Sept. 15, 2005 "No," says Patty Burke, "never in my life did I think I would grow up to be a fishmonger in the Virgin Islands. The islands, maybe. But fish? Not in my wildest dreams."
From behind the counter at S&P Seafoods, the island female fishmonger says, "I like it. It is what it is." She grins, "People call me the fish lady."
With her sprays of freckles and bright blue eyes, Burke is not your basic idea of a fishmonger. No long, black rubber apron, no hip boots and surly manner. Instead she wears jeans and a sleeveless cotton top, adorned by an amethyst necklace made by her daughter, Jessie. In fact, the shop doesn't really smell like fish.
But, once you get talking fish, Burke is who you want to listen to. She and her partner, Scott Harrington, have been in the business of selling fish for years. The East Gregery Channel fish shop now called S&P Seafoods has been there for about 11 years.
Burke followed a circuitous route to her present calling. Born and bred in New Jersey, she worked in a bank for a few years. "I hated that," she says, "and I loved the sun. I lived for summer to come around."
So, like many others before and after her, Burke followed the sun. One day in 1969, she says, "I just packed up and moved to St. Thomas. I didn't know anybody. I stayed in the old Grand Hotel, and I began to meet people right away, everyone was so friendly."
She got into the fish business by what has turned out to be a happy accident. "I was working as a bartender and waitress for a while," she says. "And when I was working for Tommy Branch at the old Royal Rum House on Government Hill, one of our customers, a dentist named Michael Evans, had an idea. He said he was thinking about opening a fish shop because there was almost no place on the island to get stateside fish, like shellfish or salmon."
"I thought it sounded like a great idea," Burke says. She had a little experience in the fish business. "I went back to the states once for about a year, and my sister and I worked for Bookbinders Restaurant in Philadelphia. It's a landmark, you know, and we were the youngest waitresses there. The older waitresses didn't like us, but the owners did, and we learned a lot about serving fish." So when Evans opened the Seafood Gourmet, across from the old Yacht Haven, he took along Burke. She stepped right into her new career, and hasn't moved sideways since. A couple years after Evans opened the shop, Roland Harrington and his son, Scott, bought Evans out.
"Scott knew everything about the fish business," Burke says. "He comes from a five-generation Boston fishing family. They are very well-known up there. They go back to when codfish used to be brought in by the metric ton." Burke's conversation regularly refers to her partner. "Scott taught me almost everything I know about this business," she says.
"We moved the business to Red Hook, and that's where the wholesale end came into play. We changed the name to Caribbean Seafood."
"I love this business. I'm always learning something; it's always changing. A lot depends on what the island chefs are into" she says. "Right now, it's Chilean sea bass, which is really a Patagonian fish. Most people wouldn't know that.
"Here," Burke says, "let me show you." She reaches to an overhead shelf, and pulls down a copy of "The Encyclopedia of Fish." She flips through the well-used pages. "See, what's called the Chilean Sea Bass is really the Patagonian Toothfish. Most people wouldn't know that."
"We do all our own butchering," Burke says. "The fish arrives whole. And the chef's' desires change all the time," Burke says. "That makes it so interesting. With fish there's always something new to learn. For instance, there was a ban on rockfish; it's very restricted because it was overfished. Some states banned it, some didn't."
She continues, "It's not like selling sirloin steaks or New York strips. There are 100 species of snapper, alone."
On the wall above her desk are mounted two curious-looking bone spears. "Those are swordfish bills," Burke explains. "Before Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 (10 years ago today) we did a huge swordfish export business. There was a fleet of about five or six boats. Our biggest month, we exported about 100,000 pounds to the stateside markets.
"They would bring in their catch, and we would store their bait, provision their beer and groceries, whatever they needed. It was exciting," she says. "They were independent guys, not like the big guys, no union. They would go out from six days to maybe two weeks. Swordfish are migratory, so it was a seasonal business from November to maybe April or May.
"Then," Burke says sadly, "after Marilyn, American Airlines discontinued their wide-bodied aircraft, and we had no way to ship the fish out."
Marilyn played havoc with the store's location, too. They had moved to Gregery East in 1994, where the shop is located now, but they were forced to move to smaller quarters for a couple years while the original shop was put back together.
The present shop is well ordered, clean and efficiently laid out. Burke shows the cold locker where most of the fish is stored in large crates stuffed with flaked ice. "It surrounds the fish," Burke points out. "If you use cube ice, the fish get dimples in the flesh." It's kept at about 30 degrees. And there's another locker kept at about 10 degrees below for frozen fish, she says.
The business is strictly stateside fish, no local.
Harrington makes an appearance. Almost the first thing he does is check the temperature gauge on the wall to see if the proper temperatures were maintained all night. How about power?
Harrington says they don't really need a generator. "WAPA is never out more than about an hour because we are on the downtown feeder," he says.
The shrimp are frozen, and they come from remote locations Vietnam and the Philippines, Burke says. "The scallops are fresh," she says proudly, "fished right out of Gloucester, the Great Banks."
Harrington says the business is about 99 percent wholesale. Burke says, "With retail, you have to keep hours, have showcases. We don't want to do that.
"However," she says, "we are happy to serve anyone who walks in the shop."
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