By Amy Moeller | June 22, 2015 | People
The shuckers, anglers, trawlers, and vendors of Main Avenue Fish Market have weathered the storms for 200 years to make it an essential part of DC’s landscape.
It’s 6 am and as the rest of the city sleeps, shuffles their kids to school, or clocks their gym time, the men at Jessie Taylor Seafood stir in the small sleeping quarters behind the storefront barge. By 7 am, the market is abuzz with workers preparing for the day ahead. They fill the display cases with bucket-upon-bucket of ice and the first trucks roll in for the day’s delivery.
The dozen or so men on this shift perform the same ritualistic duties for seven straight days, 14 hours a day. Each man has his charge: fish, crabs, oysters, etc. And each falls in every morning like clockwork. Then they get a seven-day break—seven on, seven off. On Monday night, those who live locally will head home for a weeklong retreat—though many do their own fishing and crabbing or other odd jobs on the side—but most will pile in vans and head to their families in Salisbury and beyond. The business was born on Smith Island, nestled across the Chesapeake Bay from the mouth of the Potomac, but today, most live on the Eastern Shore.
Donning a long, grayish blond braid and colorful bandana reminiscent of Willie Nelson, Clarence Goodman, 60, is a fixture at the market. He now owns a home in Springfield, Virginia, but he was raised on Smith Island and recruited to work at the market years before he could drive. “Since I was 12 or 13, I was crabbing and making maybe $35 a day—getting up 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning,” he recalls. He’d quit school to help support his family, and one afternoon just days before Fourth of July weekend, he was fixing his bicycle in the driveway when Fil Evans stopped by and asked if he wanted to help out for the weekend. “My mom said, ‘Okay,’ and that was the start of a long, long journey,” he says.
At the time, brothers Raymond Stanley Evans and Filmore Evans were running Jessie Taylor Seafood alongside half a dozen other vendors, and Goodman wasn’t sure how long he’d stay. Over the years, he earned his GED and even toyed with the idea of going to an Iowa college that practices transcendental meditation. In a 1987 Washington Post article, he called the Fish Market gig a stepping stone “to being something…to being able to retire and to living good while I got the life.”
But something about the routine, the culture, and the way of life had stolen a place in his heart. “I fell in love with the public,” he says. “One minute you’re waiting on somebody very, very nice. The next minute you’re waiting on somebody who’s having a rough day. One minute you’re waiting on somebody who’s got a [lot of money]; the next minute you’ve got somebody who wants something that they can’t really afford. I try to put myself in their shoes, even for a few moments, until that sale’s over. That way my personality kicks in instead of an attitude.” Nearly half a century later visitors ask for Goodman by name, and the business belongs to Stan and Fil’s four sons, with a roster of employees generations deep. When asked if most of the crew is related, Goodman’s reply is simple: “Well, we’re all family.”
By 9:30 am the stalls are set, and breakfast is served. An on-site cook passes around individually plated Styrofoam containers of hearty meals easily consumed on-the-go, such as bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. This morning at Jessie Taylor’s, it’s eggs and toast with a patty of corned beef. Goodman recalls when French toast and waffles were on the morning menu. With full bellies and an even fuller day ahead, everyone prepares for the first real wave of customers and the rest of the deliveries.
The oldest open-air fish market in the country, this iconic venue began operation more than 200 years ago as a row of seafood and produce vendors along the shores of the Potomac. Over two centuries, it was reincarnated a few times: A new indoor market was unveiled in 1916, but it was demolished some 40 years later as part of a neighborhood renovation. But with each changing of the tide, the vendors fought to stay put. Ultimately, in the early 1960s, the city built the concrete pier under the I-395 overpass that still anchors the market today.
In the earliest days of the concrete pier, the “storefronts” were buy boats—vessels that played middleman between the docks and the fishing boats in the more bountiful Chesapeake Bay tributaries along the Eastern Shore. For decades, the waterways provided the only access between the Eastern Shore and DC—the first span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge didn’t open until 1952 (the second, in 1973). But as travel to DC by land became more efficient, the boats were phased out, semi-permanent barges moved in, and the goods began arriving by truck. Thanks to the expansion and development of highways and bridges, and advances in mobile refrigeration, the shipment by truck has actually narrowed the time between when the catch is pulled from the water and when it’s put on the market.
Midmorning another shipment arrives with two dozen bushels of crabs from Delaware for Taylor’s team. Stan Kiser and Ryan Evans, whose family owns the business, help unload the truck and chat with supplier Greg James about the vendors that used to occupy the market.
Jimmy’s Grill, the ready-made-lunch stand across the way, James says, is still there but the Evans brothers now own it. Captain Red’s and a few others are long gone. One half of the Tilghman Island-based husband-and-wife team at Choptank River Seafood, James has been delivering to Maine Avenue since 1984. “From one family to another,” Kiser says, then looks to the bushel baskets. “We could go through these in four or five hours.”
Decades ago, the market offerings were limited to local crabs, fish, shellfish, and produce. Today, a lot of the goods are still caught locally, though some are shipped in from North Carolina or Louisiana when they’re not in season here, or to keep up with demand. More exotic items are brought in from around the world. As Washingtonians’ tastes have expanded, so have the offerings on Maine Avenue. Chilean sea bass, whole octopus from China, and two particularly popular species of shrimp that are native to the Gulf and Ghana are regularly available. Almost anything you can imagine can be found at the market or acquired upon request. “We can pretty much get our hands on anything,” Kiser says.
