Let There Be Bones to Pick

Our country is about the only one in the world that fillets fish and throws the bones away

Let’s talk bones. On Sunday, we sailed Leilani to the Gardiner’s Island porgy grounds. Before we set sail, I walked across the street to the West Lake Marina (it’s still the West Lake Fishing Lodge in my mind) to buy a package of frozen clam bait. 

We had a 10-knot wind out of the southeast to give Leilani a broad reach to the north end of the island, where the porgies are thick, both in numbers and individual heft. En route, and with confidence that the boat rod would bend early and often, we called a few friends to see if they wanted a porgy or two, or three, or four, or as many as they wanted. I already knew the answer: “No thanks, too many bones.”

The answer always reminds me of Cecil Wood, a native of the island of Tobago (one of the two islands that form the nation of Trinidad-Tobago, formerly part of the British West Indies), where a few Montaukers including myself repaired during the winter months in the ’80s to surf. We lived in the village of Black Rock on Mount Irving Bay, where we met Cecil and his extended family. 

Back then, the men of Black Rock joined forces to set a semicircular seine from shore just as East Hampton baymen do to this day, but without benefit of gasoline-powered winches. After the net was set, the people of Black Rock would help haul it ashore. Except for the bigger reef fish, as well as tuna and barracuda that went to market, the rest of the catch was divvied up among those who helped bring the catch ashore.

We helped haul and would bring our share — a mix of small fish unknown to us — to Cecil to work his magic with a dish he called “fish tea,” a broth that included potatoes, a few herbs, vegetables, flour dumplings, whole fish, pepper sauce, and always with a splash of rum. It was so good that to me it seemed downright medicinal. I could not get enough.

One year, we brought Cecil to Montauk. He had never been off Tobago and it was November. “Cold, cold, cold,” he said. We told him that the real cold had not yet arrived, which he found hard to believe. I asked if he’d make a fish tea. He agreed and we went over to the West Lake Fishing Lodge to see if anyone had a cod or two to sell. I’ll never forget the look on Cecil’s face as fishermen filleted their catch and tossed the cod racks — heads and bones — into the waste bins. I secured a fish and we were about to leave when Cecil asked if we could take an extra head or two from the garbage can. Of course, I said, nobody wanted them. Such waste was unknown to Cecil, unforgivable.

We got home and he set about preparing the most delicious fish chowder I have ever had, all the while explaining, between gulps of rum and as the cod heads simmered on the stove, that it was the bones that gave the tea, or any fish dish, its flavor. I knew this, and I knew that our country is about the only one in the world that fillets fish and throws the bones away. There are cultural reasons for this, one of which was how frozen fish sticks (required back when the Catholic church demanded fish be eaten on Fridays) gave fish a bad name.

Bone prejudice is waning, but many fish eaters are still wary. They feel that skeletons make preparing and eating fish more difficult. Not true.

The preparation of a porgy dinner is an object lesson in how to overcome bone fear. Yes, porgies (scup as they’re known in New England and among commercial fishermen) are bony, they have scales, and they are relatively small, all of which makes them hard to fillet. So, don’t fillet them.

We passed by Captain Meat just north of Tobaccolot, a good sign, as he is one of Montauk’s more productive pinhookers, or commercial rod-and-reel fishermen. Sure enough, not two minutes after anchoring up and dropping the porgy rig 14 feet to the bottom, the rod bent and didn’t stop bending until I had six hefty porgies in the bucket, “enough,” first mate Kyle announced, seeing as how our bone-wary friends had demurred.

She also demanded that each porgy was dispatched with a knife to “put them out of their misery,” an ethical thing to do, of course, as well as a way to bleed them, always a good idea, along with plenty of ice, to forestall any ripening.

Actually, these Gardiner’s Island porgs were big and fat enough to fillet, but I have a “bone-in” recipe that can’t be beat. The sail back to Montauk Harbor was a challenge. The east in the wind forced us to tack 20 degrees north of a straight shot, and then to fire up the iron wind, the engine, for the last leg into the inlet. The porgies rested in an icy bath.

Back home, I grabbed a heavy knife, a scaling tool, and a large bowl and brought them to the picnic table out back. Off with their heads. I know I probably shouldn’t, but I leave the heads on the lawn knowing they will be gone the next morning, having fed the family of raccoons in the night.

The porgies were headed and gutted and their scales were scraped off. I then made three slices a few inches apart on each side of the fish. They were then dipped in a marinade of soy sauce and ginger. I marinate them overnight.

If I still had a smoker, I would have smoked three of them, but I don’t. Instead, I took them out of their marinade, and into the slices I slathered a mixture of mayonnaise, lime juice, and minced garlic. Then I wrapped them in aluminum oil. At this point, you can either put them on a grill, in a saucepan with olive oil, or in the oven. I chose the oven this time around. Yum!

Once cooked, the slices stand off the bones of the spine, bite-size. Once the meat of one side of the porgy is eaten, the spine is easily lifted off to lay bare the boneless other side of the fish for easy eating. We ate three porgies hot out of the oven and put the other three in the refrigerator to be consumed cold on Tuesday.

I like them cold. For some reason, the porgies’ subtle flavor is stronger. Makes for great puupuus (finger food). Same with black sea bass. I hope to catch one today. Baked, bone-in, with ginger. Wow!