THIS is a fish story: a whopper (or at least a keeper) about a peculiar intersection of nature, art and food. Annie Sessler, an artist living here on the East End of Long Island, makes fish prints — impressions of sea life, mostly on vintage textiles, for which she uses fish themselves like rubber stamps or wood blocks. The prints, made with a process dating to the 19th century, are lovely, often haunting images. To whatever extent a fish can be said to have a personality, Ms. Sessler has a gift for capturing and honoring it.
But before inspiration can strike, the fish must. And that’s where Ms. Sessler’s husband, a longtime fisherman named Jim Goldberg, comes in. It’s an elegant hunter-gatherer arrangement: he catches the fish; she prints the fish; then, together, they eat the fish.
”I’m not like other wives who sit at home, waiting for jewelry,” she said. ”When Jim comes home, I’m like, ‘What fish did you bring me?’ ”
Early one misty summer morning, Mr. Goldberg, who is 57, sun-blasted and wiry, headed out into Montauk’s harbor in a small borrowed boat. Baiting his hook with strips of squid, he puttered a few hundred yards toward the mouth of the harbor, dropped his line and let the incoming tide carry the boat back toward the dock.
After only a few such passes, just about the time reveille sounded at the Coast Guard station on shore, he had already hauled up a handsome fluke, a flounder and a sea robin. Many fishermen discard the bottom-dwelling sea robin as inedible, but Mr. Goldberg said the firm tail meat was delicious. Also, the prehistoric-looking head and spiny wings make beautiful prints.
As the fog burned off, Mr. Goldberg steered his boat into open water, toward Block Island Sound. Over the years he’s made his living as a lobsterman, a clam digger and a skipper on commercial draggers, taking multiday trips miles offshore in search of cod and other fish. If there is any reason to be nostalgic for those grueling, often freezing journeys, it’s the wild and weird varieties of sea life he used to bring home for Ms. Sessler: dogfish, skate, John Dory.
Once his haul included a small, blazing red deep-sea creature that the couple simply called Mystery Fish. Mr. Goldberg now makes his living primarily by shaping and repairing surfboards, so his wife has to make do with more quotidian species.
On this day, the catch included two bluefish that Mr. Goldberg wrestled into the boat within 10 minutes of cutting the motor out on the open water. The second fish flopped and squirmed in the bottom of the boat as he tried to remove the hook with a delicate touch. ”Come on, lay down and be quiet,” he told the fish through gritted teeth, aware that broken scales would provoke his wife’s wrath.
His mesh sack filled with more than enough to produce what he called a ”seafood extravaganza,” Mr. Goldberg steered toward shore. The meal, he promised, would be ”psycho.”
Like her husband, Ms. Sessler occasionally talks to her fish. As Mr. Goldberg unloaded his catch in the garage, she peered into the cooler and clapped her hands. ”Oh, you’re beautiful!” she said, lifting a bluefish. She carried it inside by the tail and lay it in the kitchen sink to begin the ”desliming” process.
”You’re gorgeous,” she said, running warm water over the body and gently sponging it with paper towels. ”I love you.” Once, when Mr. Goldberg arrived with a large yellowfin tuna, she had to climb into the shower with it.
In Japan the tradition of fish printing, or gyotaku, goes back to the 1800s, when fishermen began using ink and paper to record their catch. Ms. Sessler, who studied design in college, began making her fish prints two winters ago, when her husband got home from a long fishing excursion. On a lark, he took a small scup, or porgy, and a stamp pad and demonstrated how to make a print. Then he went to sleep. When he woke several hours later, the house was filled with dozens of fish prints.
Since then, Ms. Sessler has made over a thousand prints, refining her technique through trial and error. Under the name East End Fish Prints, she began selling her prints last spring, for up to $2,500 each, and quickly found an appreciative audience.
Alexa Van de Walle and her husband, Henry Owsley, saw some of the prints at an arts fair in Southampton, N.Y., and promptly bought eight for the dining room of their summer house.
”There’s something wonderful about how organic they are — how they’re truly something from nature,” said Ms. Van de Walle, who now owns 11 of the prints. ”It’s not an abstraction of a fish. It is a fish.”
Now Ms. Sessler placed her bluefish on a palette of newspaper spread on the kitchen table. She used cotton balls and Q-Tips to plug the nostrils, the anus and the hole where it had grabbed the hook. She stacked additional sheaves of paper and cardboard under the tail and back fins, making the surface of the body even and flat. She propped the toothy mouth open with a tiny length of Q-Tip.
