“Go get a whole tautog,” Betsy Larsen of Larsen’s Fish Market motions to one of her employees. When he brings out the odd-looking black fish about the size of a large bluefish, we all start laughing. We stare at the teeth — a string of thin inch-long incisors. “That fish needs braces,” an onlooker says.
Once processed, tautog fillets are glistening whitish pink, with a firm texture. Because tautog loves to eat crab, shellfish, and other small fish that swim in rocky areas and pilings where tautog can be found, the meat is sweet and delicate tasting.
Because of its black scaly skin, tautog is also called blackfish but don’t get confused in the market. There’s also black sea bass, another local species entirely with blueish-black skin. “Tautog is sometimes called the chowder fish because it stews well and integrates with other flavors easily,” says Maine resident Barton Seaver, the 2019 author of The Joy of Seafood. It’s also good sautéed, blackened, broiled — and even firm enough to be grilled.
Local fisherman and musician Johnny Hoy is one of a handful of local fishermen who bring tautog in. He usually fishes off Aquinnah with a rod-and-reel permit and a has mandated federal limit of 40 tautog per day when he goes out. Sometimes that takes three hours, says Hoy: “Sometimes you don’t get them all day.”
Finding them year to year is the challenging part, according to Hoy. “Tautog have weird behaviors. Every year they go somewhere slightly different. They love rocky structures. One year they are thick in Gay Head and the next year, they’ll be somewhere different. You have to crack the code — you need to have a lot of moves in your game.”
As an underutilized species, Hoy’s belief is that many consumers don’t know about tautog because its fall season here coincides with the derby where the emphasis is on other fish — bluefish, striped bass, and bonito. “Most people are fishing the derby, and no one really knew about tautog. It’s kind of a local delicacy and it’s always been around. Being the weirdo I am,” he says, he was always wondering what else was around.
Hoy says he loves to find out as much as he can about different species, a habit that started early. He caught his first bluefish here when he was 12. “I was really taken with those fish; I loved their attitude and tenacity and how they fight right up to the beach.” He was so impressed, he decided to name his band Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, as kind of a joke back then, he said. “I didn’t think the band would last and here I am 35 years later.”
Hoy, who’s also worked in construction building fireplaces, started fishing commercially about 10 years ago and also brings in oysters, steamers, mackerel, bluefish, scup and triggerfish — another little-known fish we’ll discuss another time.
After all these years of writing about local food, I just learned about tautog myself this fall while writing a story for Bluedot Magazine about local sustainable fish [see our upcoming October issue]. So did Chilmark artist Stephanie Danforth. “It’s my new favorite,” she says. “I’ve been eating it three times a week. Where has this fish been all these years or had I just not noticed it?”
Danforth sautés the tautog in a cast iron pan with olive oil and butter, salt and pepper. “At the end I add a little extra butter and lemon in the pan and pour it over. There’s nothing better.”
Hoy picked up his preferred cooking method from local chef Albert Lattanzi. Hoy pulverizes capers, anchovy (his addition), garlic, thyme, and olive oil with a mortar and pestle. He rubs that mixture over the tautog, dredges it in flour and then sears it in a skillet. He flips the fish over, then turns the heat way down and lets it finish cooking.
He says several local restaurants have put tautog on the menu, including chefs at the Port Hunter, the Sweet Life Cafe, State Road Restaurant, and Red Cat Kitchen. “It takes an adventurous chef,” to try underutilized species like tautog and triggerfish, he says. “My hat is off to those guys using what’s available in season.”