PORTLAND – Sometimes, it is the simplest things that bring a smile to your face, an unexpectedly warm spring day, a knowing wink or smile from your spouse or loved one that can mean only one thing, or in this case, a trip to the fish market.
Let me explain. For as long as I can remember, we have had a tradition in our house of having seafood chowder at Christmas. Not just any seafood chowder that happens to be found in the local supermarket or restaurant, but my wife’s, homemade New-England style seafood chowder. The kind with chunks of haddock, pieces of scallops, bits of lobster meat, potatoes, onions, and a healthy dose of milk, cream, and butter.
I grew up in coastal Massachusetts, worked on fishing and tour boats as a teenager, spent 4 years in the Coast Guard patrolling along the eastern seaboard from Long Island to Machias, and with my wife by my side, we raised a family here in Maine. Seafood means home.
Today, as usual, I had a million things to do – last minute shopping, finish a story for the local paper, help my son with a project he’s working on, and pick up a few things for my wife. By my standards, it was going to be a pretty typical day. Then I went to Portland and headed to Harbor Fish Market. The market is located on a small, cobblestone-covered side street, between the wharf and Commercial Street.
Almost as soon as I stepped inside the door, it happened. I was happy and I was reminded that it was nearly Christmas. The smell inside the small cramped space brought back memories of the boats I grew up near and the warm fragrant air of the shore.
The room was packed, and as people were asking for fresh haddock and salmon fillets, the workers in the market were trying to make sure the cabinets remained filled with ice and fresh fish. They hauled tubs of ice across the weathered, wooden floor with long iron hooks, while behind large glass windows, others were cleaning a catch that had just made its way into the building.
For a few minutes, I just watched the people, young, old, professional, and working class. The store was filled. There was a line, but everyone seemed to understand their place and each person waited their turn.
The people who were working behind the counters greeted each customer with a quick hello and a somewhat perfunctory seasonal greeting. Methodically, they filled each order. In the end, I don’t think I spent more than 30 minutes in the store, but in that short half-hour, the season changed for me. It was time for snow, time for presents and family, but more importantly, a time to remember some of the best things in life.