Three hundred and seventy years after Indians first taught the founders of the New Haven Colony how to shuck oysters from the shallows of the New Haven Harbor, I am sitting in Pacifico, the only seafood restaurant in downtown New Haven.
I’ve come to celebrate a close friend’s 22nd birthday, and even though Pacifico is only six days old, it’s pulling out all the stops. Dishes of colorful paella, a tray of oysters and a glistening sea bass are placed on the table. My friends reach in eagerly with their forks, but I am nauseated. The seafood is too familiar. I saw that same bass three nights ago, lying on ice, smeared with blood and grime, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
I hadn’t, originally, been looking for a grisly meeting with dead fish in lower Manhattan in the middle of the night. As gumshoes in movies say, it kind of came looking for me.
For most of my four years in New Haven, I never wondered where its seafood came from because I never really knew it was on the sea. When I was young, I’d thought New Haven was only renowned for violent crime, not for a vibrant maritime culture. My father told me that when he taught at Yale in the seventies, he and his friends called New Haven the “Arson Capital of the World,” and for a Friday night’s diversion they would pop open a bottle of wine, wander after the sirens and watch abandoned buildings burn to the ground. When I drove up to Yale for freshman move-in day, I noticed water on the side of Interstate 95, but I assumed it was an ailing industrial reservoir, not an ocean. I came to love New Haven not for its fabulous seafood, but for its abundance of 24-hour pizza parlors. There was simply no seafood to love.
I didn’t realize what New Haven was missing until I moved to Boston the summer before my senior year. Almost everyone knew how to sail, and many of my co-workers owned lobster pots. The ocean was a presence everywhere. Downtown, seafood restaurants were constantly opening, and I realized I wanted to try them all. Returning to New Haven, I found the absence of any seafood culture suddenly unnatural and disappointing. It’s as though the ocean here doesn’t exist. For all of my awareness of New Haven’s seaboard geography, I might as well have been in school in central Nebraska.
I began to wonder what happened. How could proximity mean absolutely nothing? When did New Haven lose the sea? And does any trace remain?
Seafood in New Haven has not always been mysterious. Only a century ago, maritime culture was still booming in the city known as the “Oyster Capital of the World.” Ships bearing oysters fanned out to ports from England to the West Indies. A student who clambered to the top of Harkness Tower could look towards the harbor and believe he was surveying a gently swaying sea of reeds: The long, thin masts of hundreds of “sharpies,” the two-sailed boats that harvested oysters from the ocean bed with a pair of giant tongs. Clambering back down, he could satisfy the aquatic hunger provoked by such a vision at one of the many oyster bars within walking distance of his dormitory.
Nowadays, pursuing the answer to my questions, I discover that New Haven’s seafood culture exists only in a kind of parallel underworld that occasionally surfaces in the form of odd clues. Poking around the New Haven Colony Historical Society, I stumble across strange cassette tapes recorded in 1973 in which two men reminisce about keeping barrels of oysters on their back porches. In response to an e-mail inquiring about New Haven’s harbor, history professor and Calhoun College Dean Stephen Lassonde tells me, cryptically, to go to Willoughby’s coffee shop and ask for a man who knows a man who works on a lobster boat. When I ask New Haven restaurant proprietors where their seafood comes from, they seem only to know that it comes from a man named Bobby from a place called Number One Fish Market.
In the beginning, New Haven’s connection to the sea was deep. To physically link the city to the water, the founders of the New Haven colony designed the city so you could row a boat from the shore in on a stream all the way to the town green. The harbor proved to be an ideal habitat for oysters, which need cold, shallow water to spawn. Indian tribes from the interior and settlers from other colonies began to travel to New Haven for seafood feasts. Though local seed oysters soon became limited due to over-harvesting, the growing New Haven oyster business discovered that seed oysters brought in from New York and the Chesapeake Bay flourished in the harbor and in its tributaries. In 1850, two million bushels of seed oysters were imported to Fair Haven on the Quinnipiac River, and one oyster company alone employed a hundred shuckers to prepare 150,000 gallons of oysters for export.
Factories to manufacture sharpies, tongs and oyster baskets sprung up along the Quinnipiac River, and shops, hotels and Yale boat clubs followed. In the New Haven harbor, trade in fish, lobsters and clams boomed, and the Long Wharf, a mile-long jetty sporting shops, taverns and offices, was built.
Even in the mid-20th century, long after the peak of New Haven’s seafood business had passed, many New Haven men still felt an identity with the sea. Eric Ball, one of the prominent Fair Haven oystermen on the tapes, mused that oyster culture still dominated the banks of the Quinnipiac River in his youth. When Bobby McNeil, owner of the legendary Number One Fish Market, is asked why he’s so committed to seafood today, he begins, “It all goes back to my childhood.”
