Words by Alison Woitunski Photographs by Tec Petaja Styling by Julie Pointer & Katie Searle-Williams Recipe by Beatrice Peltre
Alison Woitunski reflects on a childhood spent with her father, the ultimate hunter, gatherer, grower and lover of food. She writes about her respect of the coast, passed down from her father.
My dad is not a social man, nor is he a still man, and I believe that his need for both solitude and purpose was key in his development as a hunter and gatherer. Never drawn to big woods or large expanses of sea, my dad sought and found his solitude in the small coves and tight inlets of the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, diving for lobsters, crabs and smaller shellfish, and spear fishing for flounder and bass. In these patches of rocky and intimate waterways north of Boston, my dad honed his hunting and gathering skills. He grew up in a housing project in Peabody, Massachusetts, where neighbors, cars and electric wires were always a part of his landscape, but in the ocean, those tangible traces of humankind are somehow more subtle, less intrusive. For my dad, his time spent in these places was soulful and productive, as he was always in search of food for his family and peace for himself.
As a child, I learned to view the beaches, waterways and woods of my region as places where my food came from, and I could taste the differences in what I ate depending on the season or the water temperature. When I was too small to venture into the water alone, I would comb the beach with a milk carton my dad had manipulated into a tool for gathering periwinkles off of the rocks. While my dad was catching the evening’s entrée of lobster or crab, I would gather the periwinkles and mussels that would be our appetizer.
I learned to love both the procurement and the preparation of our food. A child of both the sun and the water, I understood innately that the places where these two elements come together are special. It was clear to me what the shoreline could provide, as long as you knew what to look for and where. Back home in our kitchen, my siblings and I would sit around the kitchen table and shuck cooked lobsters for the seafood pie we would eat that night. Taught by our dad how to remove every last bit of flesh from even the tiniest crevices, we extracted meat with a precision and thoroughness worthy of a surgical team. I’ve never lost this skill and my partner, Bart—a fisherman—claims he knew he was in love the first time he watched me clean a lobster.
That first lobster together was now years ago. As an adult, the places I visited with my father in search of food have become the backdrop for my relationship with Bart. Living on Cape Ann, our days are often spent sailing around the bays and shorelines, with stopovers for free diving, spear fishing or intentional walks along clam flats. Our equipment might be slightly more sophisticated than my old milk carton, but not by much, and much of it is borrowed from my dad. One of our strongest connectors as a couple is not the actual act of eating together as much as it is our shared enjoyment of the land and water we both grew up in, and have now returned to as adults.
When I remember my childhood meals, taste is an afterthought. Much more vivid is the bustle of our kitchen and our family engaged in the rituals that were employed whenever something living becomes a meal. Whether lobster or deer, there was a process that was both unique and universal and our family hosted its own rules for proper conduct. Ending the day with dinner, my dad would ask, “How is it?” The simplicity of this question acknowledged the routine that this meal was for our family while the act of asking reminded us that what we ate was noteworthy.
Today, Bart and I apply our own processes to our food and how we gather it; some parts are borrowed from childhood and some parts are unique to us. Carried on is the mutual understanding that food from our shores has more significance than just a shared meal.
Recipe: Butter Dip Sauce
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan.
2. Add the lemon juice, garlic and tarragon and stir until combined.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Enjoy with crab or lobster tails.
Makes 1/2 cup