Whenever I throw caution — and my bank account balance — to the wind and order another round of oysters, I think about this, one of my favorite paragraphs in all of Joseph Mitchell. He’s describing a semi-fictional character, 93-yrs-old, who hangs out round the old Fulton Fish Market:
To Mr. Flood, the flesh of finfish and shellfish is not only good to eat, it is an elixir. “When I get through tearing a lobster apart, or one of those tender West Coast octupuses,” he says, “I feel like I had a drink from the fountain of youth.” He eats with relish every kind of seafood, including sea-urchin eggs, blowfish tails, winkles, ink squids, and barn-door skates. He especially likes an ancient Boston breakfast dish — fried cod toungues, cheeks, and sounds, sounds being the gelatinous air bladders along the cod’s backbone. The more unusual a dish, the better he likes it. It makes him feel superior to eat something most people would edge away from. He insists, however, on the plainest of cooking. In his opinion there are only four first-class fish restaurants in the city — Sweet’s and Libby’s on Fulton Street, Gage & Tollner’s in Brooklyn, and Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay — and even these, he says, are disinclined to leave well enough alone. Consequently, he takes most of his meals at Sloppy Louie Morino’s, a busy-bee on South Street frequented almost entirely by wholesale fishmongers from Fulton Market, which is across the street. Customarily, when Mr. Flood is ready for lunch, he goes to the stall of one of the big wholesalers, a friend of his, and browses among the bins for half an hour or so. Finally he picks out a fish, or an eel, or a crab, or the wing of a skate, or whatever looks best that day, buys it, carries it unwrapped to Louie’s, and tells the chef precisely how he wants it cooked. Mr. Flood and the chef, a surly old Genoese, are close friends. “I’ve made quite a study of fish cooks,” Mr. Flood says, “and I’ve decided that old Italians are the best. Then comes old colored men, and then old mean Yankees, and then old drunk Irishmen. They have to be old; it takes almost a lifetime to learn how to do a thing simply. Even the stove has to be old. If the cook is an awful drunk, so much the better. I don’t think a teetotaler could cook a fish. Oh, if he was a mean old tobacco-chewing teetotaler, he might.”
This is one of my favorite passages by Mitchell. His keen eye misses nothing, it’s incredible how detailed he can be. One of the few writers, I think, who manages to infuse his journalistic prose with poignancy and acute observations about urban philosophy. You should include ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ in WNY!
I teach Mitchell in my Port of NY class, which I think I’ll offer again next year. It could make an interesting companion piece to Here Is New York, if we read that one in its chronological spot rather than at the beginning.
Have you ever been up in the old hotel? It’s mighty fun, though I think the Seaport Museum has made it off limits at the moment. More here.
Great writing and great thinking from Joseph Mitchell, one of America’s literary treasures. I never tire of his extraordinary prose. Thanks for shining a light on his genius.
Wait, the Old Hotel is still around? I’ve never been and will definitely be making a trip.