Dumpster diving for whitefish livers | Hatch magazine
One cold, gray afternoon in late October, I went to the Hickey Brothers to see if they had whitefish livers – a delicacy found only in the scattered fishing villages of the northern Great Britains. Lakes, whose fans are almost cult-like in their dedication. A friend from Iowa who had fallen under their spell was coming over to hunt grouse and woodcock and I knew he would sag his knees if I told him sautéed whitefish livers were on the menu.
You’re probably shaking your head in disbelief at this point and wondering What is this guy smoking?, but I promise you it’s legit. Similar in size and taste to chicken livers but with a milder flavor and creamier texture, whitefish livers (here we are talking about lake whitefish, Coregonus clupeaformis) are usually dusted with flour or cornmeal, pan-fried in butter or olive oil (or a little of both) and served as an appetizer with sautéed onions, peppers and, if the spirit stirs, any fresh mushrooms you have on hand. Tartar sauce and lemon wedges on the side, of course. Greunke’s Inn, the Bayfield, Wisconsin landmark that is generally considered the first restaurant to feature whitefish livers on its menu (it was in the 1940s) serves them on toast. You can also add a handful of diced smoked bacon if you like, but you should resist the temptation to be too fancy.
With whitefish livers, less is definitely more.
Third-generation commercial fishermen of Norwegian descent, the Hickeys, Dennis and Jeff, plied the emerald waters of Lake Michigan from their home port of Baileys Harbor on the Door Peninsula – the scenic escarpment dotted with orchards that s extends, like a bony slender finger, from the “mainland” of Wisconsin. (It was also where I lived at the time.) If the name Hickey rings a bell, it might be because they’re the same guys who, for some time now, have been applying their expertise gillnets to the task of eliminating invasive species. lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, the goal of course being to restore its native Yellowstone cutthroat population.
Interior scenes of Greunke’s Inn in Bayfield, Wisconsin (photo: Greunke’s Inn).
It was while working at the Baileys Harbor Yacht Club in the mid-1980s, where at the time the Hickeys moored their tugboats, that the joy of whitefish livers was revealed to me. Willy Karlheim, a German expat who was the epitome of the drunken, temperamental but immensely talented European chef, introduced them to the menu from the day he was hired. They literally came straight from the Hickeys’ boats to his kitchen, a few hundred feet away. The first time Chef Willy tilted a blackened sauté pan over a plate of appetizers and shook some livers for me to try, I was hooked.
I have often recommended them to BHYC guests in my role as a butler, an evangelist spreading his secret gospel. Within the first two bites, you could see their initial skepticism disappear, replaced by an expression of utter and totally unexpected pleasure.
Now I followed the narrow road that hugs the north shore of the harbour, densely graded cedars crowding on both sides, the lay of the land gently taking on water. Here and there a modest clapboard cottage, with no identifiable style, interrupted the intricately textured wall of greenery.
When I got to the Hickeys, not at the end of the road but close enough to see him, I climbed out of my truck into an environment that smelled like fish. I caught a glimpse of Dennis through the open garage-style doors of the processing building, whose floor was raised so that a refrigerated truck could back into it. He was sprinkling a table, and he looked, in his yellow waxed bibs, like a commercial fisherman straight from the central lane: burly and broad-shouldered, his face deeply tanned and his blond hair cut short and curly bleached almost white by the sun. He looked a lot like actor Sterling Hayden, famous for his badass roles in a multitude of films in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the hilarious and demented General Jack T. Ripper in Dr Strangelove.
I shouted over the sound of the pipe to get his attention. “Hey,” I called, “do you have any whitefish livers?”
“I don’t know,” he said, hooking the handle of the spray nozzle on an ankle. “There’s not a lot of demand right now, and with our season about to end for whitefish spawning, we’re busier than hell. It’s just not worth our time to save them.
“But,” he added, “do you see that tub over there?”
I looked around and saw a rectangular tub, one of those heavy molded gray plastic works, resting on a picnic table at the edge of the woods.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“Well,” Dennis continued, “we just cleaned up a bunch of whitefish, and the guts are in there. If you want to pick the livers, help yourself. I’ll give you something to put them on. Just be sure to peel off the gallbladder – it’s the yellow sac attached to the liver, you can’t miss it – and be careful not to tear it. You don’t want the bile spilling out.
The Hickey Brothers’ — now better known as Baileys Harbor Fish Company (photo: Baileys Harbor Fish Company).
Whitefish livers free; Was I dead and ascended to heaven? I spent about the next hour diving into this vat of tripe, happily separating the dark lobes of the livers from each other, uh, Things and, after following Dennis’ instructions and carefully removing the gallbladders, placing them in the cylindrical plastic container (the kind of frozen cherries) he had provided. It was a dumpster dive with a purpose…and it’s hard to explain how deeply satisfying it was. Like picking berries or mushrooms, digging for clams, dipping smelt, or engaging in some other plain and simple harvest, it seemed to trigger an atavistic pleasure response rooted in the human race, the fruit of our hundreds of thousands of years of evolution as opportunistic hunter-gatherers.
In other words: we were born for this.
With a good quarter and a half of livers in my container – more than enough for my needs – I sealed the lid, placed it on the passenger seat of the truck so I could hold it upright with my free hand, and I headed home.
My hunting buddy from Iowa arrived the next afternoon, and when I told him we would have whitefish livers, he nearly passed out.
As you probably guessed, this all happened a while ago. Just for fun, I phoned Hickeys the other day—it’s called Baileys Harbor Fish Company now—to see if they had any whitefish livers. The friendly woman who took my call told me I had to order them at least three days in advance.
I should have asked if there was a pick your own option.