#832: Calumet Fisheries

August 21st, 2017

The car in front of us was a BMW, that’s what I noticed first.

It made sense, of course. Calumet Fisheries on the 95th Street Bridge is for all comers. Rich and poor, young and old, black and brown and white all file in by car or bike to the little shack on the Calumet River.

They don’t come from factories, though. They don’t come with the reek of molten bessamer from long hours at the steel mill.

Now, a parade of spandex-clad cyclists en route to Indiana is a more common sight. The bridge the Blues Brothers did an Evel Knievel over in the movie raises to the skies with dinging safety warning and tumbling litter and scrap. It’s not being raised for heavy industrial cargo, but a rich man’s sailboat from the nearby marina. His hobbycraft’s mast is too tall.

But Calumet Fisheries is still there, a shack serving smoked fish and deep-fried nautical what-have-you to steelworkers and cyclists since 1928.

Calling it a shack implies a certain shoddiness in construct, but that’s not the case. The little fish house is sturdy, well-constructed, but definitely within the “shack” family. Clean glass cases stacked high with smoked fish greet the entrant. Cross sections of fish, a few inch thick each, smoked in a wood fire out back of the shack and served up fresh and savory in the front.

In a case by the fryer to the side, pre-breaded and pre-portioned snippets of fish, shrimp, scallops, any water-dwelling treat you can imagine sit in paper trays and Chinese food containers ready to drop in hot oil the moment its ordered. Fries, slaw and a little bag of crackers, forks and ketchup come with automatically. The only question you answer is if you want the plastic snap-lid ramekin filled with hot sauce or mild.

You sit outside — that’s the only option. One of two picnic tables slapped on the sidewalk by the bridge. Cyclists go by. An old man escorts his older mother to the BMW, black wealth in a city where rich brings the assumption of white. A white father and teenage son fresh off their own bikes sit and sloppily devour fries and fish. It was a treat for the son who had never been. It was a treat for the father who got to take him.

Deep-fried scallops are hot, oily, insatiably good. Same for the sun, the shack, the piles of soon-to-be-smoked wood in the grass out back. The line of rich and poor, BMW and bikes grows and ebbs. The smell of fire and seafood wafts where the men used to make steel.

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