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Turning out the Fish

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If the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” was your Christmas Eve fare, then your local fishmonger is probably your best friend. Though dubbed an Italian tradition, there are likely as many Italians who practice it as those who’ve never heard of it. The seven-course seafood dinner, one for each of the seven Cardinal Virtues (faith, hope, charity, temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice) commemorates “La Vigilia,” the vigil for the birth of Jesus Christ. While many devout Catholics abstain from eating landlubbing meats the day before liturgical holidays like Christmas, there are many who simply relish the plethora of holiday treats from the sea, like fresh Dungeness Crab, seafood soufflés, and oyster stew.

“Seafood has become a such a major component of American Christmas dinners. And that’s without the Feast of the Seven Fishes,” laughs Jim Turner. Turner and his three brothers, John, Joe and Chris are third generation “fish guys” who own a wholesale fish operation in Gloucester, Massachusetts and a restaurant, Turner’s Seafood Grill & Market in Melrose, Massachusetts, which has been serving authentic New England cuisine for fifteen years.

As with many small businesses, holidays are the make-or-break season. The Turners start gearing up for Christmas in November making “cocktail sauce for shrimp, stuffing for lobsters and Rockefeller mix for oysters,” picking up steam as the weeks tick by. The 23rd and 24th are like the anchor leg of a month-long 400-meter relay. “We get more than 500 telephone orders on the 23rd alone. On the 24th the line for order pick-up starts around 8:30AM…We don't even bother to open the restaurant on the 24th because we’re so busy with fresh fish orders," says Jim. They close around 2 PM, writing out Turner's gift certificates until around 5PM.

Fish is in the Turner DNA. Jim’s grandfather, James F. Turner, came down to Boston from Newfoundland in 1920 at the age of 20 to work on the Boston Fish Pier. He did so well that in 1954 he opened Turner Fisheries, a wholesale fish company whose key innovation was flying fresh seafood out of Boston and whose clients advertised, “Today’s fish flown in fresh from Boston’s Turner Fisheries. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was hardly an American or Delta flight out of Boston which didn’t have some of our seafood in its cargo,” says Jim.

John Turner took over as vice president of operations when his grandfather died in 1964, growing the company into very successful wholesale and retail operation proudly bearing the title of “the nation’s leading quality seafood house.“ “Turner Fisheries” was so synonymous with fresh seafood, that when the Westin Copley Square opened in 1978, Westin asked if it could name their restaurant “Turner Fisheries.” It’s still open today, though the Turners do not run it.

Strict government changes in fishing regulations in the 1980s dramatically altered New England’s wholesale fishing model, and Turner Fisheries eventually closed. In 1989, John Turner created J. Turner Seafoods in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a wholesale seafood business built to meet the new rules.

All four of John’s sons had learned about wholesale seafood from their father and grandfather, so it was only matter of time until they got into the fish biz, too. They eventually did, but they went retail, and opened a restaurant.

Neither Jim, a Harvard grad, nor his brothers knew anything about running a restaurant when they started, but says Jim, they used their father and grandfather’s core philosophy which was to put the customer first. “We put the ‘q,’ ‘quality,’ before the ‘p,’ ‘price’. That had always worked for our family. We did well and we flourished. We’ve always been about quality.”

Building any new business is always a lot more expensive than you think. When cost estimates doubled, “my wife’s eyes welled-up with tears,” says Jim. “I told her we’d be okay. That was 15 years ago.” They opened a fish market, sit-down restaurant and the pièce de résistance, an oyster bar with bubbling oyster kettles and shuckers in full-view.

It used to be that for safety reasons people ate oysters only in months ending in “r.” Given aquaculture these days, oysters can be eaten in other months, too, but ones in the “r” months taste better. “That’s because oysters are like bears. They hibernate in the winter so in the fall, like bears, they eat voraciously, and that makes them plump and juicy,” says Jim. They like colder waters, he says, pointing out that oysters from warmer climes can be “small and flabby.”

He goes through 1500 oysters a week because they taste good and because “there’s something romantic about someone eating oysters. That is their reputation,” he chuckles. His favorites are Pleasant Bay from Orleans, Wianno from Osterville, and Damariscotta from the Damariscotta Estuary in Maine. Not a small or flabby one in the lot.

“Baked Scrod,” the classic Boston dish consisting of cod or haddock baked with a lemon-butter-white wine mixture and seasoned breadcrumbs is another best-seller, as is Lobster Pie, fresh lobster meat topped with rich, buttery Ritz cracker crumbs. Turner’s personal favorite is Haddock Piccata with lemon and capers. “It’s what I always get. Cracks the staff up. I don’t know why. I can get anything I want and this is it. They don’t even ask when I sit down. They just put it in front of me.”

Combining the fish market and open oyster bar with the restaurant - which lets people see their food before they eat it - has been a resounding success. And starting in 2010 they’ll be shipping their chowder and bisque nationwide. But first they have to recover from another Christmas season.

Jim’s mom does Christmas dinner for her exhausted sons and their families, “about 30 people, including 11 grandchildren and that’s just immediate family.” Unsurprisingly, the main course is usually ham or turkey, but there are always some fish dishes. Usually, Jim can barely keep his eyes open, “much less assemble bicycles, toys or furniture. We have the 25th to enjoy, but on the 26th, we open up again for business.”

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