At this moment I am at a restaurant in Cobble Hill on a Saturday morning, alternating between writing this and handing out neat packages of yellowfin tuna to familiar faces as they come in and out. Four-year-old Checkers is eating a fresh chocolate croissant from Bien Cuit next door and coloring happily, sometimes greeting people as they come in but most times responding to their greetings with “I’m shy.”
A year ago this month, I began working with Mark Usewicz and Bianca Piccillo, the couple who run Mermaid’s Garden, one of the first of a growing number of CSF’s (community-supported fisheries) in Brooklyn. Begun in the summer of 2012 and modeled on CSA’s (community-supported agriculture), which have now established themselves as a viable urban market model for local, small-scale farmers, Mermaid’s Garden runs seven weekly pickups in Brooklyn, where its 365 members pick up a “share” of a different fish (or shellfish substitution) harvested by the many North-Atlantic small-boat fisherman who have relationships with Mark and Bianca.
Mark is a chef and Bianca is a marine biologist, so they are uniquely suited to spearhead the CSF movement, which has spawned a handful of other Brooklyn-based collectives that operate on similar models. I’m always tickled and sometimes amazed at the depth and breadth of information Bianca gives in her weekly “This Week’s Fish” emails: the boat the fish came from, some ecological history of the species, even a few of their favorite recipes.
Bianca and Mark aren’t the only ones sharing recipes. Like most CSA’s, one of the best parts of being a member is the community. The CSF has a very active Facebook page, and most weeks I simply ask other members as they come in to pick up their shares how they plan to cook them that week. I have a few favorites, but most weeks I try a new recipe or method.
I’ve also discovered new fish and shellfish along the way—species I might have simply not known existed like golden tilefish, Acadian redfish, and silver hake, or never thought to eat like skate wing and monkfish. Of course many weeks we get standards like tuna, flounder, haddock, striped bass, and pollock, or we do a shellfish substitution (or addition, if we’re really feeling hungry). Checkers’ favorite food is currently mussels, with calamari (especially the tentacles) a close second, but they also offer a variety of clams and oysters, and the most plump, dry sea scallops I’ve ever tasted. Whatever it is, not only can we be sure it came fresh off the boat, we can know what boat it came off of.
From the start, Mark and Bianca’s goal has been to use the CSF as a way of working their way financially into opening a brick-and-mortar fish market. As of last December, through the profits from the CSF and a successful crowdfunding campaign, they’ve reached that goal. The Mermaid’s Garden market on 644 Vanderbilt now offers all the seasonal fish varieties that the CSF members have enjoyed over the past year or two, as well as a full deli kitchen with plenty of prepared items. The downtown area of Prospect Heights just above Grand Army Plaza was sorely lacking a fish market, so the timing and placement are serendipitous for all.
Now that the market is open the CSF is entirely member-run, with each pickup serviced by member volunteers. As the business has gained steam they’ve also been offering more and more seasonal treats, like caviar for the holiday season, stone crab claws in the winter, and even Super Bowl packages.
Checkers now calls our weekly CSF pickups “fishing trips.” I keep asking her if she wants to go on a fishing boat with me next year, and every time I do she asks, “Is it like this, but on a boat?”
Pretty much, Checkers. Pretty much.