I remember being six years old, holding my mother’s hand while walking through the market, half-terrified of the thousands of fish eyes staring at me, and almost completely overwhelmed by the smell of steamed blue crabs.
This is not a conventional fish market, located in the back of a Safeway or Giant, just past the bakery. This is not the fluorescent-lit seafood section of Whole Foods, charging $12 for 1/2lb sockeye salmon fillets. This is the Wharf on Maine Avenue, just under the I-395 off-ramp, where almost every species of edible fish is sold from ice chests on floating barges.
It’s an open-air market, built to accommodate hundreds of people on a Saturday morning, or a Sunday afternoon, just after church. Families pour in by the dozen, ordering up blue crabs by the bushel. You can take them home alive and pinching to cook in your own kitchen, or you can pay to have them covered in seasoning* and steamed there.
*I’m calling it “seasoning,” instead of Old Bay for a reason. Yes, the crab seasoning at Jessie’s may bear a striking resemblance to Old Bay, but the bags of orange-red seasoning are Jessie’s own recipe. This is a distinction worth making when you order up.
They have the same fish you’d find at any supermarket, only their prices are drastically lower, and the guys selling them have been doing it for decades. This fish market is the oldest of its kind in the US, set up over two centuries ago, and still very much in operation, open 365 days a year.
When the sun starts to go down over the Washington Channel, the fishmongers start yelling louder. Like all food, fish is best fresh and it’s damned near impossible to keep everything at the Wharf fresh overnight. A blue crab becomes toxic if it dies before being cooked. That means the fishmongers have to hustle hard to sell as much as they can during the day. Anything left overnight risks spoiling. Anything spoiled risks not only food poisoning, but a fishmonger’s reputation and good standing.
The Wharf is seeing some changes to their landscape– mixed-use development has begun on the Southern end of the market and will likely include the same kind of retail/residential/office type of construction the city has seen everywhere else over the past five years.
I’m remaining optimistic, not because I take the Monty Hoffman at his word (I really don’t), or because I think Madison Marquette are onto something good (I really don’t), but because the market has seen some consistently volatile changes over it’s 200 years. Floods, erosion, military appropriation during the Civil War, railroads, highways, golf courses, have all had an effect on the Wharf. And yet, it’s still thriving on a sleepy Thursday evening.
There’s a reason this place has survived for 200 years. The fishmongers on barges shouting out prices, taking orders from customers, throwing crabs into bushels, dropping breaded or battered cod into screaming hot oil, have all been here forever because of the dedication to their craft. It’s not a job, it’s not just work, it’s a way of life.