I’m one-half Polish, so herring is supposed to be in my blood. Does not every respectable Pole eat herring at New Year’s in order to ensure good luck for the following 12 months? My father does so every year. But when I was a kid, there were only two acceptable forms of fish: the kind in a can, and the kind in the form of a stick. Yes, my grandmother prepared a breaded form on Christmas Eve, but I took only one or two polite bites in order to save room for the real reason for the season: peirogi. The herring my father would eat a week later came in a jar (of all things) and was buried in what looked like creamy-milky goodness. Goodness, that is, until you took a bite and discovered an evil smelling, raw tasting fish. Disgusting.
My relationship with herring wasn’t helped by my first visit to Sweden. Hans decided to have a crawfish party for myself and Phil Deal, a friend of mine from grad school. Since crawfish (like everything else in Sweden) is ridiculously expensive, Hans augmented the feast with sour herring. He handed me the innocuous looking can and asked me to open it. I whipped out my Swiss Army knife and applied the can opener. Soon as I punctured the top I was sprayed by a substance that can only be described as Satan’s Body Wash. Sour herring is essentially fermented fish. Yeast is dumped into it before it’s canned. Nasty juices boil and bubble under the lid for years, just waiting for an idiot American to unleash hell with a $15 pocket knife. While I wiped the results of the herring shower from my hair and face, Hans doubled over in laughter. “Har, har” I said, always the good sport. I even vowed to eat the wretched stuff, only to be instructed that you should bury the fish in a mound of mashed potatoes and two pieces of really strong rye bread, anything to mask the taste that rivaled the smell in vileness. Swedes eat this voluntarily? With plenty of vodka, one Swede told me. You need something in your belly for the herring to swim in.
Many Japanese people eat herring roe, which is even worse than sour herring. In my book Halibut Rodeo I mention the Herring Line, but it’s not a job I describe in detail. It was actually the first job I did at Sew-Fish in Homer. Once the herring are caught, they are left to rot on the docks for two weeks. It’s not the flesh itself that’s prized, but the egg sacs that are sold as aphrodisiacs in Japan. Once the fish have rotted some, their bellies begin to split. This is when they’re trucked into the fish processing plant and dumped on a conveyor line. Fools like me swaddle up to the line in rain gear and Wellingtons and proceed to squeeze the bellies until one of two things happen: if it’s a female, the egg sacks, which look like a segment of yellow grapefruit, pop out of the tearing belly. These you gingerly place on an interior conveyor belt. They will eventually find themselves in the Japanese-supervised egg room. If it’s a male herring, a substance like gelatinous mayo explodes out of the belly, with bits of the repugnant goo lodging themselves in your eyes and nose. The smell? Suffice it to say that if even one drop of herring juice found its way between glove and rain coat and just gently kissed the sleeve of your flannel shirt, burning said shirt was the only viable option. If sour herring juice is Satan’s Body Wash than this shit was his highly concentrated perfume. Then why squeeze the males? Can’t you tell the difference? No, you can’t. Big Boss Man told us to squeeze every one, so that’s what we did.