Nelson Bryant, who died this past January, was raised in West Tisbury and romped in the fields and on the shorelines of up-Island Martha’s Vineyard for much of his boyhood. He parachuted from an airplane on D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, went on to graduate from Dartmouth College, and after a stint as a newspaper editor in New Hampshire, returned to the Island to build docks, hiring artist Kib Bramhall to help. Some years later, Bryant turned his lifelong passion into a job, becoming the Outdoors columnist for the New York Times. He would write Outdoors for more than three decades.
And he would fish, as he did as a boy, year-round, bringing his catch home to cook with his partner, artist Ruth Kirchmeier. I asked Ruth if I’d heard correctly that Nelson would take a lemon with him on fishing excursions to Lobsterville, so he could cook what he caught over a fire, and season it simply when finished. “The only occasions he brought lemons on a fishing/food-gathering foray,” she told me, “was to squeeze on the oysters he regularly gathered at Tisbury Great Pond.”
She shared more fish-preparation tricks: “When baking salmon, he would often smear it lightly with Dijon mustard and dust it with brown sugar before putting it in the oven, a trick he’d learned watching a French Canadian guide on a fishing trip to Canada. The guide, however, had held the fish over an open fire he’d built, and it might have been speared on a spruce branch.”
Several years ago, Bryant wrote a series of columns for The MV Times, and in one, ponders the white perch, and the great pond in which he finds them: “In early November, Peter Huntington dropped by with a much-appreciated gift of white perch he had caught in Tisbury Great Pond.
“I first encountered that salt pond’s perch more than 80 years ago, so I was not surprised to see them in Peter’s bucket.
“[As a child] I was immediately captivated by the species, and for several boyhood years I never failed to visit Town Cove, which was one of the places where they congregated in spring to spawn. As the years went by, however, I became more interested in striped bass and bluefish, both species that are frequent visitors to the pond.
“I anointed a brace of Peter’s perch — he had cleaned and scaled them for me — with a mild mixture of melted butter, salt, pepper, garlic, and powdered basil, and baked them for 20 minutes at 350°. Both my partner, Ruth Kirchmeier, and I found their flavor and texture superb. Indeed, no less an expert on fishing and fish cookery than the late A.J. McLane observes in his classic New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia that ‘there is no finer fish to eat than the white perch.’”
Nelson Bryant wrote a memoir called Millpond Joe that contains more of his recipes. If you’re lucky, you might find a copy in an Island library.