Unable to ignore the New Haven restaurateurs’ tips, and determined to find the unseen source of this ostensibly sea-less city’s seafood, I drive out to Number One Fish Market in Hamden. It’s on a bleak stretch of road, but its tiny interior has an unmistakably local warmth. Number One, which supplies seafood to almost every restaurant in New Haven and, Bobby estimates, to a third of the Yale faculty, is one lobster tank, a freezer and a single raw-fish counter with three or four men behind it, most of whom know the name of each customer. Many of them can trace their love of seafood to growing up with the shore: Bobby has a picture of the store’s manager, who grew up in nearby Guilford, skinning eels when he was six. When Bobby himself was little, he remembers accompanying his Sicilian mother to Gambardella’s fish market in New Haven’s Wooster Square.
As he grew up, he gravitated towards seafood, landing a trucking job in 1980 at a wholesaler downtown. For three months, he spent 10-hour days wrestling unwieldy swordfish and hefting hundreds of pounds of sea scallops. “I never worked so hard for so little,” he recalls, “but there was something I liked about handling raw fish, handling nature. I sort of found my calling.”
In a way, it found him. At the seafood company, he began as “Bobby Number Two,” to distinguish him from the owner Sal’s son-in-law, who shared the same name. One day, after Bobby negotiated an especially difficult order, Sal called him up. “You know, son, we like you,” Sal told him. “From now on, you’re Bobby Number One.”
Bobby was inspired. He gave his two-week notice, and announced that he was going to open a fish store. Sal was skeptical. “What are you going to call it?” he asked.
“Number One, of course,” Bobby replied.
Around 1900, New Haven “lost a sense of its maritime heritage,” according to Gaddis Smith, professor emeritus of history at Yale. There are many different explanations for this. Smith points to the change in popular mode of travel from the ship to the train, then to the interstate highway that cut the harbor off from downtown. Throughout the century, New Haven’s newspapers blamed water pollution, which caused periodic die-offs of ocean life. Virginia Galpin, author of “New Haven’s Oyster Industry,” cites factors that couldn’t be helped: Floods, droughts, hurricanes and gales; oyster predators; and gastrointestinal epidemics wrongly attributed to oysters. Finally, as New Haven grew, its topography simply changed. Sedimentation filled in the streams that once led from the harbor to the green, and eventually filled in much of the harbor itself. Today, only a stub remains of the once-magnificent mile-long wharf.
When I tell Bobby that fish is about the last thing that comes to mind when I think of New Haven, he disagrees forcefully. Nearby Stonington, he argues, is still a real coastal town, where old Portuguese fishing families still bless the fleet every year. He provides flounder and sole from Stonington at Number One, and stocks relatively local oysters grown in Long Island Sound. But Stonington is just a fishing village an hour away that nobody knows about. Bobby’s Long Island oysters are merely items on the menu of a New Haven restaurant that nobody will realize are local.
But most of the seafood at Number One doesn’t come from New Haven. It comes from the Fulton Fish Market in New York. Bobby and his nephew Chris make two trips there every week, loading up a refrigerated van with boxes of fish that have been flown in from all over the world.
The trips are a major, all-night undertaking, and Bobby credits them for Number One’s success. I can’t help but envision the Fulton Market as a kind of soulless Wal-Mart for seafood, but talking to Bobby I sense that these overnight pilgrimages are keeping alive what remains of the quickly disappearing New Haven fish industry. Chris, who will someday take over Number One, tells me that his uncle refuses to let him transition Number One’s method of procurement to the less exhausting direct order that many other retailers use. “My uncle,” he explains, “said, ‘Get your ass on the truck.'”
At 12:45 that night, I climb with Chris into Number One’s refrigerated van to make the journey to the Fulton Market. Even though the van is empty, it smells strongly of fish. The smell is inescapable. Chris still smells like fish hours after he leaves work at the store, even after he takes a shower. Soon, he’s sure, his daughters will be old enough to notice the odor, and they will probably be embarrassed.
We drive all the way through Manhattan on Second Avenue to reach the Fulton Market. It is, in a way, the final clue to the New Haven seafood question I’ve been pursuing, and the oddest one of all. Like a bedtime-story fairy land that only comes to life after the adults go to sleep, the Fulton Market sprouts out of the crevice under the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge at 2:30 every morning. Underneath the silent, towering trunks of the Financial District’s skyscrapers, vendors snap open storefronts, drag out crates of shellfish, stack up boxes of anchovies and sardines and lay out long tables with the more exotic fish displayed on ice. In the whole bustling scene, there is not a single woman.
