakfast food. Like the saying:” You can’t get there from here” you can’t get suitable ingredients for a great finnan Haddie out of a supermarket. That thin stuff they sell has been injected with water and been coated with something called “liquid smoke” rather than being correctly smoked. It’s an abomination.

Search for the real deal. As the saying goes, accept no substitutions. You won’t be sorry.

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