The Maine Avenue Fish Market
by Giovanni Passamonti
The Maine Avenue Fish Market is a gem hidden by the I-395 overpass. It has several flashy stalls with a variety of fish and shellfish, offering both fish from the Pacific and from the Chesapeake Bay. Caveat emptor: foods that come from far and wide pale in comparison to fresh, seasonal produce.
Although I often go to the market with either with my mom or my dad, I still don’t feel like a local. Sure, the fishmongers are courteous, but I sense some reserve when I order. It may be that they are having a long day, or something bigger than themselves is looming over them. Something that could possibly destroy a Washington landmark that has existed since 1805.
The Maine Avenue Fish Market sold its first catch in the early 1800’s, when the Southwest community was comprised of freed slaves and European immigrants. During this period, the fish came from the Chesapeake Bay, feeding the working class with an excellent and cheap source of protein. However, the market hasn’t always been accepted into the fabric of the community. Originally, the market was supplied by ships coming from the Chesapeake Bay’s fertile fish grounds, but in the 1950’s, this system was replaced by trucks that transported the fish to the market. Another change occurred in the 1960’s, which was when the original 1800’s market was torn down to make room for the new development, and the market was pushed almost out of sight, to the northern most part of the southwest waterfront. Sadly, the new development that displaced the fish market failed, sending the Southwest neighborhood into a deep depression. At the new location, the fish market was reopened on barges, testament to the rich maritime history of “the Wharf”.
This icon of the Washingtonian working class probably won’t survive the next couple of years. Once I started talking with the fishmongers and the owners of the barges, I felt that they were not included in the design of the new project. Plans for a new development on the Southwest Waterfront have been discussed for years, but only recently have they come to fruition. PN Hoffman, the planners of the development, said that they have thoroughly incorporated the fish market into their plans for the new housing and commercial complex of the waterfront. But one of the several workers that I talked to said that he wasn’t sure if a slightly funky smelling locale would attract visitors and inspire people to buy fish. This precisely is the issue. Today, not only in America, but all over the world, food and palates have become over sanitized. The food that we commonly eat has no trace of its live past; we call sides of beef not carcasses, but “beef products”. This holds true also for the fish we buy. Rarely do people buy or cook fish with the head on. Apparently, it grosses people out. However, a fish head is the best way to judge the freshness of a fish: if the eyes and gills are clean and clear, they indicate freshness. At the fish market today, less common fish, such as squid and croaker, are being sold at a fraction of what was being consumed thirty to fifty years ago. These fish, while delicious, are complicated and somewhat messy. And because of this, they are rarely found in the modern kitchen. So what I personally am trying to do is to explore the hidden foods that have been ignored by our society. The food that I found there is increasingly moving away from the locally caught or raised. I saw lots of salmon, lots of Chilean sea bass, prepared in filets, ready for cooking.
We live in a society that pretends to be interested in food, but when it comes down to actually cooking food, the regular home cook shies away from something fantastic—fresh Chincoteague Oysters or fresh crab—and goes with something boring and safe, such as tuna or salmon. There are several very important issues: firstly, eating exotic fish is harmful to the environment because of all the energy necessary to bring the fish to the market. Secondly, those same fishes arrive after three to four days, meaning that they are not freshly caught. Do a favor for yourself and the environment. If you eat local, you eat fresh, and consequently you will eat well.
If you want a dose of history while shopping for some of the best and freshest fish at very convenient prices, go to the Maine Avenue Fish Market. You will be rewarded not only by the quality of the fish, but also by seeing the local community carry on through commerce that will sustain a unique part of Washington’s history. And a final piece of advice: stick to the food from the Chesapeake Bay.