Smoked goldeye, a dish fit for a king

I recently ran across an article in the August 17, 1937, Winnipeg Tribune by J.C. Royale that immediately piqued my interest. The article’s headline claimed that the “lowly goldeye” was elevated to a “dish fit for kings” through a mistake made in the smoking process. It also revealed the identity of the man who perfected the method that turned the fish into one of Manitoba’s readily-identified culinary delights under the interchangeable names of “Lake Winnipeg goldeye” or simply “Winnipeg goldeye.”

I was familiar with the process involved in smoking goldeye, since I had written an article on the subject as a young reporter (published on August 8, 1984, in the Interlake Spectator). For the article, I interviewed my friend, Gord Jacobson, of Gimli, who today is still a commercial fisherman on Lake Winnipeg and still smokes goldeyes. What I discovered was that the 1937 and 1984 articles described virtually the same process for smoking goldeye, although with slight differences that came with an additional five decades of making the final product even better.

I’ve always loved the distinct flavour of smoked goldeye. But, I’ve also wondered who developed the method that turned an otherwise mushy fleshed and unpalatable fish into the delightfully tasty gourmet treat. Paul Kane, the famed artist who travelled the West painting its people and scenery in the 19th century, described goldeye as “a peculiar species of fish ... like herring, though larger, thicker, and not worth catching,” since, “they eat like mud .”

Over the years, I had heard various stories about who first developed Winnipeg goldeye. While it is true that goldeye had been smoked by First Nations people for centuries, they used a method that didn’t turn the fish into “Winnipeg goldeye.” The Cree would hang the fish on branches under which willow was burned to smoke the goldeye — a process referred to as “cold smoking” with the fish cured (preserved) by the smoke. The process that was later developed and explained to me by Jacobson was called “hot smoking.”

According to the 1937 article: “Back in the days when fish in the Red River were as thick as mosquitoes on a summer cottage screen door, a lone figure might have been seen nightly on the river bank dipping in the water with a gill net, or puttering around a barrel stood on end. That mysterious figure conjured up for the world a new gastronomic delight — smoked goldeyes.”

The mysterious figure was actually a young butcher, who was a recent arrival to Winnipeg. His North Main butcher shop was not doing too well financially, so in order to support his family he resorted to catching fish in the river at night. “Back home in Hull, he had known well the huge sheds for smoking fish, and thought to preserve his catches the same way. A handy barrel was his makeshift smokehouse.

“The experiment looked like a failure, for the fish, instead of being merely smoked, were more than half cooked. But when the young man tasted the fish he had treated, he blessed his lucky star. For the dirt-cheap goldeyes, not very palatable in their uncured state, had become a dish fit for a king.”

For the 1937 article, Royale interviewed the accidental discoverer of the hot smoking method in the kitchen of his 294 Albany St. home in St. James, where he lived with his son. The man he interviewed was Robert Firth, who explained that he had learned how to clean and cook fish when he ran away to work as a “cookee” on a North Sea fishing “smack” (sail boat). When he came of age, he decided to visit other parts of the world, eventually settling in Winnipeg in 1886. “I had been told it was a rare fine town, but all I found was a handful of houses, prairie and snow up to my knees in October,” said Firth.

Firth’s first year was spent as a fireman at St. John’s College. He next opened a butcher shop. When a First Nations man came into his shop and offered a sack of goldeyes for just a shilling, he  decided to try his hand at harvesting the river’s bounty.

“When he took his first suckers he smoked to Main Street merchants, they laughed at him,” wrote Royale. “But when he cajoled them and they tasted, they gave orders. In the first years he smoked every variety of fish, but none with such a success as the goldeyes.”

When Firth’s butcher shop failed, he took up fishing full time, using a seine net that he stretched more than halfway across the river, “sweeping it downstream between a man on shore and one in the boat. His barrel gave way to a larger box-like smoker built over a dug-out in the river bank. The fire was built of oak boughs, and the fish hung in rows by their tails in the box.”

Jacobson hung about 20 fish on individual rods (the rod was pushed through their gold-coloured eyes; hence, the name). Multiple rods were then placed in a smokehouse and a fire started under them. Once the fire was well underway, wet ashes were thrown on the fire. “That’s where you get your smoke from,” he explained.  Like Firth, Jacobson and his partner Calvin Firman used oak. “It’s got to be a hardwood. If you use spruce or any other type of softwood, you get a taste from the wood.” The wet ashes were kept on the fire for four hours. After that, the fire was rekindled and the fish cooked for about another two hours. Jacobson said he watched the fire very closely. “Too much heat will dry up the fish and they start falling off the rods.”

Another trick used by today’s smokers is to freeze the goldeyes immediately after being freshly caught and cleaned. They’re kept frozen for six to eight weeks. “It has to be frozen before you smoke it,” said Jacobson. “Somehow it takes the smoke better and firms the fish.” The fish are thawed in water before being hung on the rods. Was this method also used by Firth? The article doesn’t mention freezing the fish before smoking them for the fish companies.

Firth was hired by the major fish companies in Winnipeg to “smoke.” He worked using his smoking method from 1900 until he retired in 1932. He also taught the art to his sons, with one following him as a “smoker” for Booth Fisheries. “For there was nobody else who had so much experience and could get just that certain flavour,” Firth told Royale. The Prince of Wales was so pleased by his first feast of smoked goldeyes that when he revisited Winnipeg in 1919, he asked for more. “Fifteen dozen carefully selected large fish were needed to fill the order, evidence to Bob Firth that in discovering how to smoke goldeyes he had made no error.”

Jacobson and Firman learned to smoke goldeye from older fishermen who had taught themselves how to smoke. It is an art — some people have it, some don’t. But for those who do, the reward is putting out a superior product eagerly gobbled up by the public.

Some questioned Firth’s role in perfecting the smoking method, when he was named by Royale as the originator. But there have never been any viable challengers to dispute that Firth hadn’t developed the “hot smoking” of goldeyes.