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2000s Archive

Mack Attack

Orginally Published August 2007
Most fishermen use Atlantic mackerel for bait, and no one ever laments the one that got away. But a guy with a backyard smoker and a dream wants to change all that.

So, okay, maybe I’m a tad quixotic. I get an idea and then tend to lose more than just my mind in its pursuit. Like the time I thought that eating oysters would lower my cholesterol and thus went on to eat 135 in 15 minutes at the Louisiana Oyster Festival. Or like when I recently “realized” I was going to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in swimming. I’m 44. At the end of my first race following a 20-year layoff, I crawled out of the pool on my hands and knees, gasping for air like a freshly caught fish. Which conveniently brings up my next obsession: mackerel. (I’m still trying for the Olympics, by the way, but that’s another story.)

Last summer, I decided I would single-handedly make mackerel taste good. I’m not talking about the mouthwatering and universally appreciated king or Spanish mackerel but their lowly cousin, the commonly derided Atlantic mackerel—the bane of many an Eastern Seaboard parent. Fishing for mackerel as they chase tiny baitfish into every harbor from Cape Fear to Nova Scotia is practically a summertime rite of passage for anybody with children under the age of 12 living along that stretch of coast. It’s like owning a minivan; you just have to do it. Yet, as my friend Russell once put it after a day out on the water with our kids: “What are you supposed to do with these things? Fertilize? They’re nasty.”

As it turns out, I had an answer. What’s the one way to make almost anything taste good, from tough cuts of beef to bland cheese? Smoke it. Take a glance at any Sunday brunch buffet; nobody can pass up a plate of smoked meat or fish. And if the South can get people raving about mullet—probably the worst-tasting trash fish in the entire Gulf of Mexico—by smoking it and serving it on crackers, why couldn’t I do the same for the much-maligned mackerel? It shouldn’t be too hard, given that it was once widely eaten in this country—especially potted in vinegar—with landings totaling 100 million pounds in 1885. After all, Americans like to return to past favorites. Look at how popular mullet haircuts are. (Wait and see—they’re on their way up, along with the fish.) Although mackerel is about as popular as, well, mackerel, it’s actually still caught in abundance and mostly canned for export. And eating fresh mackerel has been on the rise in this country for the past decade or so, thanks to the ceviche-like version found in most sushi restaurants.

Personally, I love the pungent flavor of unadulterated mackerel. It’s as if you’re getting to take a bite out of a particularly strong sea breeze. Then again, I also have a fondness for bluefish and sardines, as well as for anything that’s been buried in the ground for weeks at a time to give it more oomph. It seems to me that most people simply don’t appreciate mackerel’s assertiveness; they like their fish timid, as noncommittal as an extremely limp handshake. Maybe with a little more knowledge of mackerel’s background, they would appreciate its robustness, which has to do with its high fat content and not only gives the fish its delectable flavor, but also makes it the yellow brick road to a healthy heart. Mackerel has twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that salmon does, and it’s one of the few fish high in omega-3s that environmental and nutritional watchdogs suggest eating several times a week. According to a national organization called Environmental Defense, many other fish rich in omega-3s, such as tuna and marlin, are too high in contaminants (PCBs, mercury, pesticides) to make them safe to eat frequently. Also, these poor creatures have been fished to near extinction. Leave them alone.

What else could you ask for in a fish other than that it should be healthy and eco-friendly?

Right. That it taste good. Off our coast, Atlantic mackerel migrate north in the spring and early summer, and after they spawn, they fatten up on practically anything in their path, including plankton, krill, and smaller fish. By the time we catch mackerel in Maine in late August through early September, they’ve already put on lots of fat and so don’t keep well before cooking. I told a disbeliever I’d already smoked some that didn’t taste anything like mackerel on my Weber grill, and he merely raised an eyebrow. Luckily, our hostess whisked him away about then, and I didn’t have to confess that it was so smoky that not only did it not taste like mackerel, it didn’t even taste like fish.

“Do you like it?” I asked my wife. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best timing. She’d just returned home from work and was starting laundry I’d forgotten to do. Also, I’d dragged her outside to take a look at my latest contraption while her arms were still full of dirty clothes. “Yeah,” she said, with a lot of enthusiasm. “But it looks like a space-age outhouse.”

