Magazine article The New Yorker

Clupeophilia

Magazine article The New Yorker

Clupeophilia

Article excerpt

Anyone on the sixteenth floor of the Roger Smith Hotel, in midtown, at five-forty-five on a recent June afternoon would have seen a puzzling assemblage of people in the corridor: a construction worker from Brooklyn, a mathematics professor from Princeton, a couple from Aruba, a father with an infant strapped to his chest, and an artist from the Lower East Side. It wasn't immediately apparent what had brought this seemingly random slice of humanity together. Had one come up in the service elevator, though, an unmistakable aroma would have given a vital clue. By five-fifty-nine, almost sixty people had gathered in the hallway.

At six, the doors to an event room opened and the crowd rushed in. There, in the middle of the room, lighted, draped, surmounted by a huge glittering block of ice, was an altar: an altar covered with hundreds of fresh herring, the first of the season, just flown in from Holland. This was an altar consecrated to Clupeus, the god of herring, whose annual festival is celebrated in late spring by herring-lovers the world over.

Entire books have been published about cod, about eel, about tuna, but relatively little has been written about herring. (There is, however, a delightful book by Mike Smylie, "Herring: A History of the Silver Darlings," and a fascinating chapter in W. G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn.") But herring have played a great part in human history. In the Middle Ages, they were carefully graded and priced by the Hanseatic League, and supported fisheries in the Baltic and the North Sea--and, later, in Newfoundland and on the Pacific Coast. Herring are one of the commonest, cheapest, and most delicious fish on the planet--a fish that can take an infinity of forms: marinated, pickled, salted, fermented, smoked, or, as with the exquisite Hollandse Nieuwe, straight from the sea. They are one of the healthiest fish, too, full of omega-3 oils, and without the mercury that accumulates in the big predators like tuna and swordfish. A few years ago, the oldest person in the world, a hundred-and-fourteen-year-old Dutch woman, said she attributed her longevity to eating pickled herring every day. (A hundred-and-fourteen-year-old woman from Texas attributed her long life to "minding my own business.")

There are many species of Clupeidae, with varying sizes and tastes, from the Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus, to the pilchard (much loved in England, and often served in tomato sauce), to the tiny sprat, best smoked and eaten bones and all. …

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