The effect of the final print would depend on how the ink was applied. In some of Ms. Sessler’s prints, sweeping brushwork is visible, as though the subject had been caught mid-dart. In the spring, when Mr. Goldberg night-fishes for migrating baby squid, the resulting prints have the quick whorl of Japanese calligraphy. Most often, though, Ms. Sessler strives for a delicate accuracy that rivals the etchings that might be found in a 19th-century encyclopedia.
Using a small rubber roller and a series of brushes, she applied a light patina of ink to the fish. She cut a sheet of white satin and laid it over the fish like a shroud. Then, with the firm fingers of a baker kneading dough, she began to rub the cloth, outlining the fish’s shape. Beneath her hands, the image slowly appeared, as though in a brass rubbing.
In the water, the bluefish had been a shimmering flash of blue and silver; soon enough, on a plate, it would be an anonymous (though tasty) fillet. But now there was the opportunity to really look at the fish: the powerful jaws; the delicate bloodline running from head to tail; the intricate chicken-wire pattern of the scales. Making prints has given Ms. Sessler a passionate appreciation for such anatomical details.
”The mahi-mahi has a bloodline like an EKG,” she said, rifling through representative prints. ”It spikes up and down. The John Dory’s is high and arcing, very fine. A tuna is amazing because it’s super-slippery in the front, and then there’s almost a tear and you get into rougher scales.”
”I don’t think of a fish as an object,” she said. ”I think of it as a subject. I feel grateful when it reveals itself through me.”
Soon enough there would be more reason to be grateful. As Ms. Sessler finished printing a fish, she rinsed off the water-soluble ink and handed it over to Mr. Goldberg for his extravaganza.
In addition to the fish he had caught that morning, he had spent the afternoon buying local sweet corn and digging about a hundred littleneck clams nearby, off Napeague. A fisherman friend had dropped off striped bass fillets and a cooler full of squid. The couple’s 3-year-old daughter had returned from school, and a few old surfer and artist friends were gathering in the yard.
He prepared the bass and bluefish with recipes from his days cooking for crewmates on long dragger trips. He cut the bass into chunks and set them in a dish of white vinegar before dredging them in Aunt Jemima pancake mix and frying them in oil. The sweet, sharp-flavored nuggets barely had a chance to cool before they were wolfed down.
The bluefish fillets received the most attention. Mr. Goldberg placed them in foil with several handfuls of thinly sliced onions and roughly chopped tomato. He topped this with three or four sizable pats of cream cheese, two spoonfuls of mayonnaise and a few lumps of butter before sealing the foil pouch and placing it on the grill alongside the clams and corn.
Wouldn’t all the toppings overwhelm the flavor of the fish? Perhaps, Mr. Goldberg said, ”but I don’t like bluefish.” In fact, though hardly Le Bernardin (or the American Heart Association, for that matter), the mayo and cream cheese melted into a rich sludge that nicely offset the oiliness of the fish.
In a little more than 10 hours, the bluefish had gone from wild animal to art object to food for friends and family. Short of passing by Mr. Goldberg’s hook altogether, what fish could hope for a happier fate?
Creamy Barbecued Bluefish
Adapted from Jim Goldberg
Time: 30 minutes
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds fillets of bluefish or, if preferred, mackerel
- Kosher salt to taste
- Ground black pepper to taste
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, sliced very thin
- 1 medium tomato, sliced thin
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
- 1 1/2-inch by 3-inch by 1/4-inch slab of cream cheese, broken into small pieces
- 1 lemon, halved, one half left intact and the other sliced thin
- 1 tablespoon butter.
1. Start grill or preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rinse fillets, and pat dry. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Take two large sheets of aluminum foil and curl up the edges, making a tray large enough to hold fish and other ingredients. Rub foil with olive oil.
2. Spread a third of the onion slices on the foil, followed by a third of the tomato slices. Place fillets over tomato and onion layers. Place remaining onion over fillets, and dot evenly with mayonnaise.
3. Dot cream cheese pieces over onions. Squeeze juice of intact half lemon over everything. Remove stray lemon pits. Place remaining tomatoes over onions and fish. Salt again. Lay lemon slices over and around fish.
4. Cover loosely with foil, and place on hot grill or in oven. Cook 12 to 15 minutes, or until fish is cooked through. Remove foil tray from grill or oven, and dot fish with butter. Serve with some of the juices.
Yield: 4 servings.