“It” was my soon-to-be-patented collapsible mackerel smoker, a five-foot-tall, two-foot-square building made of foil-covered insulation board I had duct-taped together. Topped off with a Café Bustelo espresso can as a smokestack, it looked pretty cool to me, and I knew it would work a far sight better than the Weber. True, it did look like something Dr. Smith from Lost in Space might have slapped together to capture his shipmates, but I think the real reason for my wife’s response was her weariness with the whole mackerel thing. For the past month, practically every time she’d asked me what I was doing, the answer had been either “Goin’ fishin’” or “Smokin.’” Just like that. Smokin’. Fishin’. And it really didn’t help that I was enjoying the sound of those two words so much, repeating them at every opportunity. Smokin’. Fishin’. However, Lisa couldn’t really object, because it was all for the betterment of humankind. If I could find a way to make mackerel more palatable for the masses, I’d be able to reduce the number of heart attacks in America by God knows how much. At least, that’s the way I was seeing it.

The next step, of course, was to go out and catch some fish. And wasn’t it ironic that, even though every summer my kids and I catch all this mackerel we don’t need because no one except my nine-year-old daughter Helen and I like it, this summer we couldn’t catch more than a handful. I even went so far as to hire a professional fishing guide, who did a great job of helping us land hearty stripers but only came up with five puny mackerel. Eventually, I resorted to buying them from anybody who had some.

Once we had enough fish, I filleted and brined them in two different batches—one with just salt, sugar, and water, and the other with rum, salt, maple syrup, ginger, and cloves—for about an hour. The brining, I’d learned, accomplishes a number of things: It gives the fish more, or at least different, flavor and helps preserve them by drawing out moisture and introducing salt. It even creates a really cool glaze, called the pellicle, on the mackerel, once the fish is taken out of the brine and dried. If you don’t see the sticky glaze, then you haven’t brined and dried the fish correctly.

Next, I smoked them on oven racks in the space-age smokehouse at 150 degrees. Four hours later, they were done—cured with pure applewood smoke. Helen and I thought they were delicious, but I invited my skeptical fishing buddy Russell over just to be sure. He’d at least love the ginger-scented ones. Yet all he said was, “I really don’t like oily fish.”

Undaunted, I whipped up a batch of mackerel pâté (very simple: equal parts cream cheese and sour cream, a couple tablespoons white wine, teaspoon of chipotle, tablespoon capers, quarter cup green onions, and as much smoked mackerel as you have) that was demolished at a friend’s party despite her warning everybody: “Watch out! Hodding’s trying to trick you into eating mackerel!” I do think it was a huge success, even if an inebriated fellow in a sailor’s cap ate half of it.

I still wasn’t Satisfied, though, for two reasons. There was no way Lisa was going to let me keep my eye-catching smoker in the yard, and I hadn’t won over Russell, my biggest critic. To my surprise, taking care of both Lisa and Russell required the same tactic: patience. I had been so fired up to get my smoking going and prove the world wrong in its judgment of mackerel that I hadn’t taken the time to consider aesthetics or the subtleties of technique.

First, what would win Lisa over? I browsed old cookbooks, a book on small buildings and shelters, back-to-the-land pamphlets, and numerous websites for smokehouse plans, unswayed by arguments for anything from cardboard to brick for various reasons. Then I saw it: a wooden smokehouse. I knew from Ray Bradbury that paper didn’t burn until Fahrenheit 451, so surely wood was safe. If I were doing things correctly, my oven’s temperature would never be over 200 degrees for more than a few minutes. I finally settled on a shiplapped wooden structure sided with one-inch-thick light-pine boards—five feet tall, three feet wide, and three feet deep. Framed with two-by-fours, it would be solid enough to withstand our severe Maine winters but portable enough to be moved out of sight when Lisa was sick of it. Perfect. It was so simple, I built it in one morning.

And in order to convince Russell that mackerel tasted good, I simply needed to work on slower, cooler smoking—something I’d been too afraid of in the beginning. The thing I’d had the hardest time conceptualizing was that the fish wasn’t being cooked by heat. It was, in fact, being molecularly transformed by salt and smoke—sort of the way my newfangled toilet seat restructures stinky molecules into nonstinky ones with its deodorizer. The more cool, fruity smoke that wafted over and through the fish, the better it would taste. Too high a temperature caused the fish to dry out, and anything besides fruitwood—hickory, say—was too strong, making it taste like Texas brisket. For my most successful batch, I ended up smoking the fish for six hours at no more than 120 degrees. Our family’s single heirloom apple tree suffered a bit from excessive trimming, but the end result—both sweetly smoky and moist—was what I had hoped for. Just what you want on top of a cream-cheese-smeared bagel.

The moment of truth? Russell ate the entire thing without a single sound bite.