Today is Easter Sunday but it is also the last day of March. We’re already seeing signs of spring here in Kitchener. There have been robins and snowdrops and even a few crocuses blooming amid the snow piles. This is also, I’m told, the beginning of the season for smelt. This tiny fish has a fan base like none other. Typically people head out at night into the cold spring lake water wearing hip waders and carrying dip nets to scoop up this little six-inch fish. The season is very short, and I’ve heard the smelt run today is nothing like it was in the past when the water would be alive with silver fish.
A few months ago I happened to see a package of frozen smelt in a grocery store. I bought it since I wasn’t sure I would find fresh smelt and I wanted to try the To Fry Smelts recipe in the 1906 Berlin Cook Book since they are part of my childhood memories. Smelt are tiny little fish that swarm near the shores of the Great Lakes. I grew up near Lake Huron and can remember a neighbour stopping by with a pail of smelt when I was small child about to go to bed. The world stopped as my parents prepared them and had a feast. It was a feast I didn’t join as I didn’t like fish. I still don’t like fish very well but I wanted to try making some of the fish recipes in the 1906 Berlin Cook Book. I was with my family back in that same house for Easter so I had a supply of fish loving tasters. The perfect time to try the recipe called To Fry Smelts, a recipe contributed by Mrs. Simonds.
I rinsed some of the smelt in warm water and then patted them dry. The recipe calls for cutting off the fins but these were already “finless”. I mixed two egg yolks in a bowl with one tablespoon of butter and mixed flour and salt in another bowl. The third bowl contained the small amount of bread crumbs I had available. I melted shortening in a frying pan so that I could deep fry the smelt.
I took each smelt and rolled it in the salted flour and then dipped it in the egg yolk/butter blend. I rolled a few of the smelt in bread crumbs and the rest I rolled a second time in flour. I fried them until golden on both sides and drained on paper towel. I served the fried smelt (minus the parsley garnish) to my family and I also bravely sampled one.
Mrs. Simonds has a number of seafood recipes in the Berlin Cook Book. She started life as Rosette H. Johnson before marrying Leonard Wells Simonds in Rosette was born somewhere between 1849 and 1852 in the United States and immigrated to Canada in 1876. Leonard was also born in the US. They eventually had four daughters Evelyn, Edith, Daisy, Georgie and a son Leonard. The 1881 census shows the family living in Berlin Ontario with two children. Leonard works but the occupation isn’t legible. It’s at this point he patents some sort of button. The 1891 census shows him as a traveller. Mother and daughter lived alone at 37 Ahrens street in 1911. Rosette is listed as married rather than widowed but Leonard is not living in the household and the other children are gone. Have they all married? Cyrena (Daisy) was 20 when she married J. Frank Anthes in 1897. Witnesses included J.C. Breithaupt and Fannie Thompson of Utica NY. I have more detective work!
I can’t say I enjoyed the smelt but I did eat two and they were edible. I didn’t notice any fishy taste and they were easy to eat. The breaded coating was slightly better than the flour coating. The fish lovers appreciated the smelt but said I should have put more salt in the flour. My brother says the frozen smelt were not as good as fresh. He says the fresh smelt are sweeter tasting. Therefore if you get your hands on some fresh smelt this spring prepare them quickly and if you don’t already have a favourite recipe than Mrs. Simonds’ recipe “To Fry Smelts” will get you started.
TO FRY SMELTS
Wash, cut off the fins, and dry with a cloth, melt a spoonful of butter and into it stir the beaten yolks of two eggs, salt and flour the smelts a little, dip into the egg and butter, roll in grated bread crumbs and plunge into boiling fat, fry until of a light yellow-brown; serve upon a napkin garnished with fried parsley.