A Regional Canadian Food – Ontario Smelts
This summer, Valerie Lugonja over at A Canadian Foodie embarked on an interesting journey. She founded The Canadian Food Experience Project. Beginning June 7, 2013, participants are encouraged to share their stories about their own remarkable encounters with Canadian regional foods. By doing so, we can all gain a clearer perspective on what makes the Canadian culinary identity.
When I was a kid growing up in Toronto, spring was marked by one particular ritual – smelt fishing. My dad would go off with his buddies every April to Lake Simcoe (or even farther north, if necessary) and come home with buckets filled with those silvery fish. At the time, the lakes were teeming with them. Stocks have dwindled considerably since then, though no one knows exactly why.
I loved them! Seeing my parents cart those laden buckets into the house was truly exciting. Of course, I wasn’t the one who had to clean them. Mom and dad did that. Although more than half of them would find their way into the freezer, a fish fry was guaranteed for dinner that evening. A fresh fish dinner was rare in our house. Actually, a fish dinner, period, was nearly unheard of. My parents hailed from a town situated in the interior of Italy. Except for grilled cod at Christmas, seafood wasn’t something my parents appreciated very much. I, on the other hand, loved all kinds of seafood. So, that evening I would park myself near the stove as my mother cooked them, picking the smelt off the serving plate even before they had settled among the rest. That snacking, though, did nothing to stem my appetite for them when we finally sat down for dinner. I’m pretty sure we didn’t even bother with vegetables on these smelt evenings. The platter, piled high and overflowing with smelts, was placed centrally on the round dinner table, and we just dug in until we were all too stuffed to eat any more.
My parents had a very simple way of cooking smelt that, to this day, I have to say is the best way. They would dredge them in a salted all-purpose flour and fry them quickly in oil. The smelts would take no time at all to cook up. The skin would be crisp and crackly, but the meat inside was super moist. As a child, what I loved best about smelt was that dealing with bones was a piece of cake. Their spines are prominent, so all you do is grasp the tail or the top of the spine and tug. The whole thing pulls away neatly leaving just that delectable meat. My dad chose to pop the whole thing – bones and all – into his mouth. But, I’ve always been paranoid about choking on the bones. Nor have I ever particularly enjoyed how they poke against my gums!
Every spring, I keep an eye out for packages of fresh lake smelt in my local grocery. Beware though, you’ll see some packages labelled lake smelt while others will be labelled ocean smelt. They may technically be the same fish, but the size is different. Ocean smelt is considerably larger than the former, and as a result, has the unfortunate problem of being bonier. Look for smelt that are about the length of your index finger or smaller. Those are the perfect lake smelt. Now, my own family looks forward to our own smelt fest every spring.