FRANKLIN — First it was one 5-gallon bucket. The next time, it took two buckets. Then, three followed. That’s how demand steadily grew in recent weeks for the sweet-flavored alewives, continuously smoked for more than a century, near the shores of Great Pond.
Originally practiced by Native Americans, that age-old tradition of preserving the river herring to help tide one’s family over the winter has been kept alive for over three decades by Sam Place. This season, though, Sam’s nephew Rob Bizzarro and his wife, Kristine “Kezzie,” have helped out and enhanced the smoked herrings’ flavor with their own recipe and seasonings used to smoke wild salmon during their life in Alaska.
The fresh alewives are supplied by and under the stewardship of Darrell and Dustin Young. For decades, the Youngs have trapped the river herring in the Grist Mill Stream, where the “anadromous” or “sea-run” fish leave the ocean and journey up Great Pond to spawn and swim back to the sea.
Well off the winding Great Pond Road, Sam Place shows his homemade smokehouse, where he and the Bizzarros have cold-smoked 300 bushels of alewives over soft maple brush for their own consumption and given away the smoked fish to relatives, friends and acquaintances to snack or salt away in their freezers for winter consumption. Sam and the Bizzarros are exploring getting their smoking operation licensed after the favorable public response about the distinctive flavor and texture of their smoked fish. They say the smoked fish fillets are especially popular among ice fishermen who frequent Great Pond. “They like that salt fish with a can of beer,” says Sam. They also are favored by old-timers accustomed to eating salted cod, mackerel and other fish as a protein over long Maine winters.
“All my customers are in the cemetery,” Sam quipped.
A lifelong resident of Great Pond, Sam used to lobster fish and gillnet for flounder and other species when they abounded. These days, the retired fisherman carves and paints large wooden fish sold at Gouldsboro’s Corea Lunch on the Wharf and 2 Old Goat Antiquities and Artisans in Trenton. He has welcomed Rob and Kezzie’s assistance and own know-how from smoking wild salmon they caught annually from Alaska’s Copper River. Some consider the Copper River sockeye as the best-tasting fish in the world. Living off the grid, in the remote Two Rivers-Pleasant Valley area, the Bizzarros smoked their permitted quantity of salmon caught annually from the Copper River. Along with caribou, the fish helped supplement the couple’s larder. Their home was 50 miles from the nearest town.
In Alaska, the Bizzarros say smoking fish is a widespread practice finetuned over generations. Unlike alewives, Kezzie says the much larger salmon is filleted. At Great Pond, she has filleted the river herring too and believes that has made a difference in making the smoked fish more palatable and popular to a younger generation of Mainers. Out in the puckerbrush, the couple found alder wood to be the best for smoking the brined salmon and dried salmon. As far as her recipe for brining alewives, she did reveal that garlic and brown sugar are among the flavorings, but smilingly declined to divulge other key seasonings.
Moving to Great Pond a year ago, the Bizzarros have learned a lot about smoking from Sam. Sam is fastidious about thoroughly drying the alewives before they are smoked. He shows how to string the fish through their gills and out the mouth before hanging them to dry in the smokehouse. The dried fish, he also notes, won’t absorb the smoke properly on rainy days.
The Bizzarros still have adult children and grandchildren in the Northwest and plan to go back and visit. Franklin, though, is the couple’s permanent home now. Their dogs Wally and Brandy get along just fine with Sam’s hound, Jackson. “I am too old to move again,” declared Rob, chuckling. Together with Sam, they hope to get their smokehouse and operation licensed before Maine 2023 alewife run. Working with the Youngs as their fish supplier, the couple want to be ready to smoke and sell the smoked fish. They also want to expand the small herring’s culinary appeal and preserve the age-old tradition.