Swedish Grandmothers, Bad Jokes, Little Fishes, and Herring 27 Ways

My saintly Swedish grandmother knew a joke or two. Three, actually.

Joke #1:
“My toilet broke, so I had to go down to the A&P.”

Joke #2:
“Remember, when you pronounce “pneumonia” the p is silent, as in swimming.”

Joke #3:
Woman returns home from shopping.
Husband: “Where did you go?”
Wife: “I went to the fish market.”
Husband: “Well, what did you get?”
Wife: “I got two haddock and one smelt.”
Husband: “If it smelt, why didn’t you take it back?”

Saintly Swedish grandmothers are wonderful in many ways, but not so much in the joke department. Nonetheless, Joke #3 gets me to the subject of smelts. I went to the fish market myself today and brought back a half a pound of cleaned Canadian smelts. None smelt, so I kept them all. And cooked them, in my favorite way: deep-fried ’til crispy.

I am a somewhat devout catch-and-release angler, so people give me a hard time when I reveal that I actually eat a lot of fish — just not the ones I catch. Is that being hypocritical? Or just hungry? I’ll report, you decide.

This is the way I prepare smelts:

Step 1: Shake ’em in flour until they are, well, floured.

Smelts in full flour!

Smelts in full flour!







Step 2: Dip them into an egg-milk mixture. The flour helps the liquid adhere to the fish. They are slippery little devils, hence the old Maine expression, “Slicker’n a smelt.”

Going for a dip.

Going for a dip.






Step 3: Shake them in seasoned bread crumbs. I use a combo mix of bread crumbs and panko.

Covered in crumbs.

Crumb-y Smelts








Step 4: Introduce them gently, 4 or 5 at a time, into hot oil. I use canola. Don’t worry about the smelts; they’re beyond caring.

Fry, Baby, Fry!

Fry, Baby, Fry!

Step 5: When golden and crispy (not you, the smelts), transfer them to a plate covered in a paper towel to drain, and sprinkle with salt. Isn’t salt good for you again? I thought so.

Step 6 (My favorite): Eat. And drink. (The glass of beer is not there just for the photo.) smelts6

Now, about those herrings.

My grandmother was born in Sweden. After coming to America she married another Swede with the same first initial and the same last name, so she wouldn’t have to re-monogram her towels; they were both E.B.s, Elma and Elof Bengtsson. A few years ago my beautiful daughters (who, by the way, had their DNA tested and now claim to be more Neanderthal than Swedish, but their blonde blue-eyed selves are in dispute with that claim)

My "Neanderthal Daughters

My “Neanderthal”            Daughters

took me to Sweden as a Christmas present. In Stockholm on Christmas Eve we dined in splendor in the opulent Operakällaren, where we learned that there are many ways to prepare herring, not just in wine sauce or cream sauce, the two you find in the supermarket. Oh, no. The Christmas buffet offered herring in many sauces, herring with lingonberries or gooseberries, herring in mustard sauce, herring with dill sauce, herring with more herring. The great thing about the herring was that it distracted us from the lutefisk, another classic Swedish seafood dish, although you would not recognize it as such after it is soaked in lye for several days. I think we all did taste the lutefisk, but only on a dare.

Bon appetit! Or as the Swedes would say (they would, I can’t): Smaklig måltid!

Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.