Fresh seafood is one of the great joys in life. My favorite meal is the first catch: halibut grilled while still on the fishing boat. There is no better atmosphere in which to enjoy such a meal. I find the gentle rhythmic swell of the boat, the lapping of the waves, and the vast expanse of the ocean all it comforting and peaceful.
Catching a halibut requires hours of intense concentration – often spent in silence – as you try to snag a fish from the depths below. When the fish finally begins to nibble on the bait, you can feel the excitement traveling up the line and through the rod. If you are lucky the halibut will take the bait, which means that it is time to set the hook. All that remains now is guiding the fish to the surface. The hard part is setting the hook; the easy part is yanking them out of the water and into the boat.
There’s no radar or anything to assist; you just have to know where to go. Luckily, I know where to go because my family fishing spots have been passed down through generations. We have our own proprietary blend of secret methods for finding halibut. It’s all part of the fun, this ageless ritual of ours. Something unique and special.
As a youth, I spent countless hours fishing on the open ocean, waiting for the nibble, rolling with the boat, staring out over the vast expanse. When you catch that first halibut, tradition dictates that you fillet the fish and grill it with salt. It’s the ideal merging of the sea, solitude, the fishing challenge, and a rewarding meal.
I was recently on a drive along the Pacific Coast highway. My always prescient partner planned a stop in Half Moon Bay, where crabs, urchin, and other fresh seafood can be bought directly from the fisherman. Though it is not the same as catching them yourself, this brief stop brought back many memories, not to mention an opportunity for a satisfying meal.
At the Half Moon Bay harbor there is a white board with the day’s catch for each boat and the slip where the boat can be found. The harbor smells clean. The air is fresh and salty, with the slight scents of gas and diesel hanging about. It is a smell unique to all small boat harbors.
Once you find your fisherman, you can buy whatever he caught that morning. On this day we were looking for live urchin and crab. When we found our fisherman, we asked about live urchin and were told that another fisherman had caught some uni, but Buddhists had bought them all and set them free. Zealots ruin everything.
Because of the Buddhist zealots, we instead had to settle for Dungeness crabs. It’s a sad lot in life when the fresh uni is gone and all you can eat is crab. The crabs are live and they are sitting in a little tank on the stern of the boat. The fisherman picks them out for you, transferring the chosen crabs to a bucket and then into heavy plastic bags. Once in the bags we could hear the little crabs clicking around. It is an oddly disturbing sound; the sound of two hard crab shells and their legs clicking against each other.
Everyday we eat food that had to be harvested or killed, though we are far removed from this vast machinery. The food just shows up on our plates, which certainly makes the grim details easier to stomach. It is very easy to eat meat when you don’t watch the cow get butchered; it is even easier to eat meat when you don’t kill the cow yourself.
Growing up fishing and eating that first halibut, I’ve killed more fish than I can remember. I was taught to kill the fish quickly and humanely because the fish suffers if you don’t. I don’t know the extent of this suffering, but a fish out of water flops a lot and it doesn’t look like a pleasant experience. Fishing imbued in me a sense of respect for the wild animal and the food I was eating. If you kill with your own hands, watch the little animal die, you have a different respect for it. Call it perspective.
It doesn’t matter to me that a fish or a crab might have a little brain or may not know what is going on in the same sense that we do. It’s still a living thing that ceased to be; whose death I not only watched, but facilitated.
Think about it from the crab’s perspective. They were wandering around the ocean floor when they took a wrong turn into a pot. They were probably lured into the trap with irresistible bait. From there, they were plucked out of the water, dumped into a plastic bag, tossed into the back of a car, then killed and eaten. Not a good day for that crab.
Out of respect for the crabs, we ended them quickly and as humanely as the recipe allowed. Even that was unpleasant. The two crabs clung to each other as we pulled one out to steam and then stab it. The poor things squirmed and their shells clicked against the scorching pan. You could see the life drain out of them as they settled and died.
Even though they look like little sea spiders, you still feel terrible for the armored critters. Overseeing their untimely demise left us connected to those crabs, more determined to see their sacrifice mean something.
So, out of further respect we covered them in minced garlic, butter, and fish sauce, then baked them for about twenty minutes at 400 degrees. Nothing went to waste and they were delicious. In that regard, the crabs were well done by. They were honored in death by being made into a tasty meal. It was the least we could do.
Such is the responsibility imbued when murdering your own food; in getting your hands dirty, as opposed to the mindless consumerism of buying something that is already dead. If you are ever near Half Moon Bay, I recommend that you get some live crabs and honor them with a similar meal.