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Emily Sinagra                                                                                                                     
Postmodern Fiction

Fact meets Fiction
February 13, 2003


A Fisherman’s Wife Cooks


O Fish you make a dainty dish

enriching shore folks lives.

Enjoy fresh fish is our great wish

For we be fishermen’s wives.

                                    Yon Swanson


The harbor’s frayed beard pops and is sucked back with the freezing tide, white foam sticks to the edges like yesterday’s New Years Eve, but I’ve no time to circle back, to wonder where I’ve been,  no time to reconsider and lose my way, run, run, run, ask me about the stars,  I run right through them, past  Rocky Neck,  over the causeway, maybe, or maybe not, I run out towards  Eastern Point, past Niles beach, past the Birdseye Estate, past Joe Garland’s house, Black Bess,   “Hey Joe, hey Helen! I’ve got to run!” Out past the Coast Guard station, out to the breakwater,  I leap over the boulders, the ditches, I jump through  the beam, jump through the  beam of the lighthouse, home-calling-home, and I think, as I leap out to the end of the breakwater about  Dominique, my daughter, how her face tilted over the crowd, once,  like a light house tipping its beacon home and how she called to me then and now.

It’s all in reverse.

I am Emily and I am a fisherman’s wife and I am running away, out into the middle of the harbor, I dodge the beacon, as it skims the waves and scoops the fishermen  from Georges, the Gulf of Maine, Stellwagen, Brown’s Hump, Tilly’s Basin, hauling them home. 

I am running away,  I skip off the breakwater into the harbor, I feel the churn of my life unfolding, rewinding , maybe the voices will start, it’s okay, okay, it’s okay, the air used up in my lungs, the stars still pressing their light towards earth, their  fingers teasing deeper towards me, I sink fast into the cold January swirl, its okay.  The next breath wouldn’t be a breath at all but a huge gush of North Atlantic and I’d be released back into the brine, my life rewinding, the star and seaweed both tangling my hair.  Above me the Alba’s hull as dark as a cradle, rocks and hums, as deep as an organ.

Where is there to run to but off the breakwater into the harbor? Imagine floating up onto Joe and Helen's rocks, they’d be surprised wouldn’t they? What a shock to find my carcass at the breakfast table bumping along with tomorrow’s tide rising.

Then I’d haunt the harbor with the others. The women whose lips are clamped tight, sutured, not a sound to spare or seep under the doorways.

They kill us, the harbor, the waterfront, the old fishing ways.


 This is how you clean a fish.

 Make sure your knife is sharp. Make a slit in the skin right above the tail, perpendicular to the backbone (or middle bone the one that runs down the center)  Sprinkle the slit with salt and leave it a few minutes. The salt will loosen the skin right near the cut, so you can get a grip on it.  Hold the fish firmly by the tail with one hand and pull the skin off with the other.  Proceed slowly and if your fish is slipping, put a weight on the tail and use the liberated hand to hold the knife. Pull and cut simultaneously, freeing the flesh as you peel back the skin.


            Where we live behind the Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, there are guys that keep pigeons in sheds and there are views from every room in the house. Views galore. Real Estate agents call them  peek-a-boo views, as if our life up here were nothing but ring-around-the-rosie-ready-or-not-here-I-come, in spite of the sagging roof and the loose pink siding, the rattling windows and the occasional plop of plaster into the sauce. And like Old Mother Hubbard I make do, even when the cupboard is bare, because my Joe he brings me scallops, still writhing in their shells, he scoops the jellied eyes from around the rim and scrapes the white muscle into the pan. He brings me lobsters and haddock, too, and as long as the boat is running I check the views, from between the two blue domes of Our Lady, between the two gold crosses. She holds a fishing vessel and we are both watchers. From up here on Mt. Vernon street you can see the two arms of the harbor, East and West Gloucester, and  the ribbon of the  breakwater and the light house and out  towards Boston and sometimes you can even see Provincetown,  the tip of the other Cape. The arm to our muscle. We are a city of watchers, we watch with the backs of our necks while we do the dishes, we watch as we sleep, we watch from behind closed shades, we can’t help watching. We, the generations of watchers have worn ruts through the waves  out to the Grand Banks. We are held hostage by the views.


This is how to fillet the fish.

There are two fillets on each side of the backbone, four little ones instead of two big.  Cut a slit to the bone down the centerline of the skinned fish.  Angle the knife against the bone, as close to parallel as possible, and slice carefully outward, lifting off the fillet.  Do the other side the same way.  Cut the backbone out from above and separate the bottom skin off with the knife, because these fillets are thinner than the top ones and they usually tear if you try to pull them.  Use a scraping motion, pressing down against he skin with the knife blade.



The boats in the harbor are named after wives, mothers, children or Saints:  The Vincie N.,  The Mary and Josephine, Lady in Blue, Saint Lucia, Peggy Bell, St. Peter, Bonaventure, Jeane D’Arc, Antonina, Mother and Grace, the Little Infant. We have owned the Gale, a sixty-five foot, wooden eastern rig dragger, the Breeze, a forty foot wooden Novi, The Constance Sea, a forty foot fiberglass Novi, and finally the Krislynn, a sixty five foot steel dragger.  My husband has been fishing since he was six years old.  We have always tried to be innovative and stay ahead of the rules and regulations.


