The ice snapped under my feet and a fierce wind bit my skin as I walked from my car to the Roost carryout restaurant at Reisterstown Road and Hayward Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. It was a bone-cold day.
A few minutes later, however, I was aglow. I was feasting on hot "lake trout." The fish had been rolled in batter and fried in oil. Steam rolled off the pieces of fried fish. The aroma filled my car as I headed down Reisterstown Road eating and remembering. The smell and taste of fried fish triggered memories of church suppers, of fish sandwiches for lunch, of fish on Friday.
Lake trout is probably Maryland's most popular alias. The fish draws long lines at the Roost and a handful of other Maryland eateries that sell it. But this lake trout never swam in a lake. Nor it is a trout. It is a whiting, a fish that swims in the Atlantic Ocean. It is caught by boats fishing off the coast of New England, and is shipped down to Maryland wholesale fish markets which sell the fish to retail markets and restaurants.
How a fish called whiting, or Menticirrhus to the scientists, became known as "lake trout" to the fish-eating public is an interesting tale. I pieced it together from stories, old and new, I heard from the folks who sell the fish.
The basic answer is that the name "lake trout" sells well. It is the tTC same reason that Roy Scherer Jr. called himself Rock Hudson and Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone became Madonna. The new name has more crowd appeal than the old one. Whiting, alias lake trout, is not the first fish to adopt trout as part of its moniker. To most, the word trout conjures up images of babbling brooks and gourmet meals. These are images that guys selling fish might try to capitalize on. And so one day, for example, a fish with a going nowhere-name such as ling becomes known as oyster trout, because it has "such pearly white flesh." The name catches on, the fish sells, and it is ling no more. It is oyster trout. It happens in the fish business.
Whiting, I was told, also got the "trout treatment." For years whiting was a fodder fish. It was ground up and used in fish sticks and other generic fish products. Sometimes it even ended up in plant food fertilizers.
But then someone, no one is quite sure who, got the idea of moving whiting up a notch on the ladder of seafood status and making whiting a "head fish." A head fish is a fish with status. It is sold with its head on, its body intact. Such a fish brings a higher price per pound than the headless, anonymous, fodder variety. Once whiting entered the head-fish ranks, it picked up the impressive sounding title "trout."
The story of how the fish got the first name lake is not clear. The most likely explanation is that lake is a corruption of late. It seems the fish was once called "late trout" because it arrived in the fish markets later in the day than other types of "trout."
I heard this story a few years ago from Bill Devine whose family runs Faidley Seafood operation in Baltimore's Lexington Market. He said he first heard the story from another veteran of the seafood business, his mother-in-law, Albina Faidley.
Whiting were once caught by fishermen who journeyed out on the ocean for only a day of work, he said. Traditionally these "day boats" unloaded their catch later than the boats that had been at sea for several days. So it was common that the whiting, or "late trout," would arrive in markets later than other fish.
In the hurly-burly world of Maryland fish markets, where the king's English and the Lord's truth were sometimes subjected to manipulation, "late" was pronounced "lake." Eventually almost everyone, from customer to fishmonger, ended up calling the fish lake trout.
The other day Devine told me that one new development on the lake-trout front is that some of his customers are once again calling the fish whiting.
Cliff Rose, who runs Shore Seafood in Baltimore's Northeast Market, told me he did a brisk business in lake trout. A few of his customers call it whiting, but not many, Rose said.
Lake trout probably outsells every other kind of fish sold in Baltimore, Rose said, adding that the biggest day for sales of lake trout and all fish was Friday.
"Friday is a big fish day," he said. "Part of it is the Catholic tradition of eating fish on Friday," he said. But Rose said customers from many different cultures and religious affiliations frequent his stand, which is located in a neighborhood east of Johns Hopkins Hospital and medical school. "Many people around here," he said, "gotta have their fish on Friday." Rose offered a quick assessment of the appeal of lake trout.
"It has a very mild flavor; not strong, not oily. It is very economical, averaging about $2.19 a pound retail. And it doesn't have many bones. When you pull out the backbone, most of the bones are gone."
I thought of Rose's critique as I polished off the last bites of my lake trout lunch from the Roost.
He was right on all counts. It had that familiar, crunchy fish-on-Friday flavor. It was cheap. For $4.26 I got enough fried fish for two meals. And the bones of that lake trout slipped out faster than you could say, "I thought I ate a whiting."