According to my records, which, in reality, are stories told to me by old-timers who have been smelting for decades, smelt used to be plentiful in the Great Lakes. Depending on which old-timer I spoke to, you’d just drop the net into the water, and using a pulley system, yank in hundreds, thousand, or even cruiseshipfuls of ‘em.
But, in the seven years or so I’ve been working Smelt Fest for the Park District, the total number of smelt I’ve seen caught rounds out to about eight. However, legend has it that the smelt ran in these here parts like, well, lots and lots of running smelt. I don’t know how they ran because they’re little silver fish without feet.
Speaking of legends, every year at Smelt Fest we have this salty guy who sings “shanties” (songs of the sea) throughout the night. But, as I listened to each song The Salty Guy sang, it occurred to me that every shanty ever written is basically a variation of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” by Gordon Lightfoot.
It also became apparent to me that The Sea has more attitude than all of The Real Housewives of New Jersey put together. The lyrics of each song The Salty Guy sang were more hateful than the last causing my mouth to drop open, and then slowly close, much like a smelt having an out of water experience.
To give you an example, one of the songs went like this: “Oh, the sailor went out, But he never came in, And he lost all his mates, And very sad were his kin.” The next song went something like this: “Oh, the children sleep well, But the orphans do not, For they live all alone, In their own little hell.”
Then there’s this little ditty: “Oh, she waited all night, By the shores of the sea, But the ship never came back, And neither did he. So she took her own life, But the children slept well, Except for the orphans, In their own little hell.” And, then there’s this one that illustrates just what a vindictive mistress the sea can be: “Oh, she waited all night, By the shores of the sea, But the ship never came back, And neither did he, So, she took her own life, But surprised she would be, Had she lived on to see, That he’d been on the other ship, And came back to his wife. (Ok. That one didn’t quite fit my rhyme scheme, but it proves the point.)
Yes, The Sea; She was angry this year during Smelt Fest, my friends. Well, actually, it was Lake Michigan, but “The Sea” sounds so much better. Anyway, “She” didn’t leave any widows or orphans at Smelt Fest, but she was quite choppy, and the wind was a-whippen.
I was one of the people helping pull in the nets off the pier. Over the years I have helped out at Smelt Fest in many capacities because I love being anywhere near or on Lake Michigan. I’ve fried ‘em, and I’ve served ‘em, but I won’t eat ’em. I could maybe be coaxed into trying one if it were named “Rainbows and Glitterfish,” but smelt? I just can’t eat something called a smelt. It sounds like a Smurf with a communicable disease.
Now, for all of you Sea Fashionistas out there, I’ll give you the 411 on my Smelt-inspired outfit: I wore four pairs of mittens, five layers of assorted tops, a kicky little headband with super-cute yarn braids, and my fave bowler hat with an adorable wool rose on the side. I started off the night wearing the most fabu Isaac Mizrahi polka-dot rain boots, but as my feet began to get cold, I changed into my warm-as-toast black faux fur winter boots. I looked quite smashing, if I do say so myself. But, due to all of the layers of clothing, I looked like an overweight humpback whale.
But, back to the smelt at hand; the best thing about Smelt Fest, in my opinion, is how many old timers come back, year after year, and ask me the same exact thing: “How are the smelt runnin’?” I tell them they’re not runnin’ very well. I don’t say it’s because they’re fish and they don’t have feet, because that would just be rude. And even though they all say, “We used to come out here and pull in hundreds, or even thousands of ‘em,” I never get tired of hearing it. It’s as if they’re hoping that schools and schools of smelt will magically appear again.
So, in honor of all the old-timers who come back to Smelt Fest year after year, I wrote a little shanty myself, and it goes a little something like this: “Oh, the smelt used to run, But they don’t run no more, So we go out and get ‘em, From a Smelt-sellin’ store. Then we bread ‘em and fry ‘em, And serve ‘em up hot, In a big pot of oil, On a Kenmore stovetop.”