The combined effects of low SSB, high fishing mortality, record low recruitment, and record low survival of prerecruit  fish indicate that the stock is collapsing.

                                                Conservation Law Foundation



He fishes for a living and sometimes he fishes for no living.  The crank, the grind of the winches and the doors separate like legs opening to the current.  Come fishes swim up inside the long haul, the cod end be full when he comes home to me, sunk low and heavy with a load.


Honey, what’ll we name her, the new one?  The Alpha and the Omega, Hope II, the Dominique and Elena? What’ll we name her, the new boat? She’ll be our pride and joy. We’ll paint her bright portugee colors and tie a cheese grater to her mast to keep away the evil spirits. No, let’s not change the name, it brings bad luck. This’ll be the one, I tell you, you’ll go out for longer trips to Georges and beyond, you’ll get around the  closures, and come home full. As I pad around the kitchen stirring sauce, wiping noses, I’ll keep an eye out for you between the Lady’s blue domed steeples.  There’s Daddy’s boat, that’s him, deep burrowing through the harbor.  There will be parties, happy times and  Daddy, Daddy, we’ll rush down the hill to meet you.



Here is a Recipe for Cod Fish Balls:                                                     



CODFISH BALLS                                                    

One pound codfish fillets

1cup breadcrumbs

¼ cup parsley

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

2 cloves garlic,

 2 eggs  two medium sized potatoes     



 Mix it all up in a big bowl and shape into balls, fry. And you’ve pretty much covered the basics of fine cuisine Gloucester Fisherman’s wife style. Breadcrumbs, cheese potatoes, fish, pasta. And an occasional can of mushroom soup


Did you know?

In Middle English , cod meant “a bag or sack,” or by inference a scrotum, thus we have the  codpiece. Henry David Thoreau, however, thought that the fish was named after the husk of seeds because the female held so many millions of eggs. In Great Britain since the nineteenth century, cod has meant “a joke or prank”.  This may be because a codpiece was presumably far larger than the parts it advertised.

From  Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky



He calls me on the cell phone, I can barely hear him, he says the cod end is full. Elena the three year old wants to say hi to Daddy and the static from where ever they are, rolling out there on the wide blue ocean is thick, his voice keeps coming in and out through the static. 

            We’re doing our second tow, now, he says, we had a good cod end—static—a big one, but it was all skates. The static swallows his voice.

I just hold the receiver to my ear and wait for him to come back or not,  why waste my breath screaming hello . It’s  like yelling into a tin can  When Dominique our first was born, there were no cell phones  out on the boats.  He’d call me via the ship to shore operator on the radio. I’d have to say over after every reply and then he’d talk (about the weather or how much fish they’d caught) and say over when he was done. He’d have to press this button on the radio so our voices could go back and forth. It was like throwing a ball.  For some reason I found this sexy, me at home muffled in snow, with our newborn, reading how-to parenting books, hoping for the best.  The best in myself, the best in him

Skates- not a very pricey fish. We eat the wings.  He  pukes when he gets nervous. Even after thirty years of fishing.  I nestle like a mother rodent with my two girls, all of us in the bottom bunk.  We sleep head to tail like whiting.  In the night, somewhere the sound vaguely hits me, Joe up at 2:00 am, nervous, throwing up. Nothing I can do.  The truck rumbles outside the window, Chubby picks him up, headlights fill the bedroom, voices, radio as the car door opens, silence. Then the low grumble of every boat in the harbor making its way out to Middlebank.  Joe says they should shut down Middlebank for good, too many small fish.  But they don’t. Instead, they just lifted the closure and the massacre has begun.  They lowered the trip limit from 400 lbs, to 200 lbs., just asking for thousands of pounds of cod to be thrown back dead.

He brings home skate wings and expects me to cook them. Or lobsters, a pile of them, and they stink up the house. I hate lobster.


For the Fisherman’s Wives the chance to share their knowledge of cooking fish brings more than personal satisfaction.  The promotion of seafood guarantees the livelihood of their families by ensuring that the boats will continue to find markets for their catch.

                                                                                    The Taste of Gloucester


Stir Fry Skate with Vegetables             

juice of 2 lemons

2 pounds Skate wing (filleted)               ½ cup white wine (more if needed)

flour                                                                 vegetables: carrots asparagus,

3 tablespoon butter or oil                                  zucchini, red pepper etc etc.

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2-3 fresh sprigs of parsley


Cut skate into thin strips using cartilage indentations as a guide. Using a wok or heavy skillet, sauté garlic briefly in oil. Add parsley and veggies, stir fry, add the skate (dredged in flour). Stir for 3-4 minutes until skate is cooked through. Deglaze with wine, drink a glass or two or three, make some pasta, and blah blah blah there you have it. Actually my husband taught me everything I know about cooking and if I’m lucky he might’ve showered by now.



