Cross St. Market has its catch of fish tales

ROGER SIMON :

February 10, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

I am at Nick's in the Cross Street Market asking the guy to explain the big fish.

By now he knows that I never buy the big fish -- large fish fascinate, but terrify me -- but he explains them anyway.

Today the guy is wearing a brown mohair sweater that looks like it was old when Ronald Reagan was a boy. But if you had to stand behind counters full of iced fish all day, you'd probably want a sweater, too. And you might not want to wear your best one.

"That's a mahi-mahi," he says, pointing at the big fish, artistically bent on the ice bed around a school of smaller fish. "A dolphin."

Amazing. Where do they get these things? Do mahi-mahi swim in the Chesapeake? Yet they are here.

I have always wondered who buys these big fish. A few years ago, I encountered a 5-foot mackerel sitting on the ice in the Cross Street Market. Who would buy such a thing? A Boy Scout troop?

The current issue of Consumer Reports says you have to be careful about fish and says the best thing you can do before you buy one is to smell it to make sure it's fresh.

But do I have the nerve to ask the guy in the mohair sweater if I can smell his fish?

I do not think so.

And what happens, I wonder, if nobody buys these large fish at the end of the day? What do they do, take them to a food bank and say, "Haddock didn't move too good today. Got 300 pounds out in the truck. Where do you want it?"

Over at the penny candy counter (in which the candy has not cost a penny since that mohair sweater was brand new) I check out the orange slices and spearmint leaves. I am a fool for these two candies, which, I believe, are pure sugar.

There are no orange slices today, which sometimes happens. I imagine there must be a commodities trading pit in penny candies somewhere, maybe Zurich, where the world supply is fixed each day. "Who'll give me six points for licorice whips! Seven for candy pills on paper strips! Three for wax soda bottles with green and red stuff!"

In any case, the orange slices always go first. They are much more popular with the public -- "accessible" is the word critics use -- while it takes a true aficionado to appreciate a good spearmint leaf. I never buy one without the other.

I go across the street to Cross Street Poultry, run by two sisters, who are known universally as "the two sisters." Their friendliness is legendary (I doubt if there are two nicer sisters in the entire poultry industry) and I ask them to bone and skin some chicken breasts for me.

I could do this myself, but they do it for nothing and they do it better than me and besides I like to watch.

"How are you going to make this?" one sister asks.

I never admit the truth. Which is that I stick them in a plastic bag of Shake 'N Bake and follow the directions on the back of the box. Or, if I'm feeling like Paul Prudhomme, I might shake a little paprika on them before I stick them in the oven.

What would you suggest? I say.

"Broiling is good," one sister says.

Broiling, I say. Yes!

"Or you could bake them," says the other sister.

Baking, I say. Yes! (This would be the perfect opportunity for me to mention Shake 'N Bake, but I am afraid they will snatch back their chicken and say, "You don't deserve this lovely bird if that's all you are going to do with it.")

As the boning and skinning are going on, I notice near the window a box of chicken necks to be used for crab traps. I know, from people who claim to know such things, that "chicken-neckers" are what people from the Eastern Shore call people on the Western Shore because people on the Western Shore use chicken necks in their traps. I don't think the people from the Eastern Shore mean it as a compliment, however.

And I am about to tell the sisters that my mother used to eat chicken necks, not use them as bait, but I figure if I don't have the nerve to mention Shake 'N Bake, I don't have the nerve to go into family histories.

"Cheese," one sister says to me.

Cheese? I say.

"This chicken would be very good with cheese on top," she says.

Cheese, I say. Yes!

"High in cholesterol, though," the sister says. "The cheese. So watch out."

I think I will write to Consumer Reports and recommend the two sisters for an award. You not only get chicken from them, you also get health tips.

I go back into the market and stop at the Samurai Sushi bar, which some people find out of keeping with the ambience of the Cross Street Market.

Every store in a city market has to get approval from the city before it can set up, and the city does try to maintain the right atmosphere for each market.

I think the sushi bar is just fine, however. I think food snobbery (foodism?) is one of the worst kinds of snobbery.

"That was sa-shi-mi," the guy behind the counter is telling a first-time customer, pronouncing the word carefully. "Before that you had the su-shi. Which did you like better?"

"Unh," the customer says. "I forget which I had first and which I had second. Better do it again."

I think they might sell a lot of fish this way.

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