Under the glare of decklights, in the chilly spring mornings in the Homer, Alaska boat harbor, we’d use boxes of frozen herring marked, “BAIT: Not for human consumption.” My fellow fishers and I would slice the little fish in half, and then drive a curved, sharp hook through the herring, wedging the hook into the spine and then digging it into an eye socket or tail so the bait would hold fast. These hooks then attached to long lines and were dropped into the deep underwater ocean canyons, luring halibut. While baiting, herring scales glinted from my hair and bits of bloodlines and guts clung to my rain gear. For days afterwards, the stink of past-prime herring clung to me.
One morning, while tied up in harbor, Norwegian crew members from a neighboring boat asked for some of the frozen herring. I handed over a healthy armful. They went into their galley, and I soon smelled fish on steam floating over from their boat. I snuck over to peer into their galley window. They had cooked the herring down into a mush, and ate it like porridge for breakfast. They spooned it up with gusto; one man even picked up his bowl to slurp the last bit. I dry-heaved into my hands as I crept back over to the boat I worked on. There, I cowered, clutching a granola bar. Once my shock and disgust faded, I was a little awed at their breakfast habits, and envious of their deep intimacy with the fish.
I had also fished for herring in Prince William Sound. We knew that the schools had arrived when hundreds of eagles and gulls began swooping in on the water. Herring wriggled, clutched in talons. Sea lions and seals worked their way through the hoard, fattening up on the protein-rich fish. Herring on the West Coast are commercially fished for their roe, which is traditionally eaten for New Year’s in Japan to symbolize good luck and prosperity. The flesh had little to no value, so the fish were frozen for bait, used for fertilizer or pet food, and much of it was wasted.
I now live on the San Francisco Bay and have a herring run out my window. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I live in the Bay: My home was once a 100-year-old wooden fishing boat, but has long been fastened into a cement hull, completely renovated, and can never again travel out into the wind and waves. It’s attached to electricity, sewer and water on land, but rises and lowers with the changing tides. When the herring schools arrived in mid-winter, a thick scent of something fertile and fishy and rich permeated the foggy air. Seagulls and bark-brown cormorants gathered above them, tufts of light and dark visible through the misty air. When sea lions began their roaring under the kitchen window of my houseboat, I knew the herring run was in full swing. Like Alaska, herring are fished commercially in the San Francisco Bay exclusively for their eggs to export. As an advocate of eating local, sustainable, foods, I recommended that others eat them and that chefs put them on their menus. And I loved going out with a little throw net and catching them. The first time I went to clean a batch and removed the roe sac, I had PTSD-ilke flashback of baiting—my throat clenched and stomach turned at the thought of eating them, even though these specimens were fresh and pristine, unlike the bait fish I had handled in my life before.
Finally I resolved to try them. I grilled a batch and drizzled preserved lemon sauce over them. Flaked the flesh off with a fork. Not bad. Next, I pickled them in vinegar. Then smoked the herring, peeled the meat from the bones and creamed them into butter for a spread. But never, ever did I eat them for breakfast. That was a barrier I just couldn’t cross. At least, not until the water temperature in the Bay dropped below 50 degrees.
I’m a member of the Dolphin Club. We swim in the San Francisco Bay year round, without wetsuits. One January out-of-the bay swim, the water temperatures hovered around 48 degrees. I would be in the bay for a little under an hour. I wanted to be able to finish the swim and walk from the ocean into the locker room sauna on my own, and not be so wobbly and disoriented from the cold water that octogenarians in Speedos had to assist me. Breakfast was the key to surviving this with my dignity intact.
Herring was the obvious answer. Overnight, I slow cooked white beans with pancetta and rosemary. The morning of the swim, well before the sun rose, I sautéed two plump, fresh herring until crispy. The idea of it for breakfast made my throat constrict a little, but I forced myself, and bite-by-bite, my blood felt thicker. They worked. I lasted in frigid bay, and in fact helped another swimmer wobbling around on the beach into the women’s locker room.
Now, during herring season, herring is my preferred breakfast. I love a quick pickled herring in sour cream, dill and onions on marbled rye. Sometimes, I spread smoked herring butter on toast, and add sliced hardboiled eggs, beet caviar and avocado. I salt the roe sacs for bottarga and grate over eggs and polenta, and if feeling particularly hearty, I even dredge the milt in flour, sauté it in brown butter, and spread it on toast. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to boil it into a mush and eat it like the Norwegian fishermen did, but when I have herring in the morning and I listen to the cormorants and gulls shrieking, the pelicans smack the water, the sea lions exhaling, I’m having my breakfast along with the creatures of the Bay.