Midnight in the Bronx:
A Visit to Hunt’s Point Wholesale Fish Exchange
The first thing you sense is the cold. Don’t think about it for long because that forklift over there is screaming toward you. If you fall on the slippery-with-fish-guts floor refrigerated to 30 degrees or so, wet and concrete, it will hurt. Or, you could also be maimed by a hand-driven, propane-powered, self-propelled forklift, which is sort of like those larger forklifts with wheels, but more like the size of a lawn mower on steroids. It quickly moves boxes from one part of the room to another.
The forklifts carry one wooden pallet for roughly 500 pounds of fish at a time. The engines, strained to the limit with huge plastic containers scream by you…”Get out of the way!”
If you’re lucky they won’t hit you, or “brush” really closely by your arm as if to taunt you…PAY ATTENTION!
There are other larger forklift trucks that can carry multiple pallets – all very heavy and dancing about the slick, ice covered floor in a horn blaring frenzy. They are in this huge space- nearly seven football fields large. Larger forklifts are all filled to the brim with iced down ultra-fresh fish in large plastic containers. The highest grades of fish are for sale in this section of the market is without smell. The only smell and taste in your mouth is that of sprayed bleach from “Sanitary water” for disinfecting the cutting surfaces and knifes – the sweet, fruity aroma of propane exhaustemanating from the forklift trucks.
And then, you smell the sweat from the fish cutters filleting 200-pound tunas as quickly as if they were 1oz. minnows. People are covered from head to steel-toed boots with florescent colored fish guts. A bursting air sack from a 50-pound grouper suddenly sprays me, showering the coat I’m wearing in a yellowish, thick gunk. I’m going to be really popular with stray cats later in the day.
Men accustomed to heavy lifting on icy, slippery surfaces carry hand-held gaffs over their shoulders.
What is a gaff? A gaff is a sharpened curved piece of hardened stainless steel with a wooden or hard rubber handle shaped something like Captain Hook’s hand. Tools like this can eviscerate, and then slaughter. A gaff is a medieval looking instruments that is used to lift plastic buckets filled with fish, pull open the fish’s gills for inspection and also lift an eighty-pound halibut as if it is no heavier than a paper airplane. They can be used to drag water sodden cardboard boxes to the wooden pallets that are magically lifted into the sky, onto trucks that scream into the night to every grocery, restaurant and food commissary in the world. Every piece of fish from the highest grade for sashimi to basic supermarket grades is traded here in this room.
A fish auction starts the moment you arrive at 1:00 a.m. Just don’t bother to ask about the complex formulas used. There is no one here to explain how it works or who sets the prices. There are no Ph.Ds who have written books on these markets. You think Wall Street floor trading is cutthroat? Try not to say something perceived as unpleasant to a guy who is covered from head to toe in thickly warm clothing, reeking of fish-guts. He is in no mood to waste valuable time with a know-nothing. Things happen fast around here. Cash is king, you know what walks. That’s not to say that these men aren’t friendly or welcoming… I was given complete access to a place where there are no tourists and no flash photography allowed! (Unlike those tourists left over at the oldFulton St. Market) where moms and dads take flash photographs of young Skippy on vacation…Looking lost among the pictures of fluke and haddock.
This is a serious place where hundreds of thousands of dollars in the best fish money can buy is flying off the floor and out the door to be shipped around the globe. If you want the best you must pay for it. Fish this fresh doesn’t go into the freezer. It’s sent out iced, but not frozen, so time is of the essence. Fast shipping is the rule of the day. The Hunt’s Point Market is the second largest seafood market in the world. Only the Tokyo, Japan market is larger in pure square footage. Hunt’s Point is no less impressive. Every color of fish in the rainbow is glistening under halogen lights. Boxes of seafood are intermixed with puddles of salty, blood-tinged water. Everything smells like salt water- but not in an unpleasant way. This aroma clings to me and everything I come in contact with is now permanently engaged to my favorite winter coat. I should have worn the Carhardt that is in my closet at home, but I would have frozen after a few hours in the unrelenting cold.
You will adapt to the cold or it’s going to be a very uncomfortable night and no one wants to hear you complain. Guys work here for their entire lives. This harsh work environment is not conducive to looking like a fashion model. The smell of salt water and fish guts permeates everything. Keep your head down and shut up, listen to what these men have to say, after all they sell to the most expensive fish restaurants and stores in the world, they KNOW fish, from the tail to the head and everything in between….
The swarthy (his word), enthusiastic owner of Metropolitan Seafood has escorted me to this sprawling marketplace. The store is currently located in Clinton, NJ, but will be moving soon to a much larger space and completely modern space in a free-standing building of their own in Lebanon, NJ. On the weekends they are well represented at the Stockton, NJ Farmers Market. Mark is my guide and I listen closely to his lessons and body language. He moves fast. There are Maine oysters from this guy, Halibut from another, wild Salmon from that guy over there. Do you want oysters from Martha’s Vineyard? It’s the middle of the night and I’m slurping down oysters. “Where’s the Chablis?” Fluke is sold whole, grouper, snapper, tuna. I never see money exchange hands, only tickets written. The truck fills up with the fruits of the sea, we’ll be back in Clinton, NJ soon- this will all be sold out in a matter of hours.
