Editor's Note: Click the audio player above to hear MPR News' Tom Crann discuss smelt with Amy Thielen, author of "The New Midwestern Table" and Food Network host of "Heartland Table." Her thoughts on smelt are posted below.
Minnesotans love any excuse to make a party, and the annual spring smelt run seems an occasion tailor-made for throwing a community feed. After all, few plates usher in spring's arrival quite as beautifully as one piled high with crispy fried baby fish. Unlike sardines and other small, oily fish, smelt are flaky, soft and as sweet-tasting as the first day of spring.
And their timing is good: For people caught between ice and open water fishing, and for Christians observing lent, the local smelt fry is easily the hottest address in town.
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These fries are often held in churches or service organizations (Legions, Eagles, and Shriners Clubs, for example), usually to benefit a community cause, but real smelt-lovers fry up smelt at home.
The fun, distinguishing thing about smelt is that you eat them whole: fins, backbones and all. They're simply gutted, rinsed, tossed in batter and fried. My mom had it right when she said that eating smelt-fins and bones and all-is the Midwestern equivalent of the coastal soft-shell crab feast.
It's seasonal fresh fish -- with crunch. Because of the whole-fish nature of a smelt fry, I suspect that people like to use them to test their squeamishness. And it's usually all-you-can-eat, so the question becomes "how many did you eat?"
What are smelt?
Smelt are small, silvery fish with tiny, nearly imperceptible scales. Like most fish raised in the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior, they're flaky, soft, and clean-tasting.
Smelt were first spotted in the Great Lakes in 1946. They're an invasive species to these lakes, and native to oceans, though they always travel to freshwater to spawn. Back in 1912 they escaped a lake in Michigan in which they'd been stocked for feed.
Spring smelt runs peaked in the 1960s and 70s, and have grown smaller ever since. But people maintain their taste for both the occasion and the fish, and so it lives on.
Marilyn Schreiner, one of the owners of an old bar in Pierz, Minn. that used to fry smelt, said they bought 300 pounds of the fish each year, and cleaned them in someone's garage the day before the fry. She said one year, "Roger Geschwil insisted we come to his place because he had a paper cutter set up to cut off the heads."
She also remembers going up to the North Shore once in the 1960s to get them.
"We brought our campers, it was dark, there were bonfires all over, and people were out in the shallows in waders, with nets. That's the first and last year I went; you don't get any sleep when you're smelting, you know," Schreiner said.
Schreiner dipped the smelt in a beer batter before frying-just beer and flour, salt and pepper--and then made homemade French dressing to serve with the fish.
Schreiner doesn't do much fishing, but she'll clean them in exchange for a few: "I'd rather fillet fish than chickens any day. At first all I had was a thick-bladed hunting knife, and I then I got a better, thinner knife. And so now I tell people bring your fish over, and I'll clean them," Schreiner said.
A true delicacy
The spring smelt fry has a whiff of novelty to it -- an odd, jokey appeal -- which makes the celebration all the more fun. But unlike other seasonal feeds like lutefisk, it's hard to ignore the fact that fresh smelt taste wonderful. They're a delicacy that come by the name honestly.
Eating these tiny fish is an old and universal thing. All around the world, people scoop up schools of freshly born tiny fish -- whitebait of all kinds -- and fry them crisp and serve them in a tangled pile.
So when you see the sign for a "smelt fry," recognize it for what it is: a common rite of spring. And one that just might satisfy a hard-wired spring craving lodged deep inside of us all.
Recipe: Fried Smelt with Sour Pickle Sauce
3 small brined fermented pickles, such as Bubbies or homemade
3 tablespoons pickle brine (from the pickle jar)
1 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 pound smelt, cleaned and gutted
2 large eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fine yellow cornmeal 1⁄2 cup cake flour
Canola oil, for frying Butter, for frying
I like to wrap the smelt in a light cornmeal jacket, fry them in butter, and serve them with a tartar sauce that leans hard on the pickle.
SERVES 4 TO 6
For the sauce, finely chop the pickles and put them in a bowl. Add the brine, mayonnaise, dill, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and the cayenne.
Rinse the smelt and blot them dry. In a wide shallow bowl, whisk together the eggs and cream. In another wide shallow bowl, combine the cornmeal, cake flour, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Heat a large cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. While the pan is heating, bread the smelt: Dip a handful of fish into the egg mixture, let any excess drain off, and then drop them into the flour mixture. Shake the bowl to coat them evenly, and then toss the breaded smelt onto a platter. Repeat until you have a good pile.
Add a thin layer of canola oil and a thick pat of butter to the pan. When it's hot, add the smelt. Fry until brown and crispy on each side, about 3 minutes. Serve, hot from the pan, with the pickle sauce. Repeat with the remaining fish.