Chicago's Fish Shacks Are Going Up in Smoke

Before Middle Americans started chowing down on “bacon-paloozas” and “quadruple-patty” monstrosities, they lived on fish caught and smoked by local riverside shacks. Today, Chicago's Calumet Fisheries is one of the very last left standing.

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Aug 12 2014, 2:30pm

Photos by Brian Lauvray.

Midwesterners surely love their pot roast Sunday dinners and pork-based breakfast meats. For generations, small farms raising livestock and growing a glut of different crops pocked flyover country's landscape and hearty, heaping plates of those bounties became something of a tradition in the Midwest. But the Midwest is a vast region, and an equally as relevant (if not forgotten) tradition to the Great Lakes region of Middle America is the fishing industry. And with it came the roadside smokehouses that deliver smoked fish of all stripes to the curious and tradition-craving Midwesterner.

Americans on the coasts and in the Great Lakes formerly feasted on whatever local seafood or fish was available—think mountains of oyster shells in New York, flapping bonanzas of smelt in the Great Lakes, and writhing chinooks in Oregon—but over the second half of the 20th century the American diet shifted almost entirely to grazing animals, giving birth to "bacon-paloozas" and "quadruple-patty" monstrosities commonly found in eateries across this great nation.

But if you're willing to pump the brakes on the heart-clogging, ketchup-drowned burger for a minute, you can still experience the old traditions of the humble Great Lakes and beyond. Nestled in a corner of Chicago's deepest south side, a mere 4,000 feet from the Indiana state line, sits a temple of smoked and fishy goodness: Calumet Fisheries, a red-roofed shack that's fed generations of blue-collar workers from the nearby foundries of Gary and Hammond since 1928.

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DSC_1237 Edmundo at the smoker.

Perched on the banks of its namesake river, the Fisheries has been a local secret for decades, serving smoked salmon steaks, heads and collars, rainbow trout, sable, sturgeon, catfish, eel, and more. It was originally located on 92nd Street, but following the expansion of a turning basin on the river for ore freighters, the owners opted to relocate a few blocks downstream to its current home just west of the 95th Street bridge, with a little help in the form of a river barge that had been mounted with a crane. The restaurant was simply floated down the river.

The move helped to snare some of the trucker and tourist traffic that snakes through the tangle of lower-middle-class homes and factories that make up northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois' tapestry. Hungry passersby would pop in to the seating-free store front and get orders of fried and smoked fish to go.

And since the beginning of the 70s, there's been one man behind every order of smoked salmon steaks or every half-order of fried smelt at Calumet Fisheries: Edmundo, the head smoker. "It all starts the night before," he tells me. "I come in, I cut the salmon into steaks, same with the trout, and I filet the whitefish. I brine the fish, I season them and they're ready for the morning."

By "morning" he really means "the rest of the week," but understating an event like that is what one might expect from Ed. His humble beginnings at Calumet Fisheries are practically copied and pasted from the pages of a Horatio Alger story. "I started here when I was eleven," he says, "in the early 1960s, I was paid $5 a week to pick up bottles and bottle caps from the customers and from the curb. The owners, to me, they were family. They took me to Sox games, they had me over for holidays, everything. At some point I got a 'real' job with Metra [regional commuter train line] and they asked me if I wanted to learn how to smoke the fish."

And so he has, arriving every Saturday morning to string up dozens of gaping fish heads, steaks, and fillets. The six-hour procedure is one that Edmundo cherishes but also is understandably reluctant to share too much about. "I use oak and cherry logs for the smoking and I keep the doors to the sheds open, to varying degrees, for the first five hours. For the last hour, I close the door to tamp out the fire and to add a different flavor. That's all I'll say."

The smokehouse itself is a tiny shanty, the interior walls so blackened with the smoke of so many logs and so much aerosolized fish grease that it's more like looking into a void than a wall. Each of the two "rooms" in the shed are about eight or so feet deep and about five feet wide. The fish racks are hung about six feet high, and the constant in this delicious equation is thick, belching, eye-stinging, mouthwatering smoke.

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The fires in both rooms are lit on grates at ground level and Edmundo routinely pushes or pulls them either deeper into the room or closer to the exit to balance the heat and smoke distribution, keeping his eye toward the height of the fire so as to avoid burning or cooking the fish. The cuts of fish dangle with a stillness and the only noises save for Ed chatting with the store manager are the sounds where water meets industry. Sparrows and gulls flit about, competing for scraps of yesterday's meals. Semis roll by, and pleasure boaters sound their air horns as they pass the restaurant.

Just then, an old-fashioned bell alarm goes off on the 95th Street Bridge. An ore freighter, arguably the only thing more reliable and more closely associated with the spot than Edmundo, is chugging up the Calumet River, bound for Lake Michigan and points beyond. The St. Mary's Conquest is massive, shockingly quiet for something so large, one can barely hear the engines or the displacement of the water above the bridge's alarm as she chugs effortlessly towards the dark blue of Michigan. It's as though the past had just smashed into the present, just yards away from a restaurant that's probably older than your grandparents.

From smokehouse to display case, the fish are moved probably all of 20 feet—but the waters these fish have come from is another story. The majority of the salmon are from Alaska or British Columbia, but the rainbow trout and whitefish all come from further up north in Lake Michigan or Lake Superior.

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For the Fisheries' store manager, Carlos, the question isn't so much about sourcing, but quality. It is not at all a matter of USA or Canada, he tells me, but what the consumers want and what they will pay for. This comes up again when I discuss with him the disappearance of the modest chub. (I know, I know, you're probably thinking that MUNCHIES is a family-friendly website and what on earth is a chub? Slow down, friend. Chubs are delicious, oily members of the minnow family.) They've been off the menu at Calumet Fisheries for over four years now, and no one can exactly say why they've gone missing. Was it a population crash from overfishing? A water quality issue? A natural boom/bust cycle? As biologists continue to investigate, the menu card at Calumet Fisheries reads "When Available" in the slot and market price for the delicious little buggers.

Smokehouse fisheries like Calumet were once common in the Rust Belt. Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York have all hosted them at one point or another. For generations of largely immigrant or first-generation American factory workers, the fisheries served as a source of shelf stable, hearty and "Catholic-friendly" meals for Fridays. But with the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs to other countries, they've become a relic of America's food tradition—more of a curiosity than a staple.

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When pressed about why so many fisheries have gone the way of the chub, Edmundo insists that it's the carelessness of smokehouse heirs. "Too many of them don't take the care and the time to do it the right way," he says. "They buy frozen fish, they don't cure, they don't brine, they don't even smoke the right way anymore."

He has a point: Smoking is itself a labor-intensive, two-day procedure—to say nothing of the time and investment it takes in having oak and cherry logs delivered, along with all that fresh fish. And even the tireless Edmundo has taken to coming out and smoking every other Saturday. On alternate Saturdays a young apprentice comes out and handles the smoking responsibilities under the watchful eye of Carlos, but only after a master's course in smoking under the tutelage of Edmundo.

Perhaps that attention to detail is what keeps Calumet Fisheries alive as its ilk have fallen by the wayside. Three generations of owners have seen the area's other smokehouses almost entirely disappear, save for Hagen's on the city's far north side. As time consuming and demanding as it is to do things the right way, it's the only way for Calumet Fisheries. And that's just fine with them.