“There are multiple ways of cleaning a herring. What I do is chop the head off, chop the belly off, make sure the skin’s off, the fins are off. Then I’m opening the herring by putting my thumb under the back spine, and then I clean the belly and take the organs out. My herring is done and ready to eat.”
Really? Is this evoking some warm and cozy Iowa memory for you? Nope, me neither. In my family, all eight kids sat around the supper table, pushing and shoving and bickering, waiting for the food to appear on a meatless Friday. My mom, in a patterned house dress and full apron, tiredly pulled open the oven door where the sizzling grease announced the arrival of a product found nearer to a factory than an ocean — the lowly fish stick. Considered a welcome relief from tuna noodle casserole, and greeted with high enthusiasm in my family, we fought over the last dried-out stick. And, by the way, this “fish product” had not a hint of a head or fins and certainly not an organ or two. Well, at least not visible.
But that is not Marie-Claire David’s experience.
“I was 18 years old and I needed a job. I was starting University. My dad said I found you a job, go out and apply at the fish shop. I went there and there was all men behind the counter. So I said, ‘I heard there was a vacancy here for Saturdays. Do you still need people?’ They looked at me like they saw fire burning. And I said, ‘So do you need anybody?’ They said, ‘Ya, you can start tomorrow if you like.’ Okay. From that day on I was unstoppable in fish.”
Customers are streaming into the fish shop as we talk. The shop is close to the harbor in the old fishing area of Scheveningen in The Hague, and is well-known to people who love the best fresh fish.
“The fish are purchased for the shop every day. Saturday is our most busy day. The family man is going out on Saturday to get the fresh fish to cook for Saturday evening because it is the weekend and his wife does not have to cook. But on the weekdays, it is all mommas.”
David pauses with a suppressed smile.
“That’s why I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, the men all coming on Saturday, I only see mommas the rest of the time.”
A low throaty laugh. Her eyes are actually twinkling with fun. Mmmm . . . I’m thinking she’s not lacking in suitors.
I tell David I only see men actually cutting and selling fish in the fish shops.
“The world of fish is really a man’s world. The ego. The ego is to the ceiling. As a woman, she needs to find a way in this circus. In my opinion, I did well. By being as a woman in the team, the men get softer. I am the catalyst — is that a good word? — for less ego in the team.”
Do you have a specialty?
“My specialty is selling. I can sell in an enormous way. Also, fast in a good way. While selling, I’m wrapping the fish in the most beautiful paper, with my words to the customer and with a smile on my face. People go out and enjoy their fish that they bought with a happy feeling. It is a mental way of pleasure doing groceries. That is what I provide. Nice chat, they go out with a smile, and the most beautiful fish that they eat tonight.”
And what about herring?
“Herring is one of my specialties. Herring season is coming up. At half of June the boats are coming in. 50 years ago, we had the only herring boats here in Scheveningen. From the whole Netherlands. Very important import/export. Now it comes from Norway and Denmark. Caught on the boats. Put in buckets and freeze at -18° Celsius. It goes back to shore and is exported all over the world. The last two years no official herring boats anymore in Scheveningen. The North Sea needs to recover. For now it’s done. That is better for the herring.”
Although not better for this poor guy I’m about to put in my mouth. I can’t stall much longer.
So how do I eat this?
“In every city in Holland they have another way of eating herring. So let’s start in Scheveningen. In Scheveningen, they grab the fish cleaned, on the tail, and they take a bite like this. Guts out, head off, no skin. No onions. Hold the tail and take a bite.”
I hold the slimy tail expectantly, my fingers having a difficult time getting a grip, then I clear my throat and . . . find out I’m not quite ready to take the plunge.
And how do they eat them elsewhere?
“When you eat a herring in Amsterdam, they always chop it up in pieces with onions and sour, pieces of pickles, and they add it on the herring chopped in pieces, and you eat it with a fork.”
Clearly, from the tone of David’s voice, Amsterdam can add this to one of many reasons it suffers as an inferior destination.
“In Rotterdam, they have the herring, they grab the tail with both hands and they split it in half, so that means that you have some kind of double pleasure, I guess. Why? I don’t know, but it is from Rotterdam.”
Of course, who can explain the actions of a small misbehaving child like Rotterdam? I nod in agreement.
So David demonstrates the right way to do it, the Scheveningen way — no onions, no pickles, tilt your head back, grab the tail tight enough that it doesn’t slip and poke out your eye, and take a bite.
And I do the same.
It is surprisingly textured, salty, mildly chewy, and not in the least reminiscent of breaded fish sticks.
I swallow with a large gulp. I have a quick sense of relief at surviving a death-defying adventure — but then I have the awful realization that there is a lot of slippery fish left. I panic and struggle for a way out.
“What about those Hawkeyes?” I am tempted to blurt out.
Okay, that may not be my best go-to for a rescue in a foreign land, but, heck, what would you do? I’ve got it.
“Boy, the corn sure is tall for this time of year.”
That doesn’t work either. My Iowa small talk does not provide an answer.
Ah, I have it, “You look really Dutch,” I actually say.
She laughs, shakes her head, and clearly wonders about crazy Americans.
“Joe, that is because I am Dutch.”
I shut up, tilt my head back, and take another bite.