My grandfather, Oscar Bessonette, fished all his life and owned several bait and tackle stores in Manhattan Beach, California. The first was a bait shack he constructed on the end of the municipal pier. It sported a sign that said “If They Swim — We Have the Tackle To Catch Em.” He lost his pier lease in 1926 and moved, to a two-story building on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, at the entrance to the pier. He named his store “Oscar’s Surf Club,” and remained there until he lost his lease in 1956 when the state decided they wanted the land for a parking lot. He gave us most of his leftover fishing tackle to use on our sailing trip, some of which later came in handy as trade for food, or souvenirs, along the way. The photos above are from Images of America, Manhattan Beach Pier, compiled by Jan Dennis.
INCREDIBLE, IT’S EDIBLE
On board our sailboat Discovery the continuing conversation at breakfast, (mostly oatmeal with raisins), was always: “What’s for lunch?” When we found it, cooked it, and ate it, someone always asked: “What’s for dinner”?
Foraging for food was central to our way of life.
During our family’s incessant search for meals all manner of sea life, including sharks, cowered in fear when we dropped anchor. In the open ocean, throughout the intertidal zones, and in dark coastal mangrove swamps, the word was out–“here come the Hungry Hogan’s.”
Guided only by the sonar of our growling stomachs, we harvested myriads of edible marine life: most accessible, some unusual, but all nutritious and free for the taking. Necessity taught us how to turn it into a gourmet meal and our logbook reflects our appetites. At last count the logbook list included sixty-three different species of fish, fifty-three of which we caught, cooked, and consumed.
“If wishes were fishes we’d have scales on our teeth,” was our sea shanty. I don’t know who in the crew coined this magical phrase, but it grew into our personal piscatorial incantation. As traditional (to us) as the Star Spangled Banner before a football game, we sung it as we sat around the cockpit waiting for the aquatic animals to bite.
Sometimes, the fish just laughed at our efforts, but on most occasions we had all the seafood we could eat.
“Hawkeye!” was the call to action when a fish actually took the hook in its mouth. A traditional code word, it meant, simultaneously:“ We’ve got a fish, the vang’s straightened out and the line’s taut, call Dad, get the gaff, come up into the wind so we can haul it aboard, grab the hook disgorger, make some tartar sauce, and cancel reservations at Fisherman’s Wharf.”
On any successful passage we ate fresh fish every day.
On our way from Mexico to Costa Rica, just offshore of Cocos Bay we encountered a huge school of dolphinfish in a feeding frenzy, and caught them until our arms were sore.
Bob wrote in the logbook: “dolphin in the five-to-ten-pound class are so thick off the stern that it’s absolutely impossible to drop a bone jig, feather, or anything else in the water without getting a hookup in the first 20 seconds. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The following day, we encountered the school again and Bob wrote “…more dolphin around the boat than I have ever seen. We’ve decided to take some into port with us to give to whoever might be there. The only word that fits is carnage. Dolphin are fighting for the jigs, running into the propeller and the hull. At one time there were about 50 of them in the air at one time.”
From Cocos, during the five days it took to reach our next stop, Quepos, we caught enough fresh fish to feast on finny flounder for fifteen meals in a row (a tongue twisting stomach-filler), for sure. The challenge was always: “How to cook it this time?”
After one particularly successful lunch, the diners: Bob, Robbie and Sharri, awarded me the Pectoral Medal of Honor (with Three Scales), denoting meritorious action in the galley for a recipe I named “Sole Food.” I generally leave recipes for other’s cooking blogs, but the one below is pretty tasty for a winter fish stew, and includes ordinary ingredients most sailors keep aboard:
1/2-cup butter, margarine, or vegetable oil
1/3 chopped green pepper (1/4 cup if dried)
2/3 cup finely chopped fresh onion. Use dried according to package directions
1/2-cup light brown sugar, or maple syrup
One, 16 oz. can pineapple chunks
2 tablespoons corn starch
1-2 lbs. freshly caught fish
2 tomatoes cut in wedges or 1 can whole tomatoes
1-1/2 cups rice cooked in 3 cups water with 2 tablespoons butter or margarine.
Melt butter in saucepan. Add green pepper and onion. Sauté until tender then remove from heat. Add sugar, vinegar and pineapple with juice.
Mix cornstarch, salt and water to a smooth paste and add to sauce, cooking well. Stir constantly until mixture thickens then set aside.
Poach fish in water, drain and add to sauce but don’t cook. Cook rice in water, salt and butter. Add tomatoes to fish and sauce. Spoon over rice. Should make 4-6 servings.