As buyers arrive, bundled-up couriers with handcarts, called journeymen, begin to weave between the overpass’s concrete stalks to move purchased boxes of seafood from the tables to the parking area. Many buyers have their catalogue-ordered seafood delivered to the Fulton Market for easy pick-up, and to move the shrink-wrapped pallets of fish off the delivery trucks, a force of hundreds of miniature forklifts is deployed. They scoot around the vendors and buyers, who, even while absorbed in something else, turn smoothly to let them by, as if cued by music. Unfamiliar with the rhythms, I am honked at again and again, and stumble awkwardly out of the forklifts’ paths. Chris puts his hand on my back to lead me. I could dance circles around these gangly young journeymen and waddling patriarchs at any salsa bar, but at the Fulton Market I am the one with two left feet.
As we walk into the market, Chris divulges his game plan. Number One needs oysters, crabs, scallops, anchovies, tilapia, cockles, porgie, salmon, red snapper, swordfish and shark, and he already has ideas about where he might find them. Vendors, like fashion designers, are called “houses;” some are giant operations that offer almost everything, and some are smaller, specializing in shellfish or salmon. Some, like Monte’s, always do business with Bobby and Chris.
Monte’s, run by a father and a few sons and nephews, is our first stop. A whole pile of sharks sits in front of Monte’s small storefront. Laid on their backs, their bellies are sliced open to reveal a deep, pink, uterine well. Unlike the googly-eyed stacks of grouper and snapper, which look comfortingly like the plastic fish I used to toss to my cat, Monte’s sharks are obviously fresh.
Chris prods the lips of one shark’s belly wound with his thumb. “It’s good if there’s blood in the cavity,” he explains. He has me touch the shark’s flank. “It should feel hard.” The men of Monte’s wander over, and greet Chris warmly. “She’s here to get some information on seafood,” Chris explains.
“I got some information for you,” one of them says to me. “You’re with the wrong guy!” Chris shakes his head. Many of the vendors like to tease him about his young age. “See how they abuse me?” Chris says, but he’s smiling.
Chris wants to look at other sharks before we buy. As we make our way back under the bridge, he stops to introduce me to buyers, sellers, and the famous Dino of Dino’s, who idles proudly in front of his merchandise smoking a huge cigar. As Dino slaps the backs of passing journeymen, I recognize the sense of kinship in the love of seafood that I’ve been missing in New Haven, that still existed when Bobby was young, but has since disappeared. Perhaps Bobby continues to go to the Fulton Market because it allows him to feel intimately connected to the ocean, in a way that visits to the local merchants along Long Wharf and the Quinnipiac River might have in a bygone age.
Gripping my arm, Chris points to a huge shark cut in four pieces. “Look at that,” he whispers.
“It doesn’t look as nice as Monte’s,” I offer, remembering that Monte’s is one of his favorite houses.
“Actually, it’s fresher,” he says. “See, the meat is clear?” He grips the thick tail with both hands. “Hard as a rock.” The chunks of shark are whitish and translucent, like frozen milk, and rivulets of blood run down their cleanly-cut faces. They are beautiful, in the visceral, pathos-filled way that photographs of bodies on an operating table might be beautiful.
Timmy, this shark’s vendor, sweeps over. Compared to Dino and the Montes, he is almost effeminate, wrapped in an apron and clutching a knife. “This,” he declares, “was swimming two days ago!”
“How much?” Chris asks.
“I steaked it up yesterday,” Timmy continues, rhapsodic. “Look at that. Cuts white.”
“The price,” Chris grimaces, “seems a little elevated.”
Timmy turns to me, smiling knowingly. “He,” pointing to Chris, “is the fussiest customer.” And he sweeps away, leaving us alone by the dripping shark.
The teasing, I sense, suddenly isn’t so fraternal anymore. Timmy has implied that Chris can’t recognize a shark worth $4.75 a pound when he sees one. Chris wheels after Timmy. “I’ll take it,” he says. Immediately, a guy in a hooded suit lifts a piece of the shark into a Styrofoam box.
Timmy shrugs, shaking his head. “I think it’s fair. I really think it’s fair.”
“No, I’m comfortable with it,” Chris says. He turns to stare at his Styrofoam box. “I’m comfortable with it.”
“If it’s in our box, you know it’s the best,” the suited man says.
