Joseph Mitchell’s wonderful obsession

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Christopher Hirst explores the fishy passion of a great American journalist and the book that inspired him…

A star writer on the New Yorker in its Forties and Fifties heyday, Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) is regarded as one of the great names of journalism. His collected writing for the magazine, published under the title Up in the Old Hotel, has been described by Ian McEwan as ‘a masterpiece of observation and storytelling’. Among the best-known articles by Mitchell are McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1940) about an ancient New York pub, All You Can Hold for Five Bucks (1939) about prodigious blowouts known as ‘beefsteaks’, and Mr Hunter’s Grave (1956) about an old preacher on Staten Island. His final piece for the magazine, Joe Gould’s Secret (1964), concerned a Greenwich Village eccentric and fantasist. After this, Mitchell suffered a terrible case of writer’s block. In 36 years, when he turned up at the New Yorker office every day, he published not a word.

Despite being regarded as ‘the journalist’s journalist’ for his strikingly vivid, drolly hilarious portraits of mid-century New York, one aspect of Mitchell’s output has been under-regarded. In his final active years on the New Yorker, he wrote almost exclusively about fish and people who made their living from seafood. Stemming from his fascination with the Fulton Street Fish Market, Mitchell explored New York’s sprawling harbour and the shoreline communities of the Hudson River. One critic has noted: ‘No-one since Melville has written so vividly and lovingly of the waters and waterfronts of the Eastern Seaboard.’

In my view, his briny evocations are also among the best food writing of the 20th-century. In the 1952 article Up in the Old Hotel, Mitchell writes lyrically about the offerings of Sloppy Louie’s, a no-frills restaurant near the fish market: ‘One day, interspersed among the staple seafood restaurant dishes, Louie listed cod cheeks, salmon cheeks, cod tongues, sturgeon liver, blue-shark steak, tuna steak, squid stew and five kinds of roe – shad roe, cod roe, mackerel roe herring roe and yellow-pike roe… Louie’s undoubtedly serves a wider variety of seafood than any other restaurant in the country.’ Sadly for fish lovers, Sloppy Louie’s closed in 1998.

Presaging later environmental concerns, Mitchell’s 1951 feature The Bottom of the Harbour lamented the pollution afflicting New York’s vast trove of shellfish. More cheeringly, The Rivermen (1959) describes the shad fishers of New Jersey and the shad bakes, ‘glorious springtime blowouts’, that took place on the bank of the Hudson. ‘Cooked shad-bake style by an expert, shad is crusty on the outside and tender and rich and juicy on the inside.’

Mitchell’s most fervent paean to the fruits of the sea occurs in Old Mr Flood (1944). Ostensibly about a 93-year-old fish fanatic, it is actually a composite portrait of several Fulton Street characters including Mitchell himself. You can hear the authorial voice in Mr Flood’s prescription for ‘a trembly fellow’, who claims to be ‘all out of whack’: ‘You get right out of here and go over to Libby’s oyster house and tell him you want to eat some of his big oysters… And tell him you intend to drink to drink the oyster liquor; he’ll knife them on the cup shell so the liquor won’t spill. And be sure you get the big ones. Get them so big you have to rear back to swallow… And don’t just eat six; take your time and eat a dozen, eat two dozen, eat three dozen, eat four dozen… You’re apt to feel so bucked up you’ll slap strangers on the back, or kick a window in, or fight a cop, or jump on the tailboard of a truck and steal a ride.’

We later learn that Mr Flood’s reading includes ‘an old, beautifully written US Bureau of Fisheries reference book Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, which he reads over and over.’ Since the book is mentioned in several of Mitchell’s articles, it seems reasonable to suppose that Fishes of the Gulf of Maine is also one of his favourite books. During my fourth or fifth reading of Up in the Old Hotel, it suddenly struck me that this fishy compendium first published in 1925 might still be available. On the Abe Books website, I found a 1953 revision for twenty quid. A couple of weeks later, this encyclopedia-sized volume arrived at my door.

Beginning with the hagfish (‘an unmitigated nuisance and a particularly loathsome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime…One hag, it is said, can easily fill a two-gallon bucket’), its 577 double column pages elucidate hundreds of marine creatures, both delicious and profoundly inedible, tempting and repugnant, before ending with the deep sea angler (‘so bizarre in appearance that there is no danger of confusing it with any other Gulf of Maine fish’).

En route, the reader is introduced to such creatures as the electric ray (‘the voltage record recently was 170 – 220’), the slime eel (‘partly parasitic in habit, burrowing into the bodies of halibut and other large fish’) and the toadfish (‘snap viciously when caught, they grunt, especially at night’). The entry on the white shark (‘a most terribly effective set of cutting teeth’) mentions a 7-foot specimen that ‘was the cause of the shark fatalities along the New Jersey beach in July 1916’. In the early Seventies, this incident inspired Jaws.

The entry on bluefish, ‘usually travels in schools, sometimes including many thousands’, reminded me of a huge catch I once saw in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Caught by anglers, a small mountain of fish was rapidly filleted on the beach. The fillets were given away to anyone who happened to be there. ‘Take as many as you like. There’s plenty more.’

It is cheering to think of Mr Flood (and his creator) pouring over this compendium of maritime wonders and relishing memories of tuna (‘1,000 pounds is not rare’), sea sturgeon (‘spawning females up to about 10 feet and about 250 pounds’) and herring (‘fresh from the water, [they] are among the most delicious of our fishes’) while digesting their lunch of shad roe at Sloppy Louie’s. ‘Females produce about 30,000 eggs on the average, though as many as 150,000 have been estimated in very large fish.’

Illustrations of  ‘inedible and repugnant’ fish, from top left: the toadfish; the slime eel; the hagfish; the electric ray