A Day at Finn’s Fish Market
The first thing people usually say when I tell them I work in a fish market goes something like, “Wow you must smell like fish all the time!” The funny thing is, particularly on Block Island, this comment is hardly true. Fortunately enough for me, I work at a high-volume fish market with lots of business; that means the fish doesn’t sit, so it doesn’t smell.
So, what is a day like in the life of a fishmonger at the only true fish market on the island?
Finn’s Fish Market is right in Old Harbor and, lucky for me, I live in the housing right above the market, so my commute is, shall we say, just a good fall down the stairs. A full day at work is 10 hours, and it begins at 9 a.m. You might immediately find this contradictory, as typically you imagine a fish market buying fish off of the docks at the crack of dawn every morning. These days though, much of the fish mongering revolves around the ferry schedule, and they don’t run that early. Oysters, scallops, lobsters, and bluefish come from the island itself, but the rest comes from the mainland fisheries.
After I clock in for my shift, I always head straight to the lobster tanks. It is in these two monsters that lobsters ranging from 1. pounds to 3 pounds and culls are kept and corraled off depending on their size. (Culls are lobsters that are missing one claw, or have oddly proportioned smaller claws. They are a little bit cheaper and great for those that love tail meat like I do!) During peak season, we get hundreds of lobsters a day. First thing I do is clean the tank.
Next I have to set up the display case for the market. This requires emptying the case out, filling large tote containers with about 50-60 pounds of ice, pouring the ice into the case, and setting up the case once again. I use a walk-in fish refrigerator that is just outside of the market, so I spend this part of the morning hustling back and forth to stock the case with fish. After that I clean the outside of the case, and position the sauces, clam and oyster knives, and of course the tip cups on top.
At 10 a.m. as is tradition, I hang the wooden carved Finn’s Fish outside of the market to signal we are open for business.
After opening, and serving the usual few early risers ready at the door for fish, I start to concentrate on my prep list. Simultaneously I always have to be watching for customers, making work at the market a bit scattered but organized nonetheless. First off, I have to make the cuts for the kitchen. You see, Finn’s is also a seafood restaurant, as any local and many tourists very well know. Working in the fish market isn’t always related to the rest of the restaurant, but in many ways I work hand in hand with the kitchen staff. The restaurant serves fresh swordfish, yellowfin tuna, and marinated salmon. I cut .-pound steaks of each fish, the number per the chef’s request.
Usually at this point I am running low on swordfish ready to cut. During the summer we sell 400 to 500 pounds of swordfish a week. We get the entire swordfish, often cut into thirds to be more easily handled. We leave the majority of the fish in the larger thirds to keep it unexposed to air and fresh. As I need swordfish, I de-bone it. This means that I have to carefully, with a very sharp knife, take the spine out from the center of the two loins. The goal is to cut it as close to the cartilage as possible, to utilize the most meat of course; the fewer strokes of the blade, the better. It is a practice that gets much easier with time. Often in the busiest part of the season I end up deboning sword several times in a day. It’s practice enough.
After this I usually reward myself with a cup of coffee at the bar. While walking through the Finn’s bar, I often can’t help but look at the historic pictures on the walls. Most of them are of hanging striped bass, beaches, and old boats. It often makes me envy the bounty of the past, while also being thankful that the heritage does live on.
Coffee break over, I skin and cut tuna steaks, make chowder, make crab cakes, prepare stuffed clams (better known as stuffies), bag ice, clean oysters, fillet bluefish and take in a fish shipment or two from Point Judith.
By now it’s mid-afternoon, and just when I think the day will slow down, the afternoon rush of customers comes to town from the beach. I run around to get everyone helped as quickly as possible. This is my favorite time of the day: I get a workout and time flies by. Before I know it, it’s nearing 7 p.m. and time to close up. I clean up the walk-in fridge, sweep and spray outside, ice all of the fish and wrap up everything in the case. I make every surface and tool immaculate while taking glances at the kitchen, their nightly rush just beginning. Although it’s been a long day, the energy and music from the kitchen help me stay motivated to finish up.
After six years these practices have become a commonplace in my life and I feel I can almost do it all on autopilot. What never gets routine is thinking about the fascinating history of my summer job. I hope the fishing industry will always be a part of Block Island; it wouldn’t feel quite like an island without it.
And just so you know, the smell of fish comes out easily with a shower and a little lemon.
For more on Finn's, go to www.finnsseafood.com.