By Doreen Leggett
Every New Year’s Eve, Bill Amaru makes clam chowder for about 200 people at Chatham’s Masonic Hall for First Night. He takes it very seriously, adds just the right spices – and a lot of butter.
But this year, on account of COVID-19, he won’t be making that chowder. He will, however, be part of a far more ambitious chowder undertaking, also born out of the pandemic.
Last week, close to 20,000 18-ounce containers began rolling out to Food Banks across the state, a big goal accompanying those small containers: Feed America’s hungry and keep local fishermen at sea.
“If in the first year we can deliver 100,000 pounds of chowder to food banks while guaranteeing fishermen a fair price and steady buyer that would be an amazing win-win,” said Seth Rolbein, director of the Fishermen Alliance’s Cape Cod Fisheries Trust.
The even bigger hope is that the initiative, launched with philanthropic support from Catch Together, could expand into federal food programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Fishermen’s Alliance also plans to introduce the chowder under a new brand, “Small Boats, Big Taste,” to build broad consumer interest and program sustainability, plowing proceeds back into the food pantry distributions.
“Other kinds of chowders, including quahog or oyster stew, could be added to the line based on the needs of local fishermen and the availability of product,” Rolbein added.
Amaru thinks it’s entirely possible. He had just enjoyed his second cup of haddock chowder and said it’s perfect for the role, providing a healthy, delicious easy-to-cook meal for the increasing number of people going with less.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said, adding that an added benefit is it will create awareness about the Cape’s small boat fleet.
He had left the dock at Chatham’s Stage Harbor at 4 a.m. to catch some haddock for his first official chowder run. He has been fishing for more than 40 years and back when he started, haddock was an important fish for the fleet. The groundfish, which looks similar to cod, was not as common as the Cape’s namesake, but it was worth more money.
Times are much different. For a stretch, haddock were scarce, but then they started coming back. Yet they stayed on the small side. Some surmised that the population had gotten so big that competition for food was fierce, others wondered about genetic changes. No one really knows.
Still, there were a lot of them, they were sustainable, and fishermen were catching them, but they weren’t fetching a high price – the fillets were too small to look good in a case.
When the pandemic upended both markets and the supply chain, and a lot more people worried about where their next meal was coming from, staff at the Fishermen’s Alliance thought that using some of this small haddock – called snapper haddock – could work beautifully in a chowder. Donors, including MIT Sea Grant, agreed and the Fishermen’s Alliance scaled up its long-time Fish for Families program, which provides local food pantries with fish in partnership with the Family Pantry of Cape Cod.
Amaru returned at about four that afternoon and with the help of his crew, Paul Gasek, was hoisting his haddock catch into his truck.
“They are definitely here right now,” said Amaru.
He would bring his catch to Chatham Fish and Lobster to be packed and shipped to their next stop: a processing house called Great Eastern Seafood in Dorchester.
The next day, while Amaru’s haddock was enroute, close to 5,000 pounds of haddock were being turned into fillets by the company that got its start in 1982.
Great Eastern has a history with the Fishermen’s Alliance. About 15 years ago they processed haddock that was caught by hook and line and it went to Stop and Shop, said Robby Brandano, who does the purchasing and sales for the company his father and uncle started.
“I’ll tell you while it lasted it was phenomenal,” he said.
Brandano rattled off the names of several fishermen in that program and two of them, Eric Hesse and Greg Walinski, still fish for haddock at certain times of the year.
As Brandano spoke, the main office behind him buzzed with activity. Although barely 7 a.m., those in the room had been there for about two hours to keep track of activity at four New England fresh fish auctions.
“Employees will inspect the fish and give us a report,” said Scott Sawyer, Brandano’s right-hand man, who like most in the company has roots in the business: “My grandfather was a fish cutter in Gloucester for 30 years.”
Tucked off busy I-93 alongside a number of processing plants on Foodmart Road, Great Eastern cuts and then trucks the haddock to Lowell, to be made into chowder at a company called Plenus Group.
