Fresh Fish in the Mountains—Thank Cod!Apr 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By David O'Reilly
It’s nearly noon at Elmira’s Maine Harvest Seafood, and four customers in the last hour have approached the front counter with the same question.
“Got any salmon?”
“We’re waiting for the truck,” owner J.T. Landy explains each time. “Be here any minute.”
Some folks sigh, then turn their gaze on the abundance before them, draped over pillows of ice. Lemon sole? Ocean perch? The cod, the scallops, the sushi-grade tuna? Swordfish? Lobster? Haddock?
“I’ll try back in half an hour,” says one man. But another spies the filets of arctic char, whose deep orange flesh sure looks like salmon. “It’s more delicate. It’s out of the trout family,” J.T explains, “so it doesn’t have the same bite” as salmon. The man ponders this, then nods. “Gimme half a pound,” he says, and departs happy.
Still, J.T. is getting a little antsy, and frowns out the window. “Come on, Carl,” he says, invoking the trucker’s name. “He’s running kinda late.”
J.T. is thirty-one, bearded, wearing a purple sweatshirt from Cape Cod and a baseball cap featuring an American flag, the stripes depicted as rows of red fish. “It’s pretty much the life I live,” he says with a laugh. He started working here in high school when his father bought the store from its founder. “I didn’t expect I’d be running the show,” he adds.
Fresh is the name of the game in the seafood industry. So, for the region’s premier seafood stores like Maine Harvest, and the legendary Helmrich’s Seafood in Williamsport, the refrigerator trucks that rush twice a week out of Boston are their lifelines to the Atlantic and beyond—a big part of what keeps customers loyal. Speaking of loyal customers, Ludwig Carterius, eighty-nine, pushes through the door. J.T. lights up, greeting him with forefingers raised in a “V” for “two.” But Ludwig—he’s been buying two haddock filets at Maine Harvest every other week for thirty years—laughs, and holds up his whole palm to signify “five.”
“I got my daughter and grandsons visiting,” he explains, and he’ll be broiling those filets for them the next day.
“They treat me very well here,” Ludwig confides. “And the haddock’s awfully good.”
Then, at 11:53 a.m., a white tractor-trailer the size of Moby Dick rumbles to a stop outside. “Truck’s here!” shouts counterman Jeremy Yeakel. Moments later J.T. is outside, stopping traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, and guiding the truck into his parking lot. Leaving the counter to Jeremy and co-worker Gary Raupers, he personally offloads the pallets and sorts them into the freezers and coolers. Then, clipboard in hand, he crouches over the newly arrived cartons, ticking off each order.
“I’ve got thirteen different vendors from as far north as Prince Edward Island,” he says, and as soon as he’s done the paperwork he hoists a whole salmon, fresh from the Faroe Islands. About sixteen pounds, it still glitters with ice as he lays it on a bench and reaches for a filet knife. In three minutes he’s cut off its tail and head, skinned it, and sliced it into two-pound “loins” which he then placed high in the center counter.
“Salmon,” he marvels at 12:18 p.m. “What everybody keeps looking for.”
Days later, and seventy-five miles south, the eponymous Bob Helmrich is scurrying around the loading dock of Helmrich’s Seafood in Williamsport, waiting for “the truck,” when a black wall phone jangles. Bob, seventy-three, doesn’t like to stand still, but he juts out an arm.
“Helmrich’s,” he says. A wholesaler is on the other end, and the pleasantries are brief. “Have you got forty-fifties deveined off? Okay. I’ll get some of those. Yeah. Yeah. No. You don’t have sixteen-twenties peeled and deveined, do you? Uh huh. What’s the price?” He clicks a ballpoint pen.
“Thirteen and a quarter? Wow, that’s high. I can see you’re not selling much of those.” They talk lobsters and crabmeat, but these, too, are running high. “Okay, okay, let’s talk Friday,” he says, and hangs up.
“Lobster’s up five dollars a pound from a month ago,” he grumbles. A single case of covid on a workboat can idle it for days, he explains, and when supply is down, prices “go through the roof.”
His grandfather, William, started with a produce pushcart in 1895, and in 1908 opened his first store. Helmrich’s has been a fixture in Williamsport ever since—Bob’s father and uncle took over from William—and it’s been on Fifth Street for nearly a century. Like Maine Harvest, it’s both a distributor to area restaurants and a busy retail shop. Employees mostly wait on customers while Bob and his son, Robert Jr., who works part-time, handle the inventory. But Bob alone filets and smokes all their fish.
“Been at this sixty years,” he says over his shoulder as he swings open the door of his walk-in freezer. The cartons read like a map of the world: Newfoundland, Scotland, Alaska, South Africa, the Gulf of Mexico.
“I carry two or three thousand pounds of shrimp at a time,” he says, his breath frosty. “Maybe five thousand pounds of haddock.” Here, and in the adjacent refrigerator, are mahi-mahi, mackerel, monkfish, shark, bluefish, catfish, sole, mussels, porgies, thousands of clams, Dungeness crabs, crawfish, grouper, octopus, squid, escargot, frog legs, and, yes, alligator.
“Oh, alligator’s great,” he says, “Only you got to cook it real slow or it gets tough.”
His favorites? “Lobster. And clams. And grilled oysters on the half-shell. They’re awesome.”
He might “slow down some day,” but never retire. “That,” he says, “is when you die.”
Longtime employee Gina Trapani, who’s plucking pin bones from a Scottish salmon filet, laughs. “His theory is that an object in motion stays in motion,” she says. “When he goes, we’re going to stuff him and put him in one of those chairs over there.”
Hungry for fish now? Find Maine Harvest Seafood at 650 Pennsylvania Avenue, Elmira, on Facebook, or call (607) 733-6759; find Helmrich’s at 137 Fifth Street, Williamsport, at helmrichsseafood.business.site, or call (570) 322-2454.