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Charmed Life

Sea Change

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 3/17/2004

If you squint upward at the stout, century-old building looming over the north end of Market Place (aka Power Plant Live!), you can barely discern vestigial traces of an arching sweep of letters. Look closely. They read fish market. For six years now, the brick building has housed the Port Discovery Children's Museum. Prior to that it was a multifaceted megabar called the Fish Market. And before that, for 80 odd years, it actually was a fish market. Indeed, it was Baltimore's epicenter for the wholesale distribution of seafood.

Twenty years ago, the fish business decamped southward to Jessup in Howard County, escaping the traffic and parking hassles of its hoary downtown home for a 112,000-square-foot industrial park building a stone's throw from Interstate 95. The facility, managed by the Maryland Food Center Authority, houses nearly a dozen seafood dealers and handles millions of pounds of fish, bivalves, and crustaceans a year. But the business of buying and selling seafood has morphed in more ways than simply sliding out to suburbia. It's a whole new kettle of, uh, you know.

For a lesson in modern-day fishmongering, I paid a visit to E. Goodwin and Sons Inc., a 52-year-old company and one of but a handful of dealers doing business in Jessup that date back to the Baltimore fish market. They're essentially fish middlemen, buying a fisherman's catch, processing it as necessary, and selling it to restaurants and supermarkets (though walk-up retail customers are welcome as well).

One constant in the fin trade is perishability. The rush is always on to get a fish from the water to the dinner plate as quickly as possible. The "day" at Goodwin and Sons begins at midnight, when the first fish-laden trucks rumble up to the loading dock. A rush of activity greets my 8:30 a.m. visit--an armada of beeping forklifts carting cases of ice-covered seafood off and on trucks--but in couple of hours' time, all will be quiet here. In side-rooms, workers in rubber aprons gut and clean the day's haul. Among these fish carvers, Tom West has a special job. Wielding a small knife he delicately slices open female shad to gingerly remove the pair of pinkish-red, gelatinous sacs that are laden with the much desired roe. Ugly to look at, but tasty to eat (for some, anyway).

"Ever see a woman have a baby?" West asks. "After she gets done it looks just like that," he says, motioning to the roe "sets" he has sorted by size in plastic tubs. "They don't look so good now, but after you cook them they taste good. Eat one and you'll want another."

Lou Goodwin, a hale 56-year-old who along with his brother Edward are the "sons" who run the company today, emerges from the bustle of activity to give a tour.

"How has the fish business changed?" he says. "How do you want to start--alphabetically, or numerically, or what?"

Goodwin--who says he was "born and raised on fish"--recalls the downtown market with a wistful eye, recalling when horse-drawn carts called on the place (arabbers once sold fish as well as produce) and Chesapeake crabmeat was packed in 125-pound wooden barrels. And most importantly, he remembers when most sales transpired face-to-face with a handshake. Today, he says, motioning to a phone- and computer-laden office just off the chilly, cement-floored work area, "I've got 12 men in there just constantly pushing buttons and selling stuff."

The days when the Chesapeake Bay--H.L. Mencken's "immense protein factory"--was a major source of seafood are gone as well.

"As far as the tonnage we cut here for restaurants, very little is bay-produced," Goodwin says, though noting the bay's bounty still includes croaker, catfish, rockfish, and others from the "small-fish line."

The old city market was just blocks from the Inner Harbor wharves, and some seafood came right off the boat. Back in the day, fishmongers would have chuckled at the idea of fish flying into market. Now Jessup's proximity to BWI Airport is a boon.

"The whole world has shrunk," Goodwin says. "We fly stuff in and we fly stuff out. People have developed taste for fish for from other countries, and we have to have it for them--Chilean sea bass, for instance."

Adapting to this piscatorial new world order was not easy. "We were among some 16 dealers that moved [to Jessup] from the old market," Goodwin says. "Within one year there were only six of us left. The others went broke because they refused to change."

A chilly back storeroom holds what Goodwin dubs "the biggest change in the industry." And it's one that really hits home. You could call it the Crab Room.

"Years ago all the crabmeat came from the Chesapeake Bay and maybe North Carolina," Goodwin says. "Now look. All these pallets of crabmeat, and every one is from a different country--the Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, China. All these places produce crab, and they've perfected a way to pasteurize it so it keeps from six months to a year."

Sacrilege or reality of the times? For Goodwin, tasting is believing.

"It's nice meat," he says. "You can take Indonesian jumbo lump crab and put it up against anything."

Just don't tell your grandfather.

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