If you’re looking for an authentic New England fish market, you have to drive the winding way from down-Island to Chilmark and the Menemsha Fish Market. This is not a glitzy water-resistant-wood-floor sort of space, with fancy takeout containers and artisanal accompaniments. More like a very well-worn painted concrete floor that you could hose down in a pinch and a cold case holds all sorts of seafood treasures . . . fresh sea scallops from the Martha Rose, which you can see docked right outside. Swordfish, codfish, halibut, fish cakes, stuffed quahogs and a whole lot more. Lobsters crawl over each other in the big tanks next to the packed cold cases. It’s enough to make you want to grab your waders. What makes the market genuine though is the man behind the counter, Stanley Larsen.
Born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, Stanley works just about every day dawn to dusk. He only recently stopped going out on his fishing boat, Four Kids, and hauling in his own daily catch. It’s too difficult to find someone to go out with him these days, he said. He buys from local fishermen and some fish out of Boston, with swordfish coming mainly from Canada, halibut from Newfoundland, and salmon from the Faroe Islands.
We caught up with him at the fish market on a busy sunny afternoon in September. Despite the warmer days of summer waning, the place was packed.
“Swordfishing was my favorite,” Stanley says while he takes a quick break from packing up lobster to ship off-Island. “I caught a 500-pounder the day my son Eric was born. It was the only fish caught by the whole fleet that day.”
Back when swordfishing was done regularly with spotters and harpoons, Stanley was out there with his dad, Dagbard, and guys he’s known his whole life. “With my father, we caught a fish dressed out at 622 pounds, that was 1976 or so,” he says. There were no touch screens on the boat to connect to your personal tech devices. You climbed high up on the mast and kept your eyes peeled.
To this day, though, swordfish is Stanley’s favorite seafood.
“I could eat swordfish every day,” he says. “I like it grilled but I like it poached too, like salmon.”
The fish market has been operating since the 1940s when Everett Poole ran it. He passed it down to his son, Donald, and then Stanley and Lanette, his wife, took over in 2004. His daughter Janelle has worked there since she was 7, Stanley said. And although he’s been in the business of fishing his whole life, it’s still hard to keep up with him while he’s at work behind the counter, ready with a wave and a few welcoming words for nearly everyone who comes in the door.
“Do we have any 3-pounders?” an employee calls out to Stanley. “Yeah, we’ve got ’em,” he says. Another employee tells a customer how tasty the stuffed quahogs are and other staff are in the back in the kitchen ladling out the market’s awardwinning clam chowder. If you ask Stanley, he’ll tell you everyone loves it so much because it’s so full of clams.
“Chowder-making is a team effort, but yeah, it’s pretty much my recipe,” he tells me. “You start with a base, and we put a lot of clams in it. The bisque — many, many people tell us it’s the only bisque that tastes like lobster. People come from all over the world and say this is the best bisque they’ve ever had.” (Even though the chowder is delicious, it’s the bisque filled with huge lumps of lobster meat that gets my attention every time I make the trek out to Menemsha.)
A customer rolls through the door with a wheelchair. His name is Bill Smith and he tells me he’s known Stanley since kindergarten, around 60 or so years ago now. His dad was the fire chief in Chilmark and he and Stanley’s uncle were best friends, Smith says.
“Stanley and I grew up when 12-year-old kids walking down the side of the road with a .22 and a handful of rabbits was normal,” Smith tells me. “When Stanley and I went to high school, the only thing we wanted to do was to get home and get out in the woods. You know, he’s the hardest-working man in town, and one of the few open all winter and that’s quite a feat around here.”
This conversation takes Stanley back too, and Bill says to him: “Your father and uncle came in with two weeks worth of swordfish, back when there were fish around.”
“I feel pretty fortunate,” Stanley says. “I grew up right here — like Billy coming in here — I see my friends on a regular basis. My whole family pretty much lives on the Island.” Later he points to a grove of trees out past the marshlands in front of the market and tells me that he used to live in a house right over there, and when he was growing up he and his friends loved to camp out under the stars. “You kind of still can,” Stanley says, “but you’ve got to be a little more careful.”