At Topsail Island over the winter holidays, there was only one place to buy seafood, and not much of it to buy. Winter fish is less plentiful and diverse, snapper season was over and grouper was about to be shut down. The kid minding the place said they'd caught a lot of king mackerel the day before, but it had all been immediately bought by a New York City wholesaler, and he had spent hours and hours dressing out 900 pounds of king.
There was a seldom-seen fish in one of the coolers, an Atlantic bonito. It's also called false albacore, little tunny, skipjack—not exactly appetizing nicknames—and it isn't quite the same fish as the Japanese bonito that is a staple of the Japanese diet. You don't often find the fish at your fishmonger or your sushi bar, although it makes tasty sashimi and is even better grilled.
The kid seemed perplexed, even a little disdainful, that I wanted it. He charged me $2 per pound. Dressing it out was messy: Bonito is bloody, and I learned that, in the local argot, it's sometimes called "watermelon" because of all the pink juice it sheds when you cut into it. They also call it "bonehead" and "speed perch."
The language of food is one of the richest on earth. As our diets shrink, so does our dialect; we become malnourished in mind and body. There are, as the saying goes, many fish in the sea, but our tongues and ears are insensible to most of them, it seems—like bonito. Much of our regional seafood, too, like those 900 pounds of king mackerel, is pilfered from us.
But in the Triangle, Amanda Miller is reeling it back in. She is the one-woman corporation known as Dock to Door Seafood, which opened last August. Dock to Door takes online orders and sets up a cooler for customer pickup three times per week: in Cary at Sip... A Wine Store, in Chapel Hill at 3 Cups and in Durham at Fullsteam. She is beginning to supply restaurants. Mandolin in Raleigh recently featured her triggerfish, and Rockfish Grill at Southpoint served her king mackerel.
Miller's path to fishmongery initially seems curious. She has a graduate degree in arts administration from Columbia University and had been working in that field, in New York City, for several years before she relocated to Chapel Hill with her husband.
Look more closely, though, and Miller's transition to seafood makes perfect sense. "I've always been interested in how food functions in people's lives, socially and culturally," Miller says. Her master's thesis at Columbia studied how cultural organizations could use food-centered programs as a way of cultivating new audiences.
Anchoring that theoretical interest was a deep-seated affection. Miller had a dizzyingly itinerant childhood; among its rare geographical constants were the frequent family visits to relatives on Topsail Island, where she gigged flounder and harvested clams and oysters. "My grandmother would bake these huge marsh clams, pour the clam juice into a champagne flute and drink it," Miller says.
Like many people who abruptly switch careers, Miller had a sea-change moment. One day, during lunch at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, where she then worked, she was indulging in some of her usual culinary talk, and a colleague interrupted her. "All you talk about every day at lunch is food. I'm sick of it."
Eureka. Jump cut to months later in Chapel Hill where Miller was working in the office at Lantern restaurant. "I learned a lot at Lantern about how restaurants can make local food systems a priority. We live in this state that has incredible natural resources."
Miller often signed for deliveries to Lantern from Southport Seafood and chatted with the driver—and Miller's husband soon was manning Southport's stall at the Chapel Hill Farmers' Market. But the logistics were untenable, and eventually the company shut down its stand.
Through Southport Seafood, Miller discovered Haag & Sons, in Oak Island, N.C, which supplies most of what Dock to Door sells. "Haag takes its business extremely seriously," she says, and so does Miller. The mobile vending approach—a pop-up cooler and stand in someone else's store—is a deliberate choice, not an expediency. "Seafood is so expensive to begin with. A store creates the added expense and waste of overhead and packaging." Her pricing is comparable to that of local retailers, frequently cheaper and almost always fresher. She believes that most of what she sells has been out of the water for 48 hours or less. Dock to Door allows customers to order what they like, in increments as small as a single pound.
That "fishy" taste that deters so many people from seafood is almost always the result of age, not the fish itself. "Any fish that has been sitting in a grocery store for four or five days is going to taste fishy," Miller says. "A lot of people don't know that that's not what it's supposed to look and taste like."
All of the seafood Miller sells is ecologically sustainable, according to the guidelines of the standard-bearing Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list, although she is quick to point out that seafood populations and overfishing are hard to measure. On the resources page of her website, Miller offers links to the Seafood Watch online search tool and a chart outlining mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish.
In a given week, Dock to Door customers will find around a dozen different options, ranging from popular favorites like flounder and striped bass to less well-known species like banded rudderfish, golden tilefish (which makes superb sashimi) and sheepshead, once so popular that New York City's Sheepshead Bay is named for it.
Some of the less common fish have sold better than others. Part of the appeal, or lack of it, has to do with nomenclature. Jolthead, which is in the same family as sheepshead, is a delicious fish, but it sells better under the alias of silver snapper.
She remains committed, though, to alternative fish, for public and private reasons. For one thing, it may be ecologically necessary. "Starting to eat these supposedly 'lesser' species is an important part of being able to eat seafood in the future," Miller says.
Also, she likes it. "There's so much tasty fish out there besides grouper," she says. There are so many good words, too. "If you keep saying 'sheepshead,' it gets less scary."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ocean's Eleven."