“Let’s start in the back — I’ll show you my dead carp collection.”
And with that, Warner Lew sweeps us into his home.
Driven by respect for the sea, he’s on a crusade to bring herring back to your dinner table. Small oily fish get no respect — but as climate change reshapes the food landscape and sustainable foods gain currency, it may be time to change the way we eat.
Lew’s home is permeated by the spirit of the ocean, from a harpoon-sized piece of baleen hanging on the wall to an impressive collection of handmade fish-themed pottery. In the garage, it soon becomes apparent that carp are only a fraction of the skeletons in his closet. Or freezer, as the case may be.
We also encounter sockeye, cod, pollock oil, a very imposing king salmon head — and herring.
“I consider herring to be the Rodney Dangerfield of fish,” Warner quips. “No one wants it. No one eats it. And I think it could have a better fate.”
So he set out on a quixotic, big-hearted venture to bring herring back.
At 60, Warner is a bundle of energy and wry humor. He tells me that herring is “just the latest in a string of money-losing ventures,” but it’s clear that his appreciation of unsung foods is something he comes by honestly. His great-grandfather immigrated from China to the Puget Sound, and his grandfather arrived permanently in the area in 1911. Lew was raised in a clan of frugal foodies; his parents were adamant that nothing they ate should be wasted. If the kids didn’t finish their dinners, the leftovers would show up the next morning in fried rice.
To this day, he can’t stand fried rice.
But at a time when eating spruce tips and insects is coming into vogue, how far-fetched could a fish really be?
Living relatives are tickled by the successes of his award-winning Deckhand’s Daughter herring, which he started selling in 2010. He imagines the deceased would be less amused by his habit of storing stock in his home.
“That’s their portraits on the wall,” he says, gesturing to a line of photos of his grandparents. They’re staring down sternly at the 5,000 cans of herring stored in his living room. “A cousin told me that my parents must be very proud of me with all the food awards. And I told her that if they were alive, they’d just be glad if I moved the inventory, cleaned out the house.”
In accordance with the house’s certification as a food storage warehouse, the boxes are neatly stacked and elevated off the floor. A Washington state certificate, however, does nothing to address the uncertainty of whether the floors will cave in from the weight. To tackle that hurdle, he spreads the cans around the house — you’ll find them in every room except the bathroom.
Lew has a day job as a steward of herring, too. He’s a fleet manager with the Seattle processor Icicle Seafoods. Poor regulations can lead to a host of imbalances in fish populations, from the overfishing of salmon and flounder in Washington state to the rise of a fish cartel in Massachusetts. While the harvest of herring is so far sustainable, what happens after the catch is pretty wasteful. Processing the fish involves harvesting the roe and consigning the rest to crab bait.
That’s not good enough for Lew.
This is a man who freezes the liquid from cans of fish into a mouthwatering popsicle for his friends’ Newfoundland dog — throwing away all but a fraction of something is both intolerable and unnecessary. Herring, he found, is delicious when smoked and canned. It’s also an interloper, an invasive species on the West Coast. And Lew has a bone to pick with invasives.
As a kid in the 1960s, Lew’s childhood orbited around points in a three block radius: his house, the library and Ellis Pond. He spent as much time as possible learning about reptiles and amphibians, and can still catch a ghost of the relevant Dewey decimal call numbers — the 590s, to be precise — that helped him find his favorite titles.
And at the pond, the books came to life. The pond, down a dirt road, was ringed with frog eggs and tadpoles. Armed with a kitchen strainer, Lew would venture out on slippery logs of dubious safety to collect specimens. On spring nights, when he was growing up, you could hear the bullfrogs croaking all the way from his house.
He had no interest in animals with fur, he says. “If it had scales, it caught my eye.” But paradise could only last so long. “The meddling hand of man ruined Ellis Pond.”
While Lew was away at college, studying zoology, someone introduced bluegills and perch to the pond. The invasive species decimated the amphibian population and, at some point, the lake went silent.
The demise of Ellis Pond inspired his career in sustainable fishing. It also meant that Lew’s daughter Mackenzie, who grew up in the same house as her dad, never got the chance to fall in love with her hometown pond like he had: the line had been cut.
“I’m not sure if it’s some ichthyological OCD; I’ve got to get more seafood out to the world, or I have to build a better market for the fishermen, or maybe I can make a small profit and have a retirement job. I think it’s something of all of that.”
But he also just hates wasting food. Finding unexpected uses for food waste is a source of impish delight — as in his discovery a few years back that byproduct fish oil can be used as biodiesel, despite some aesthetic and olfactory compromises.
“Pollock oil smells like… oh, like a grease fire at a teriyaki joint. I felt totally liberated driving on fish oil and not on petroleum products,” he says with glee… and some embarrassment. “Now my backyard looks like a meth lab.”
Those smoky diesel cars are the direct descendants of the rickety, unseaworthy crafts that he and one of his buddies would sail out into the pond. As with the rafts of his youth, Lew doesn’t always know whether or not his ideas will float.
The joy’s in finding out.