To tag along in this arena is a rare treat. There were no other aqua-tourists like myself at the fish market this morning. 1:15 a.m. is a body and mind humbling time. But here, amongst the fruits of the sea, there is real energy. The auction is setting the prices- stay out of the way of the forklifts they won’t stop for you- so don’t expect them to see you as they fly by blasting their air horns. Suddenly all the air horns start blowing at once there is a traffic jam. Several packed to the rafters 18 wheelers have arrived and like passengers on jumbo jets arriving in Newark, all at the same time, there is fish to be unloaded, graded, auctioned and sold, filleted, iced and shipped out in a heartbeat. Ask questions that are about the product. If they like you then you can talk about something else, like the Jets or how much weight so and so has lost. But keep it straight. They all carry razor sharp gaffs. A man doesn’t need to have one sunk deeply into his leg. The mere shock of metal against flesh is enough to be a good lesson to keep quiet. Always be good.
There is definitely a pecking order here. The bad old days of the Fulton Street fish exchange is a thing of the past. The seething element of organized crime was banished by Giuliani. But don’t think for a second that the aura of a ‘closed industry” has changed things around here. Families still roll the fish business over from grandfather, to father to son. To make things even more interesting, this billion dollar a year fish exchange is run essentially in cash and handshakes. The building and selling floor is patrolled by unsmiling NYPD Officers, they are here to make sure no-one swims with the fishes. Right next door, moored to the wharf there is a Super-Max floating prison. Painted gray on blue, everyone knows what it is and who is there. No one wants to go there themselves, even for a 3 hour pleasure cruise, it’s called by those in the know, the Love Boat, I don’t want to know why.
The specialty rooms off the main display area are where the real action takes place. Coffee so thin and flavorless that it appears to be the color of cream soda is slurped down. This is purely warm liquid refreshment. Its sole purpose is to stave off the mind dulling cold. Stainless steel tables hold specialty tuna so fatty that it appears to be white with dots of deeper pink and lighter red streaks running through it. That hundred pound piece is thousands of dollars-wholesale. It’s going to the finest Japanese restaurant in New York. Which one? Can’t tell you. The chef did everything on a handshake. We sat in a room with a desk and several cutting tables; bags of butter popcorn are open for the taking. The chef from the Manhattan restaurant named Milos is at the market, it’s way before dawn. I image his kitchen staff is waiting for him back at the restaurant, silently, for him to return to his kitchen. He does all of his own fish buying. His restaurant is one of the finest in NYC for fresh fish, simply prepared. Olive oil, lemon, salt. Greek seafood grilled over natural charcoal, the purest expression of the fish exemplified on the plate.
Pristine fresh is the mantra of the day.
It’s time for another coffee. It’s the same quality as the last one. Liquid warmth is slurped down with only sugar and milk for body, no flavor, only warmth.
We pass by a table brimming with 150 pound Blue fin Tuna. Men with arms the size of small towns sling these whole fish on to the stainless steel tables, knives as sharp as crushed diamonds slice through the flesh which just hours before was cutting through the ocean water, breaking the skin right to the bone in a rapid movement. One slip with these knives and their brief careers as fish cutters are over. Scars and cuts are common, so you should not stare at them. One of the fish guys asks me if I want to take his picture, and of his friends. They never stop cutting, splitting thousand dollar pieces of tuna into the primal cuts without error or accident. I click away, one hundred and sixty pictures all night. So much to see. So much to learn.
Wild Salmon is king. The best goes to Japan. Uni in their shells are piled up, a small wooden box with uni, don’t ask the price…Mark explains to me that if this mustard colored blobs are dry, then the uni is freshest. When it gets wet, that means its getting old. Not old like after a few weeks, but after a few hours. It is jetted in from Portland, Maine several times during the night. There are customers who demand the very best. We are at the market to secure the very best that money can buy… Mark’s customers know exactly what they want.
Five-thirty a.m. circles around, the best stuff is on its way to airplanes and around the world, the star chefs are waiting for the freshest fish possible. I came, I saw and I’m still freezing hours later!!!
Warren Bobrow is a mixologist, chef, and writer known as the Cocktail Whisperer. In 2010, Bobrow founded “Wild Table” for Wild River Review and serves as the master mixologist for several brands of liquor, including the Busted Barrel rum produced by New Jersey’s first licensed distillery since Prohibition.
Bobrow has published three books on mixology and written articles for Saveur magazine, Voda magazine, Whole Foods-Dark Rye, Distiller, Beverage Media, DrinkupNY and other periodicals. He writes the “On Whiskey” column for Okra Magazine at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and has written restaurant reviews for New Jersey Monthly.
His first book Apothecary Cocktails, was published in September 2013; and immediately went into a second printing. In 2014, he published Whiskey Cocktails. He was born and raised in Morristown, NJ, on a Biodynamic farm.
Warren Bobrow in this Edition
COCKTAIL WHISPERER, Editor
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The Five Questions: Natalie West (Foppiano Wines)
The Five Questions: Randall Grahm
The Five Questions: Sustainable Sushi
A Glass of Bourbon, Branch, and History
Midnight in the Bronx: Visit to Hunt’s Point Wholesale Fish Exchange
A Modern Day Absinthe Alchemist
A Summer Cocktail Party for Artie Shaw
Tales of the Cocktail: New Orleans, Louisiana