By lunchtime, visitors are arriving in droves. An eager crowd gathers in front of the raw oysters. Sam Fisher grabs one off the ice, dips it in water, pries it open, and arranges it on a Styrofoam plate. The movements are second nature to him. One, two, three, four, five, six oysters hit the plate and are topped with a lemon wedge. If you blink, you’ll miss it.
“They call me ‘Sam, Sam, the Shuckin’ Man,’” Fisher says with a smile. He’s been shucking oysters for 41 years, and his son does it, too. The pair did a long stint in Ocean City, but Sam has spent the last seven years on Maine Avenue. He’s collected 70 to 80 pearls shucking oysters—“maybe 10 really good ones,” he says—but now that he does most of his shucking directly for the consumer, some lucky ones walk away with more than a delicious lunch. Hint: He says the prettier pearls actually come from the clams, not the oysters. Fortunately, he’s got those, too.
Virgo Fish House, the independent fish cleaning station nearby, is grappling with its own lunch-hour rush as a line forms out the door. “I’m the only minority owner on the wharf,” says Virgo owner Darryl Jones. He came into the business more than 20 years ago, encouraged by his former business partner—“not by birth, but like a dad”—who opened the Fish House in 1960. His business partner died a few years ago, but under Jones’s direction, the shop lives on.
Over the years, there have been a lot of changes to the fish market, but the families at Jessie Taylor and Captain White Seafood City have kept their deeply planted roots intact. The two businesses are technically three: Fil and Stan Evans each had two sons, and the two sets of sons split the Jessie Taylor Seafood business into two identical but independently functioning entities a few years ago. (Fil’s sons own one seven-day shift, Stan’s sons the other.) At Captain White’s, most employees are local, and the shifts are flexible. Jessie Taylor and Captain White are the last remaining outfits on the barge, each having slowly acquired the abandoned space as fellow businesses have bowed out, relocated, or retired.
On the far end of the pier, it’s Billy and his wife, Penny—“Miss Penny,” they call her—running the show at Captain White’s today. While Billy hustles around the market to prepare for the weekend ahead, Penny shares a few moments to talk about the business.
“When Billy was 15 years old, he started on a picnic table right here,” she says. “Fourteen or 15 hours a day, five to seven days a week.” She beams with pride as she describes her husband’s commitment to DC and to the market that has become a local treasure. Both are from the Eastern Shore, and both of their families have been in the seafood business for generations. It’s what brought them together—they first met more than 30 years ago when Billy bought crabs from Penny’s father to sell at this very market. Today, Billy and his brother Sunny—their father founded Captain White’s—co-own half of the real estate. “We’ve always been about serving the city, and I think we’ve done that,” Penny says. “It’s been a ride.”
By 4 pm, the crew’s lunch of sandwiches and the like is over, and DC’s early risers are trickling out of the office and lining up at the market. A dozen large male crabs are tossed into a paper bag; Kiser directs a new customer to a steaming station nearby. A few feet down, a gentleman behind the counter helps a woman select a fish. One couple orders homemade lobster bisque from Captain White’s.
The history of the place is rich, but largely undocumented. Relatively little has been written about the market’s two centuries, and instead, tales have been passed down orally, generation to generation. As it goes, myths have swirled among the city that surrounds it. The origin of the Jessie Taylor name generates several theories. (Truth: Jessie Taylor isn’t in the lineage—it’s the name of the Evans’ original buy boat.) Some online reviewers gossip that one family secretly owns the entire market and deceives the rest of the city into thinking it’s a group of separately owned small businesses. (Truth: two families, three businesses, plus the Fish House.) That two different, unrelated Evans families have at one time or another owned a spot on the barge only perpetuates the tale. (An Evans family unrelated to that of Jessie Taylor did a stint as owner of Pruitt Seafood, but the space has since been sold to Captain White’s.)
Rumors of celebrity sightings swirl, too. Rapper DMX and pop star-turned-The Voice coach Christina Aguilera have supposedly been spotted. Kevin Durant, Delonte West, and Jerry Stackhouse are said to love the market. There’s a dollar bill floating around somewhere that Norv Turner signed. According to market lore, Loretta Lynn’s people popped in every time her tour brought her to the District. Today, tourists, politicians, local residents, and restaurateurs (El Rinconcito Café’s Mauricio Arias is a regular) all frequent the landmark—but you’d be hard-pressed to dig up more details. Most on duty are much more concerned with what’s being served than who’s being served. Regulars are known by face, first name, and order—not status or profession.
As the tide has risen, so have the stalls. Damp with flecks of dirt from the water below, Ryan Evans asks a member of the crew to wipe down the newly exposed stall fronts.
The Maine Avenue Fish Market (The Municipal Fish Market circa 1918), was casually called “The Wharf,” but after the official adoption of that name by the $2 billion, 27-acre redevelopment of the land next door, those on Maine Avenue have re-embraced the more explicit “fish market.” Despite some underlying fear of what could happen in the future when the neighboring development opens, the tone overall seems optimistic. If it doesn’t edge them out—and there are still about 15 years left on the market’s lease—the influx of new residents and visitors could prove good for the historic business. (Another rumor says that with The Wharf’s completion, the fish market will move back indoors. No one at the market has heard that one.)
“We don’t know what the future holds,” says Sunny White. “But things like this have a way of working themselves out.” Jones, whose Fish House will move to the other side of the market once The Wharf is complete, is excited. “We’re due for a change.”
photography by melissa golden