Fish Out of Water
“I am absolutely terrified.”
The tallish, fussy-looking man purses his lips and markedly looks at some fixed point in the distance, keeping space from the clear plastic bag dangling in front of him. Inside the bag? Four pounds of whole, unprocessed dead squid, floating in purplish black juices.
It’s Saturday morning at Mission Pie and tables are half-filled with people chatting, working on laptops, laying waste to coffee and treats. Ample sun streams through the windows. Smells of baking pies send up cartoonish aroma tendrils from the back of the shop. And standing near the cash register, a perky young woman proffers up bags of inky squid flesh.
No, this isn’t some guerrilla theater experiment, a seafood assault to shake up the complacency of pie shop patrons. Anna Larsen, the woman with the squid, is founder and sole employee of the groundbreaking new Siren SeaSA program. For six Saturdays this July and August, she colonized a corner of Mission Pie with a giant blue cooler filled with seafood.
Siren SeaSA is a program built on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, where consumers pay an annual fee for a weekly share of a local farm’s produce. It’s a time-tested program for fruits and veggies, but Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) is still in its infancy. The first CSF started in Maine in 2007, and a handful more have since popped up along the Eastern seaboard. But in California, CSFs are barely charted territory.
This kind of blows my mind, to be honest. I moved to San Francisco last October, and it didn’t take long to be swept up in local, sustainable food mania. It’s an area where most toddlers know the name Alice Waters, and where progressive food movements build their initial momentum. Yet here, in a coastal city at the nexus of hyper-locavorism, fresh local seafood is far from the norm. “Fish is really the final frontier in sustainability,” says Anna. “Why did it take so long to arrive? I honestly have no idea.”
When I first heard about Siren SeaSA (on Twitter of all places), I got all fired up. I loved the concept but it was more than that: I’m a little goofy about the ocean mystique. I pictured heading down to the docks with my reusable Trader Joe’s bag, loading it up with enormous, still-flopping fish. I would exchange salty barbs with the sailors, maybe spend some time gazing knowingly at the horizon. “The sea, she giveth, and the sea she taketh away,” I’d say with furrowed brow.
I certainly didn’t picture getting my fish in a sunny pie shop, from a chipper 20-something woman (I will admit certain preconceived gender notions). Anna herself, in between frequent trips to the bathroom to scrub ink off her arms, admits this is the last thing she ever would have pictured herself doing. A couple years ago, she was living in Southern California and running herself ragged as a classically trained, aspiring opera singer. To forestall total burnout – “I never wanted to hate singing” – she pulled a total 180, moving back to her hometown of Petaluma and fanning out her résumé to a bunch of food businesses.
The first place that showed interest was North Coast Fisheries in Santa Rosa, in a twist of fate that would shape her whole future. “I’ll admit it: If my callback had been from Three Twins Ice Cream, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation,” she laughs. Since that day, Anna has become a full-fledged seafood zealot. She revels in all of her duties, from the scientific aspects of her job as quality control manager (“I’m kind of a biology wonk.”) to the gustatory aspects of every fresh catch. Call it happenstance or call it fate, but this lady is meant to work in seafood.
“You tear the limbs from the head,” she tells me with a devilish gleam in the eye. “It’s pretty badass.” Using an alarming series of violent pantomimes, Anna is patiently walking me through the many steps of squid prep; I’m not an easy pupil. I write about food for a living, yet I have very little experience preparing or cooking seafood. Squid is well outside my comfort zone; I’m having a hard time processing the sheer gore of the tasks ahead. Steps include the limb-ripping opening act, followed by squeezing guts out of the body cavity like a tube of toothpaste, cutting the tentacles from the head “directly below the eyeballs,” and flaying the skin from the flesh. The money moment is when you use your fingernails to delicately extract the tiny silver ink sac from the tentacles, filled with a flavoring agent more precious than saffron. Contrasting sharply with the rampant carnage, utmost care and delicacy must be practiced with this step. Otherwise the sac will burst, wasting the ink and sullying your clothes, counter, eyes, and anything else.
I perform all these steps later that evening. The procedure takes a full two hours, which should feel arduous, but instead feels kind of Zen. It’s gross, yes. But it’s also viscerally satisfying to commune with the source of my food. Unlike crispy calamari in a restaurant, or pieces of sea flesh neatly wrapped in wax paper, I get a real sense of the creature involved in my dinner. Some might go vegetarian after this kind of gore-fest, but I skew in the opposite direction. Two hours of prep work has left me feeling connected with these weird little duders, in an I’m-gonna-eat-the-heck-out-of-you sort of way. Dinner couldn’t come fast enough.
When I first signed up for Siren SeaSA, I was a little worried about the cost-benefit analysis. Members pay $255 for a six-week haul, running a little over $40 a week. That’s a lot of clams to shell out (double fish pun alert!) for a nonessential food item. Sure, this is primo stuff – fresh, sustainable, and fisherman-friendly – but my inner tightwad gets stress-y when I’m too liberal with the paycheck. Anna argues her prices are competitive, meeting or beating Whole Foods in the aggregate (a claim that holds up when I do a little research). I’m just not used to buying fish for so many consecutive weeks.
Plus, I worried about the potential for waste, which is often the CSA problem. You sign up for the long haul, but your busy schedule won’t allow you the time to cook everything up. So your crisper starts getting overrun by raging rivers of kale and stacks of sweet corn. Some of your produce ends up spoiling, then you feel like a bloated, wasteful American (when you were initially trying to do something community-minded and healthy). A few rotten nectarines make me feel bad enough; wasted mussels would reduce me to tears.
Luckily, my girlfriend and I paired up with a food-forward couple at work, splitting the cost and the portion sizes. As a bonus, I got to ride my bike to work every Monday with a cooler full of fresh fish. Once a week this summer, oysters and salmon and halibut held prime real estate next to carrot sticks and Yoplait in the office fridge. No one complained, at least not to my face.
On squid day at Mission Pie, I discover that many of Siren’s other members share my untested, babe-in-the-woods comfort level with cooking seafood. For every experienced kitchen wizard (Chef Neil Davidson of Mission Gastroclub tells me he’s going to “whip up” a little squid confit), there are several other squeamish or untested souls like myself. One young woman, Rachel Weidinger, is quick to say she knows her way around the kitchen. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I’m a very experienced cook. It’s just, I’m really not that comfortable cooking seafood. It’s time for me to work through that, you know?” Rachel can’t help but make a little face as Anna walks her through the tender process of removing the squid’s ink sac. “I have to say, I’m kind of intimidated by the process here.”
I can relate. Thinking back, I’ve got a lot of dicey childhood memories of seafood preparation. My father, shucking oysters in the kitchen, slicing his finger wide open. Myself, accidentally leaving out a huge batch of freshly foraged clams to die in the sun. My mother, serving Gorton’s fish sticks with ketchup.
And yet, I’m working through it. Siren SeaSA gave me tools to overcome any lingering kitchen seafood fear. I certainly didn’t emerge from my six weeks an expert, but I can now whip up a mean batch of steamed mussels, an excellent pan-seared salmon, and a rich, elaborate baked dish of squid, scallops, and beef tongue. More importantly: I’ve broken the seal. In the future, I’ll take any seafood you send my way and I’ll figure out how to cook it. Try me.
On September 10, Anna started a new week-to-week program with Siren SeaSA (no six-week commitment). She sells half and full shares, enough seafood for two people and four people, respectively For more information, visit http://sirenseasa.com/.