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Dividing natives from others along bluefish lines


Try as I might, I can't warm up to bluefish. I've tried it broiled. I've tried it baked. Over the weekend I gave it the ultimate test. I bathed two bluefish fillets in my favorite fish marinade -- lime juice, garlic, olive oil, soy and vermouth -- and grilled them. They looked great. They tasted so-so.

It is with great sadness that I admit that I don't care for bluefish, one of the best known denizens of the nearby Chesapeake Bay. Doing so marks me as an outsider, as someone "who is not really from around here."

If you're an authentic Marylander, you're supposed to enjoy hammering crabs, shucking oysters and eating bluefish. It says so in the state code of correct behavior, right after the part that says that you are either supposed to own a boat or desperately want one.

I've always suspected that bluefish dishes were used as tests by local hosts to find out if someone is really from Maryland.

"Care for some bluefish?" the host asks you. If you crinkle your nose, you're marked as an outlander.

For years I have artfully dodged the truth about my past because the bluefish used in these tests has usually been smoked and served as an appetizer.

That is the only way I care for it.

It also happened to be the first way I tasted it some l4 years ago when I moved to Maryland. I came here from the Midwest, where the only fish that is blue is a blue gill. As part of my self-imposed initiation ritual, I had gone crabbing near Annapolis with a salty old St. Margaret's character named Fred.

Fred had sailed around the world in the Navy. He was covered with tattoos. And he covered the air with blue language. Which meant, of course, that he was a terrific crabber. He taught me how to catch crabs with chicken necks as bait, how to hold them -- respectfully on their rears -- and he served me my first bluefish.

Served is probably too fancy a word. We were standing in Fred's yard sipping beers, when Fred yanked opened the door of a shed. He had built the shed himself, caught the fish himself and smoked them himself.

He pulled out some of the fish flesh from the shed and rubbed it over a saltine.

"Here," he said, and shoved it toward me.

I remember the morsel looked very dark, yet still looked very much alive. Fred told me this was prized stuff. I figured this dark fish in front of me was the equivalent of eating with desert nomads and being offered the goat's eye. It was a great insult if you refused.

So I smiled and swallowed. As I ate the bluefish every hair on my head -- and 14 years ago that was saying something -- stood on end. It was strong stuff. For a time I thought they called it bluefish because that was the color you turned when you ate it.

But after the smoked bluefish had aired out, and after I put a sizable shot of horseradish on it, I liked it. At least as an appetizer.

I can't tolerate it as an entree. No matter how it is prepared. So I've given up trying to like it.

I know that such a confession will cost me. I sense, that on reading this admission, true Marylanders, folks who have oyster shells in their driveway and bloodworms in their refrigerators, will sneer at me.

Wives will tell husbands to write me off their invitation list, because he is "not our kind, dear."

Nonetheless, I have to come clean. I have lived the bluefish lie too long.

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