If I wanted to fish I would have learned how to cut bait.  I never knew before I met him that there was such a thing as bait-fish. Cutting bait to me meant chopping worm meat  with a butter knife on the yacht club dock.  Cutting bait is not necessarily what I am suited for, in fact, I stay as far away from the fish as possible.  The bait I am talking about is husband:  the maintenance, the housework, the never ending toil of dishes and  laundry.  The other day, yackety-yack, I was going on and on, honey, my mouth jabbering in the dark, not even caring if he was listening, or ever listened again, or if he was even lying there dead next to me.

And now what?  If they shut down the Gulf of Maine what will the inshore fleet do?  Every one will scamper to get big boats. Maybe some people will drop out. I hope so because off-shore fishing is not for everyone.  Everyone will go out and fish in the previously closed areas off Georges bank until they are depleted once again and then they’ll close those areas and then everyone will come inshore and the vicious circle will repeat itself. Unless, we deplete the stocks of herring to the point that there are not enough fish for the fish to eat and then there will be no more fish.  Forget crabs for now.  We don’t even have the money to buy fuel to go out and check the traps or the bait to reset.  This boat burns more fuel than our larger boat did, ironic, since the whole point of buying a smaller boat was to have less expense. It also turns out that crabs are very light, they don’t add up to a lot on the scales. We are living out of the change jar again.


It’s obvious to anyone with any exposure to the print or broadcast media that the public’s focus has shifted from “blame it all on the oil industry” to “blame it all on commercial fishing.”  Every major fishery is under stringent management and every fisherman is working with severe restrictions today, but that isn’t enough for the organizations funded by Pew. Perhaps more people should start asking why?

                       Barbara Stevenson, New England Fisheries Management Council




November 21:   my Joe’s birthday.  The children demand happiness.  They’ll want him to have presents and balloons. Joe pretends he doesn’t have a want in the world, or a birthday. He hunkers down and tries not to be.   “How old are you Daddy? He  says he doesn’t know. He calls his mother to see if she can remember. He wonders why he even bothered to be born.  But his wife, that’s me, insists on some commemoration. Oh Joe come on, be the birthday boy.  Be happy honey.

We get married get tangled up and then sort it all out and some snarls are too complex to work through and I leave them be.  He’ll sit at the table, waiting, eyes as if they’d just been thrown in his face, withstanding the unbearable: the ritual of cake, of applause, of recognition. For what? 

My Joe is a fisherman who is presently stuck here on this granite lump, unfishing and I am his wife. I am a fisherman’s wife. Every night I fantasize about leaving.

I haul myself to Catholic Charities, to the Manchester Fund , the Shaw Fund for Mariners Children and I fill out the forms, try to figure out what our income is, my name, the  children’s names, dates of births. I bring in my bills, five months behind in the rent, I let them look, ask me questions, how much do I eat? where do I eat? why so much ? It’s all there, out on the table in front of  their eyes. Welfare.

Alive or dead, a husband is a worthwhile crusade

a fucking life to arrange, recognizable or not

a husband requires

(a good strong heart) and a spinnaker

you wonder, what all the fuss is about on some too blue day

lip-smacking tangerine happy faces all around

you’re there in the cockpit of your little glass sloop, spitting,

spray crusted eye brows-

Where the hell are we going oh husband man?

deflate at once, jibe ho, come about! I’d rather drift

or row or dangle a toe in the stream.

I was supposed to be a good first mate, I know, imagined myself a Jackie, wide dark glasses, a kerchief, pearls, what not. But here I go again, out beyond

the breakwater, eyeballs wobbling over the gunwales.

Husband, Husband, let’s roast a chicken, shall we? Smeared in garlic and rosemary. Let the wine stain our teeth and babies crawl naked through our feet until the sun falls with a gentle splosh, into the bruised horizon between the sheets of sky and sea. 

We will rest.


I got home the other day to find a message on the machine from my husband.

“Uh, Em?  We got a lot of trouble out here.  We’re sinking. We got the coast guard and another boat along side of us. We’re trying to get some pumps aboard.  I’ll call you later.”

Sinking?  I think, oh for God’s sake, I suppose you’ll have to come in then, huh?  It’s always something, if not sinking then:  Uh Em,?  We rim-racked the net, or a hose let go, the winch seized up, the power take off jammed, we lost a door, we lost the net, the LORAN went down, it’s breezin’ up pretty bad, we’re headed straight into some weather -waves coming over the bow, we skunked out, or caught our cod fish limit.

Our life revolves around the fickleness of a prima donna fishing vessel and oh how could I forget, the whims of the wind! No, not the rain, the snow, the cold, or the fog, but the wind. Joe never knows what day of the week it is, only if it’s windy. If it’s windy, he will be in. He lives his life according to the wind while I am forced to be ever more precise with the days of the week, just to keep us all together, here on the edge of this granite lump called Gloucester. 



Fresh fish, or fish that was frozen while fresh, has full or bulging eyes, bright red gills, firm and elastic flesh and no smell. Be sure the flesh along the backbone smells fresh; it spoils there first. Also, if fish is pinkish it has started to spoil.  Fresh fish sinks in fresh water. If it floats, it should not be used.