The Fulton Market’s buyers and vendors are, after all, both buddies and businessmen, and their old-fashioned style of comraderie belies how quickly the business is changing. The advent of air shipping means that now, everyone can aspire to procure Chilean sea bass or Scottish salmon instead of contenting themselves with what’s local, but ecological restrictions have limited the supply of many of these delicacies. Direct order is more reliable, and the dwindling market can no longer afford to remain at such a high-property-value location. Sometime in the spring, the market is slated to be moved to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, where it will operate indoors in a brightly-lit warehouse. It is hard to imagine the troop of miniature forklifts beating down new paths, the journeymen learning new routes, the houses preparing new storefronts, the vendors and buyers negotiating their deals without the ever-present permissive wink of the Financial District’s skyscrapers. It is hard, too, to think of men like Bobby losing the Fulton Market, after already experiencing the loss of the culture of the sea in the cities they were born in, cities like New Haven.
As the night draws to a close, Chris and I pick up the special orders. The new restaurant Pacifico, in particular, has made specific requests, including a special tiny oyster bred in the frigid waters off Japan. We return to the van to wait for our last deliveries. On the sidewalk, some journeymen have lit an oil drum filled with pieces of used wooden pallets. They burn twenty or thirty pallets a night, and sometimes, if there are enough, they make a bonfire right in the middle of the market. Most of their work is done, and they gather around the drum for heat. The hoods of their sweatshirts shadowing their faces, the silhouetting effect of the blaze, and their tired, dreamlike movements make them look like specters circling an enchanted fire. From time to time, they throw on more pallets to replace the ones that have been burned. Above their heads, the flames touch the coming dawn.
That afternoon, back in New Haven, the smell of fish still clinging to my jacket, I drive out to the former Long Wharf. These days, symbolic tribute is paid to the old pier with Long Wharf Drive, a dreary road that runs along the shore. I pull over and step out of the car to take a look at the harbor that once resembled a sea of reeds. Behind me, the highway roars like surf.
Somewhere along the line, I realize, the sense of coastal community retreated from New Haven to the Fulton Market. Men like Bobby, finding themselves more and more alone, found community in the industry, where families from Connecticut, New York, Maine and even Georgia are bound by a love of the sea. The market’s unique customs are moving to watch, but also discouraging. Every morning, the Fulton Market is entirely disassembled, and by the time most people wake up nothing but a parking lot remains. Where the buying, selling and eating of local seafood was once at the heart of the coastal city, this maritime culture is now inaccessible to New Yorkers who don’t wander the streets at night, and inaccessible to New Haveners who don’t get their ass on the truck. This is why Yale students can so easily pass in and out of New Haven without an inkling of the sea.
Unbeknownst to most of us, the New Haven harbor is reviving. In the 1960s, its water was so visibly polluted that when the Greater New Haven Visitor’s Center commissioned a painter to create a large, bright map of New Haven to display in their new building, he painted the harbor brown. Now, the water is blue again, and oystermen safely work the beds offshore. Yet interest in seafood in New Haven remains dead. Maritime historians finally uprooted the city’s most historic oyster house, the Thomas House, and relocated it to Mystic Seaport, where it would be more likely to be appreciated by seafood-oriented tourists. Along Long Wharf Drive, only the occasional truck selling hot dogs idles on the curb. The days of shops, taverns and oyster bars are gone for good.
Ed, the owner of the hot dog truck where I stop to buy a 50-cent coffee before I head home, has his own explanation for how New Haven lost the sea. It is a story I have heard before, one that’s often told to explain many other elements of New Haven’s history. It is a story that accounts for, depending on your perspective, either the city’s survival or its destruction. “Yale’s taking New Haven over,” Ed explains, “to turn it into one of these cute college towns. Like Princeton, N.J. Have you ever been to Princeton?”
Ed has been operating his hot dog truck on Long Wharf Drive since 1963, and he has seen the harbor and the city through several eras. But his bitter reflection on what ended the harbor culture in New Haven makes me think differently about the changes the city has undergone. To blame them on Yale is easy, but as the Fulton Market proves, similar transitions are happening in many cities. The seafood industry itself is changing in response to globalization, and soon, even the Fulton Market will change shape. Maybe it would be more unnatural for a city never to change.
I consider the dinner reservations I’ve made for me and my friends at Pacifico. I was looking forward to its opening all autumn, but after picking out the fish it will serve to us with Chris at the Fulton Market, I know it will be nothing like the seafood restaurants I loved in Boston. It will be delicious, I’m sure, but completely non-native to New Haven. Its selection of seafood from all over the world will seem to me to be an affront to New Haven’s former seafood renown, and its advertised Latin American menu will feel artificial. But I also know that none of my friends will care. They would, perhaps, even prefer Pacifico to an authentic New Haven oyster bar. It is a new paradigm for seafood in New Haven, but not necessarily a bad one. In the end, does it really matter whether New Haven loses its traditional relationship to the sea to anyone but Bobby McNeil and me?
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