Every day is Fish Day

By Nancy Mersereau
Ozaukee Press staff
Editor’s note: Circa 1998.

Every day is Fish Day; By Nancy Mersereau; Ozaukee Press staff; Editor’s note: Circa 1998.  Rolling a rack of chubs out of the smokehouse at Smith Bros. Food Service in Port Washington was Bert Smith. Although the fish his firm prepares are no longer caught off the city's shores, Smith says two local smokehouses still produce about a half-million pounds of smoked fish annually. Photo by Vern Arendt
Caption (above): Rolling a rack of chubs out of the smokehouse at Smith Bros. Food Service in Port Washington was Bert Smith. Although the fish his firm prepares are no longer caught off the city's shores, Smith says two local smokehouses still produce about a half-million pounds of smoked fish annually. Photo by Vern Arendt.

Every day is Fish Day; By Nancy Mersereau; Ozaukee Press staff; Editor’s note: Circa 1998.  Gene Ewig of Ewig Bros. in Port Washington displays a smoked chub and salmon, two of the popular items prepared by his company. Photo by Vern Arendt
Caption (above): Gene Ewig of Ewig Bros. in Port Washington displays a smoked chub and salmon, two of the popular items prepared by his company. Photo by Vern Arendt.

Smoke curls around the oven doors, blackened through years of use preparing one of Port Washington’s best-known products — smoked fish. The pungent hardwood fires produce eye-watering trails of smoke. The minute discomfort is a small price to pay for the delicacy that emerges.

The fish preparation rooms are cool and damp. Cleanliness is a prime requirement. The workers still wear the knee-high boots and rubber aprons identified with fishermen of old.

The preparation, cooking and smoking methods have been used for hundreds of years. The hardwood fires are built to a controlled roar to make sure the fish are cooked, then banked to produce the smoke needed to give the time-honored flavor to the fish.

When the four- to five-hour process is completed, the racks of smoked fish are pulled from the ovens, the skins dark, shiny and crackling, the flesh firm, yet soft, and full of the natural oils that make eating smoked fish a delight, albeit a sometimes messy one.

The racks are rolled from the oven into a cooling room. When sufficiently chilled, the fish are packed for distribution throughout the United States.

The operations are the same at Smith Bros. Food Service and Ewig Bros. The Port Washington firms are the sole survivors of what was once a large, thriving and competitive smoked fish business in the city and its environs.
Smoked Fish Capital of Wisconsin
“That is when Port Washington was known as the Smoked Fish Capital of Wisconsin,” said Bert Smith, who heads his family’s smoking operation. “I would say conservatively that Port Washington smoke houses sold 1.5 million pounds of smoked chubs annually.”

Gene Ewig is another descendent of a fishing family that has been part of the Port Washington business community since the late 1800s.

Both remember when the fish were brought to shore by the fleet of fishing tugs that operated out of the Port Washington harbor.

It is that heritage, of the time when the fishing fleet plied Lake Michigan and brought its catch in to be eaten fresh or smoked, that is celebrated on Fish Day. A 4:30 p.m. smoked fish eating contest at the bandshell in Lower Lake Park is part of that salute.

The Smiths and Ewigs have been major players in the past Fish Day celebrations.

At one time, both firms helped supply the food for the Fish Day stands. Today, all of the food is supplied by Smith Bros. Food Service. Bert’s nephew, Ned Huwatschek, is food chairman for the event.

The Ewig family float was a consistent winner in Fish Day parades. The family took the top prize so many times the trophy was retired and hangs inside Ewig Bros. sales area on Wisconsin Street.
Tastes have changed
Ewigs’ refrigerated retail showcase reflects how times have changed. In addition to the long-familiar hardwood smoked fish, there are gourmet smoked fish with cajun, pepper and butter-dill flavors.

Chubs remain the favored fish, but aren’t sold in the same quantities they once were, according to Smith and Ewig.

Smith Bros. is a wholesaler now although it uses the downtown fish market that still bears their name as an outlet. Ewigs still has a retail business at its Wisconsin Street smokehouse.

Both distribute their products to grocery stores and restaurants throughout south­eastern and central Wisconsin, including the Fox River Valley.

The Friday menu of smoked chubs, rye bread and coleslaw remains a staple in many households, both men said.

Both have clientele throughout the United States. The firms air express orders so customers can find the fish in selected stores throughout the United States.

Other changes are found in the smoke houses.

Boxes of chubs were once brought into the smoke houses from the company boats, cleaned, and then placed in a brine for 12 to 14 hours.
Fleets no longer exist
Neither firm has its own fishing fleet any longer. The fish are purchased from sources near and far.

Smith Bros. buys the entire catch from Lief Weiborg’s two boats that often use Port Washington as their home port. The family sold the tug Oliver Smith to Weiborg when it sold its restaurant business.

Both firms buy other fish from a variety of sources, including Alaskan salmon, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout. Blue fin herring and even carp have been added to the smoking schedule at Smiths.

Lake Michigan chubs are purchased from fishing fleets that still operate out of Sheboygan.

Once the chubs have gone through the brine bath, they are pinned to metal bars that have withstood countless trips into the ovens. The pinning is a skill in itself. Each rack holds about 300 pounds or 1,200 chubs. The labor-intensive operation is also one that has been used for more than a century.
Another fleet keeps ovens filled
Although the area’s commercial fishing fleet is almost non-existent, there is another group of boats that has brought a new type of business to both smokehouses. Recreational fishermen routinely bring their Lake Michigan catches in to be smoked. The large fish, usually smoked whole, are placed on racks for their trip through the ovens.

Satisfying their customers is all in knowing how to prepare the fish, Smith and Ewig said.
“You have to watch the fish just like you have to watch your cooking,” Ewig said. “You have to know how to test them. My dad used to pinch and poke them to test for moisture.”

Chubs are juicier, while among the large fish, salmon are drier than trout, Ewig said.

“It’s all in the taste,” he said. “And for many people that taste needs satisfying regularly. That’s what keeps us in business.”

Keeping the smokehouses fired up and operating remains a family affair. While the poundage may be in the half-million range now, another generation of the Smith and Ewig families is learning from the masters, just as the current masters learned long ago.