by Joan Lehmann
By the 1980s, the rockfish boom had gone bust. We had over-fished the Chesapeake for so long that rockfish dwindled. For those of us who were used to rocks delicate, sweet meat, bluefish played second fiddle. Yet for a few years, blues were mostly what we caught.
My mother did her best to cook bluefish and get that strong, fishy taste out. She came up with a pretty good combination of melted butter, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. She brushed it on the filets and put it under the broiler. We were pretty satisfied with that recipe until my father brought home a piece of smoked blue.
Pretty soon, Pop devised his own smoker. Always the frugal one, mostly because he was broke, Pop came up with a rig that was pure genius. He went to a junk dealer and bought a 1932 Westinghouse refrigerator for $10. It was a big, white box that looked like an Airstream trailor standing on end. It was all steel with a chrome handle that locked it shut and airtight. Pop removed the motor from the bottom and put a firebox made of scrap sheet metal in its place. On top, he cut a four-inch hole and inserted an aluminum smokestack. The exterior was weatherproof, the walls were insulated and there were already adjustable, heavy-duty metal racks inside. Pop even drilled a small hole in the door and inserted a meat thermometer so he could check the temperature.
He stoked the firebox with hardwoods off the farm: hickory, walnut, oak and his favorite, wild cherry. When he got a few coals hot, he threw a cup of water and some wet, wood chips on them. Cookie sheets held the bluefish filets, covered with Moms homemade sauce He let them smoke slowly, moving the fish up or down on the shelves according to the temperature and how quickly he wanted them finished. He tried to keep the temperature around 180 degrees, adding wood or dousing the fire with water as needed.
The mediocre fish was slowly transformed to a sweet, smoky, satisfying dish. Pop shared this delicacy with friends and neighbors. Soon, they were bringing over their catches for Pop to smoke. He smoked catfish, perch and bass along with the blues. He started placing pans of chicken wings and pork chops beneath the trays of fish. The process became a social event. It took the best part of the afternoon to prepare the evenings meal. Of course, along with tending the fire, there was plenty of beer drinking and story telling among the men.
Smoking fish was primarily a warm weather event. But I remember the men warming their hands over the firebox, sharing a bottle of bourbon while smoking a bushel of oysters. They scrubbed them, put them on cookie sheets and heated them until their shells opened. Then they removed the top shell and smoked them a little longer until most of the juice had gone. The finished product was salty and chewy. The morsels were dipped in melted butter or cocktail sauce and eaten with Ritz crackers.
I miss the smoked bluefish, the sound of the mens laughter and the smell of cherry wood smoke. Im thinking of cruising a few junk dealers and searching for an old refrigerator myself. I live far enough in the woods so that my neighbors wouldnt complain about an old appliance in the back yard.
Im ready to take smoking to the next level. I could smoke fresh tuna, mahi-mahi, salmon and homemade sausages. I could slather oysters with barbeque sauce and top them with crisp bacon and cheddar cheese. I had some luck with my vegetable garden. Why not smoke a shish kabob with chicken, peppers, squash and tomatoes?
Speaking of tomatoes, the squirrels ate almost all of my cherry tomatoes. I wonder how smoked squirrel would taste?
Lothian native Dr. Joan Lehmann works in the emergency room at Washington-Baltimore Hospital (formerly North Arundel Hospital) and lives in Pasadena. She last reflected on Feelin Crabby on July 28 (Vol. xiii, No. 30).