Strict adherence to safety and procedures is the hallmark of Great Eastern and nothing was left to chance – even hairnets worn by everyone in the facility were color-coded depending what role you played. No jewelry, ozone sanitizer misted the floors, temperatures taken every day, the list went on. Even the pen visitors used to take notes was subbed out for a sanitized one on the floor.
“It’s all the details that make a plant and it’s important to us,” Brandano said.
The fish – and far more than haddock are processed – go through a series of million-dollar machines that do everything from beheading to taking the eyeballs out on spikes to removing skin to an x-ray checking for stray small bones that are cut out with knife-like water blasts.
During a morning visit there were about 70 people on the floor. “This place is much busier at night,” said Brandano.
Two work-horse machines can process 15,000 pounds of fish an hour. Staff will go over the fish with special lighting to remove impurities. Others will make sure all vestiges of skin are gone.
“If we wouldn’t eat it we wouldn’t send it out,” said Sawyer.
Sawyer said many people in the company have 25 years of fish-cutting experience.
“Fish cutters are a hot commodity,” said Sawyer.
Brandano walked over to some chowder-destined haddock sitting in ice.
“Beautiful, beautiful quality you are catching,” he said with a booming voice. “We do a quality check and test every single one coming in.”
The team already has a personal relationship with the chowder; they got a sample batch to check the recipe, and “the whole office loves it,” said Brandano.
“I love the fact that it is local. I love the fact that it is helping fishermen. The best thing that could happen out of the program is helping local fishermen and helping those in need.”
A few hours later, at 10 a.m., the first shipment of haddock would head out to Plenus in Lowell, less than an hour away.
Joseph Jolly III got his start years ago when he worked for the Boston Chowda company. When the owner, Richard Lamattina, decided to get out of manufacturing, Jolly jumped in. He liked the idea of producing food enjoyed far afield, rather than just in one restaurant.
“So I started this business with my sister and we got to a good place, except for now,” he said with a pained laugh, referring to the pandemic. Even in the downturn, however, 80 or more employees remained on the job.
Jolly was sitting in a conference room with his brother Michael. Just outside the door in a public vestibule were a freezer and refrigerator cases filled with many of the products Plenus sells – from chowders to chicken soup to lobster bisque to gourmet stuffed scallops. After careful temperatures tests, new covering garb, hair nets, hand sanitizing and gloves applied, doors open to the real magic of production.
First is a testing room where different recipes are concocted for comparison. The haddock chowder went through a few iterations before the recipe was perfected – more haddock, less starch. The wonderful aroma of various spices wafted in through the open door.
“This is where it all starts,” said Mary Cusack, leading the tour. “Next stop is the kettle.”
Fillets of haddock were waiting to mix with the other ingredients; unlike some other fish chowders, this one would have more than 20 percent haddock, as much as five or 10 percent more than many.
“That is great for the customer,” said Michael Jolly.
“And the fishermen,” Rolbein agreed.
About 20,000 containers were created in the first run, with another run following a few weeks behind.
Cusack climbed metal stairs to a steaming cauldron of chowder that was being mixed by big metal arms. From there it would be put in individual containers and, in a scene reminiscent of the beginning of the TV series Laverne & Shirley, shuttled off on a conveyor belt to be labeled.
Most of the batch, once frozen, would ship to the Greater Boston Food Bank. In addition, regional food banks from Merrimac Valley, Worcester, and Springfield received dozens of cases for their communities. And of course Cape Cod’s food banks would get their first samples as well.
Cusack and Jolly took out big rolls of stickers emblazoned with a fishing boat steaming between the words, “Small Boats, Big Taste,” and applied a few labels by hand, just to see how they looked. Both seemed convinced the product could make a real splash in the supermarket world as well.
Bill Amaru agrees.
“I think it would be a huge hit across the country,” he said, adding that people used to Campbell’s in a can are going to be blown away, if they get the chance to taste.
“This is a world apart,” Amaru said.