Ocean State’s Most Abundant Fish Slowly Finds Local Tables
November 5, 2022
Consider the humble scup.
Ignored, disrespected, even feared, scup is one of the most plentiful fish in Narragansett Bay, a climate-change winner whose numbers are rising with Rhode Island’s water temperatures. Yet many Rhode Islanders have never heard of it, let alone tasted one.
Rhode Island fishermen caught more than 4 million pounds of scup in 2021, making it the state’s biggest catch among fish and second in the state’s commercial seafood school only to that better-known kingpin — squid, aka calamari.
While calamari is Rhode Island’s popular state appetizer, you won’t find scup in most supermarket seafood cases in the Ocean State. Instead, most of the commercial catch is exported to large cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago with large immigrant populations whose cultures are more familiar with scup.
Not that they call it scup. Outside of Rhode Island, it goes by the name porgy, or sea bream. The name scup comes from the Narragansett Indian word for the fish — mishcuppauog.
Roger Williams wrote about scup in his 17th-century bestseller, “A Key Into The Language of America,” about the Narragansett culture.
“Of this fish there is abundance which the Natives drie in the Sunne and smoake; and some English begin to salt,” wrote Williams. “Both wayes they keepe all the yeere; and it is hoped it may be as well accepted as Cod at a Market, and better, if once knowne.”
Today, fishermen, scientists, environmentalists, and seafoodies in Rhode Island are working to achieve Williams’ dream.
Kate Masury, executive director of Eating with the Ecosystem, says the way to a sustainable seafood diet is through our stomachs, by eating locally sourced fish like scup. The Rhode Island-based nonprofit promotes New England’s wild seafood by connecting food systems with commercial fisheries.
“Food systems and fishery science happen in two different silos,” says Masury. “There’s the fishery science that looks at the populations of fish and shellfish … and then there’s the food system side that’s looking at how to feed people. … And a lot of times, those aren’t necessarily linked up.”
People who have eaten scup sing its praises.
“It’s delicious,” says Chris Parkins, chief biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “It’s a great, white-fleshed fish with healthy protein. Cheap too.”
Scup are also easy to catch and popular with recreational anglers, including children fishing for the first time. Parkins calls scup “the sunfish of the sea.”
“You know when you take a kid to a pond, the first thing they always catch is a sunfish,” Parkins says. “In Rhode Island, you can take a kid to any part of the shoreline, throw in a little bit of clam or squid, and chances are, you’re going to catch a scup.”
Echoes Pat Brown, captain of the DEM trawler John H. Chafee, “We took my daughter scup fishing this weekend and had delicious scup fish tacos for dinner.”
So why don’t more people eat scup? Fear, says scup aficionado John Delgado.
“It’s the intimidation factor,” he says. People don’t want to deal with cooking a whole fish — the scales, the head, the tail, the bones.
As the seafood buyer for Dave’s Markets, Delgado has pushed scup in the Rhode Island chain’s 10 grocery stores. Since Dave’s started carrying scup about 12 years ago, sales have climbed from 25 pounds a week to several hundred pounds. The workers behind the fish counter will fillet it for customers and cut off the head and tail.
“It should be a staple, especially in the New England-Northeast market,” says Delgado, standing behind the fish counter at the Dave’s in Cranston after bringing in a load of scup from Galilee. “It’s definitely underutilized. It’s a beautiful fish — not strong, not gamey. … I do it broiled with some onions and tomatoes.
“When I have company over, they never really ask what the fish is until after, and love it. And then I’ll say, ‘Believe it or not, it was scup.’ And they say, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’”
As Delgado speaks, a shopper rolls her cart past the fish counter and does a double take upon seeing scup. She buys a 3-pounder, familiar from her childhood in South Carolina, where they called it porgy. She asks the worker to de-scale it but leave the head and tail — better for broiling.
Scup is also on the menu at some Rhode Island restaurants, including Oberlin, one of Providence’s finest restaurants, which has won national acclaim.
“We used to call is silver bass, because that was the only way we could get people to actually order it,” says Ben Sukle, the chef-owner of Oberlin, as he fillets a scup. “People are pleasantly surprised all the time by it.”
Tonight, Sukle is serving it raw, or crudo, as an appetizer — a simple preparation with Arbequina olive oil, lemon, and sea salt. Every week, he drives down to the docks in Galilee and buys local seafood; scup is often among the catch. A critic for Bon Appetit reviewing Oberlin wrote that scup was “my new favorite … you’ll wonder why it’s not on every menu.”
Just as farm-to-table has become a trend in local restaurant cuisine, so has bay-to-table.
“You have to be responsible with what you’re pushing, and it’s doing things like cooking with what’s local to you — that’s the most sustainable way,” says Sukle. “It starts with restaurants understanding the proximity to the ocean in Rhode Island means you can get that fish locally.”
The mission of Eating with the Ecosystem is that people can restore balance to their diets and their ecosystem by eating local seafood.
“When you’re eating local, you’re not only supporting the fishing community, but the full supply chain,” says Masury, who grew up in Maine and earned a master’s degree at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego before moving to Rhode Island. “Your food is traveling less far, which helps in terms of carbon emissions. You’re also forming a connection with the ecosystem that’s actually producing your seafood.”
Rhode Island’s newer immigrants can also teach us about eating closer to home. Scup is commonly found at Asian, Hispanic, Portuguese, and Liberian markets in and around Providence — more popular in cultures accustomed to cooking whole fish.
In 2020, with Rhode Island’s fishermen and poorer residents suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, Eating with the Ecosystem teamed with the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council to help both.
Using grant money, they bought seafood and distributed it free to food-insecure communities “who already knew how to take whole, unprocessed fish and shellfish and turn it into delicious meals.”
From the first delivery in August 2020 — 60 pounds of donated fish in a cooler that was driven in the back of Masury’s Prius to the African Alliance of Rhode Island — the program has handed out more than 210,000 pounds of fish and shellfish. The groups recently cut the ribbon on a refrigerated storage unit at Farm Fresh Rhode Island in Providence and bought a refrigerated truck to better transport seafood from the docks to Providence.
The biggest recipient is SunRise Forever, a group that works with Providence’s sizeable Liberian community. On a recent Saturday, handing out fish in a church parking lot in Providence, founder and executive director Alice M. Howard notes her group has distributed food to more than 300 families.
The seafood helps struggling families eat healthy. And for Liberian immigrants like Esther and Michael Neor, fish like scup offers a taste of home back in Africa. Their five children each have their favorite recipe, from baking or frying to chopping up the leftovers for a spicy pepper soup.
Today, Esther Neor is frying a whole scup and then smothering it in a sauce of onions, fresh tomatoes, and garlic that bubbles on the stove. The fish — white, flaky, and tasty — falls easily from the bone. Michael Neor pops an eyeball in his mouth — for luck — and offers the other to this reporter, who follows suit.
Esther Neor followed her mother to the United States after she left Liberia to escape a bloody civil war. As a girl in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, she accompanied her mother to the fish markets on Providence Island — site of the first landing spot, in 1822, of freed people who had been enslaved in America and founded Liberia.
“We called it black snapper,” she recalls. “To find it here in Providence, Rhode Island — that makes me happy.”