When I was young my family used to rent a summer cottage on Cape Cod, right at the elbow in Chatham near Harding Beach. My siblings and I would spend endless hours playing in the tidal pools with the various creatures living there—hermit crabs, starfish, periwinkles. It was on Cape Cod that I learned to dig for steamer clams and harvest the seabeans that grow along the shore, the ones that are so precious in upscale restaurants today. It was also here that I was first introduced to fishing.
We only went once, and I remember feeling resentful that I wasn't granted a fishing pole of my own (perhaps that's part of the reason I now fish so voraciously, and always bring at least two poles, but that's another story). My sister and I watched and waited while my brother bounced his lure off the bottom of the sea, unproductively. It was on this trip that we ran into the man who told me the story of skate. He was an old salt, his arms deeply tanned and wrinkled from the sun, his beard scraggly and speckled with dried seawater. We asked what he had been catching. "Rayfish" he said. Not familiar with the culinary uses of the species, we inquired further and he told us, "In New England we call skate poor man's scallops. Back in the day, people on Cape Cod would cut out rounds of the meat as a substitute for scallops because the flavor is similarly sweet."
Years later, while I was studying in France where skate is more commonplace, my recollection of that meeting made me more appreciative of the fish, and I would order it often. But it wasn't until recently that I learned its true value.
In the fall of 1999 I had a lot of free time on my hands. My restaurant Annisa wasn't open yet and I was just learning the art of angling. Jennifer, who was my other half at the time, and I had driven all the way from Manhattan to Shinnecock Canal on Long Island because we heard that striped bass fishing was particularly good there. We set up on the cement under the glow of the canal lights and cast every lure we had, to no avail. The fish were there, often breaking the surface of the water, and a few times I even saw one of the striped monsters swim by. The only effect clam bait had was attracting the bottom of the canal, which swallowed whole my hook, line and sinker, as the saying goes.
After a few hours of this, the skate appeared. It swam by nonchalantly, its massive wings rippling like a soft brook propelling it along the edge of the canal. I remember thinking that it seemed happy and cute — it was unable to bite the small lure I dangled right by its face, its mouth grasping repeatedly like a small child with underdeveloped motor control. The skate disappeared and resurfaced several times before Jennifer threw a treble hook at it, a piece of tackle used to snatch baitfish from dense schools. This time, the hook sank into its nose and the fight began. Jen's rod bent over double as if she'd hooked into a dead weight. A little movement, and then snap! the line was broken. But she tried again; we continue to cast and retrieve.
Ten minutes later, there was a scuffle down at the end of the canal, where some kids netted the skate and landed it. We went over to retrieve our treble hook, and they asked if we want to take it home for dinner. Of course we did: it was a seven-and-a-half-pound clearnose with perfect portion-size wings. I grabbed it with my gloved hand and it immediately curled into a ball. To put it out of its misery, we cut a 6 inch gash in its head, right between its eyes, the most humane way to end its life. After walking the skate to the car, it was still moving, so we cut a second line, this time forming a distinct X - like Charles Manson's infamous tattoo, only bigger and deeper. We threw the skate in a five-gallon bucket, placed it in the trunk of the car, and started the long drive back to Manhattan.
By the time we parked the car and got back to my apartment, three and a half hours had passed from the first cranial incision. I took the fish out of its bucket and put on a large cutting board in my small kitchen, and proceed to attempt to remove a wing.
Now, I'm by no means squeamish. I understand that every time I eat meat or fish an animal has died. I've killed countless lobsters, cut off the faces of buckets of softshell crabs, I've even skinned a live eel in cooking school in France. I've watched for hours in Xing Ping market in Guangzhou as live frogs were dissected, still moving.
I've chewed and swallowed a squirming, live octopus in Korea (with chili sauce!), and stuck my hand into a can of slithering baby eels before throwing them live in a hot saute pan at Chanterelle. None of my extensive culinary training prepared me for what came next: with the first incision, the skate seized up and leaped six inches off the cutting board! This was way too much for me, and I screamed.
But I don't easily give up, nor can I stand to waste food, so as Jen held the beast down with a heavy sharpening steel, I tried again. The skate continued to protest, until we eventually gave up, hands shaking. We decided to let it die on its own while we went into the next room to watch TV.
Over the din of a bad sitcom, every once in a while we heard a telltale squelch as the skate continued to seize up in the other room, and we'd turn up the volume and continue to wait. After a few hours, we gathered the courage to try again - the skate was sitting at room temperature now, and it wouldn't fit into my Manhattan refrigerator because of its size, so if it wasn't now, it was never. Although the creature was still jerking, I was able to remove both wings and put them in the refrigerator for filleting the next day.
The largely inedible body was massive even without its wings, and I felt bad discarding it in the trash, so we decided to recycle it by dumping it into the Hudson River, returning its remains to the food cycle. It was past one in the morning by then, and I felt like a murderer disposing of my victim as I slipped the wingless skate over the dimly lit railing and into the river. It fell in with a loud splash and we slinked back to my apartment, guilty.
Late the next afternoon, still reeling from the previous night's events, I got ready for our skate dinner by filleting the refrigerated wings. Even as I cut along the first tip, the muscles still rippled; the twitching only stopped as the meat was completely separated from the skin and cartilage. That dinner was a quiet and simple event: skate with brown butter, capers and meyer lemon. Lighter and sweeter than anything I'd ever ordered from any of my restaurant's high-end purveyors, it was delicious.
I haven't personally killed another skate since that traumatic experience, but I serve the fish often at Annisa, and it confounds me when people refer to it as "cheap" or a "trash" fish. Skate is local, plentiful and gives its life just as any other animal for our sustenance. After handing in the final draft of my book Cooking Without Borders, which contains a recipe for a sauteed fillet of skate with caramelized apples and chicken livers, I've learned that the way skate is harvested damages the ocean floor, so I've rewritten that recipe for diver sea scallops. But if you can find a line-caught skate, it's even better.
Anita Lo is the chef and owner of the restaurant Annisa in New York City, and the author of Cooking Without Borders_ (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2011), in which a version of this story appears._