Namesakes Shouldn’t Take Offense to the Tasty ’Lawyer’
BURBOT FISH IS A BIG HIT AT WASHINGTON ISLAND RESTAURANT
Story by Mike Shaw
No word-origin guide can be found shedding light on how the aesthetically-challenged burbot fish came to be known as a "lawyer."
Safe to say, though, it's not a term of endearment.
A government scientist once speculated that lawyers are so nicknamed because they (and the most unscrupulous of the age-old profession) are nothing but no-good, "slimy, big-mouthed, bottom-feeders."
And if that flattering description could somehow get more blunt, here's how Washington Island restaurateur Ken Koyen put it: "They have their heart in their (behinds) … Really, that is the way their anatomy is."
You wouldn't know it from that forensic analysis and another lawyer
barb, but Koyen actually is one of the more unabashed lawyer lovers in the Midwest -- the ones from the depths, not necessarily the barristers.
Lawyer connoisseurs like Koyen urge diners to get past the unflattering images and the burbot's less-than appealing appearance, which has been compared to an eel or serpent. If so, they'll enjoy an unexpected taste treat from a seafood species perhaps unfairly tagged as a "rough" fish alongside carp, bullhead and similar throwaways.
Fried lawyers are nearly always on the menu at Koyen's K.K. Fiske Res- taurant, assuming he brought in a good catch that morning. Yes, Koyen harvests his lawyers and whitefish personally to go straight from his boat to the plate.
If he had an unlucky search, he has some off- Island commercial fishing friends on call. On the rare occasion that the suppliers strike out, too, the K.K. Fiske "Fresh Lawyers" sign changes to "No Lawyers Today."
Koyen said a man in the legal profession once hopped off the Is- land's Cherry Train tour tram and was a bit puzzled and offended that his livelihood was singled out for discrimination, either jokingly or seriously. The staff politely set him straight.
The lawyer is further sneered upon because it's been partly blamed, fairly or unfairly, for declines of yellow perch in the Lake Michigan system and for feeding upon small lake trout and other more popular game fish.
The burbot also has a creepy habit of wrapping its tail around anglers' wrists or fore-arms while being unhooked, a sensation made more unpleasant by a skin that's smooth and slippery like a snake rather than full of scales.
"It's not real popular (at the family dinner table) because you really can't freeze them and save them; you've got to use them fresh," Koyen said. "If you freeze them, all it does is make them real tough like rubber."
Making the case for the eminently edible lawyer is that it's the world's only freshwater cod -- and those with knife-and-fork at the ready wouldn't flinch at feasting on cod, would they? The taste has been described as "poor man's lobster," with one recipe recommending dipping the fish in butter for texture and sweetening it with sprinkles of 7-Up soda.
"My son makes chowder out of them, lawyer patties, lawyer tacos, you name it," Koyen said.
Koyen said the lawyer's versatile as a dish, going down good pan- fried in butter, deep-fried in oil, boiled or broiled. He serves them like perch, piled up in a platter of "50-cent-sized" fillets.
"I like 'em any way -- any way, they're delicious and very nutritious, better for you than a lot of other fish," Koyen said. "When I started fishing with my dad and his (crewmate) 45 years ago, they ate 'em. We would catch them by accident trying for other fish, put 'em in a coffee can, and bring 'em in and pan-fry 'em at home."
His statements about the health benefits of lawyers have been con- firmed by science.
The burbot is, after all, a cod carrying that species' bounty of vitamin D and anti-inflammatory cod-liver oil. A century ago, researchers reported that foxes fed burbots grew noticeably more lustrous coats linked to their fish diet.
A 1982 DNR publication called "A Fine Kettle of Fish" celebrated the burbot and its similarly ugly underwater brethren, advising: "Don't let someone who had never eaten them convince you they aren't good eat- ing. They may have the reputation of a motorcycle gang, but don't let that frighten you away. Let your taste buds tell you the truth."
Of course, leading skeptical palates to the dinner table won't make them eat. So, Koyen sells them on his lawyers with a bet.
"I go so far as telling them if they don't like 'em, it's on me," he said. "I haven't bought a meal yet since I opened the restaurant in 1983. Ninety- nine percent of the people can't say enough about them."
The prime time for catching burbots does not really align with Washing- ton Island's tourism season.
Lawyers are literally the chilliest of the cold-blooded bottom-feeders, preferring the deep, dark recesses where they can scavenge for food with a single, tentacle-like chin whisker called a "barbel." When temps of the near-surface waters drop and freeze in the autumn and winter, the lawyers venture up from the depths and eventually breed, unlike most species, in the coldest months of December to February.
"You catch a lot more of them in the winter than in the summer," Koyen
said. "The summer, of course, has more demand (at the restaurant), and I
can never get enough of them. Then, I just get them wherever I can." Koyen, on average, was out on the water about every other day last year
in search of the K.K. Fiske trademark.
"I lifted 175 days last year, and one day you get nothing and another day
I've gotten as much as 850 pounds," he said.
The upside to lawyers being somewhat reviled by sport anglers is the lack of fishing pressure for Koyen. And because the burbot is not com- monly hunted, and is viewed by the DNR as perhaps overabundant, the season is always open for the species and there are no bag limits.
Lawyers run 20 to 30 inches long with an average weight of about 10 pounds. The world-record is a 25-pounder hooked in Ontario province, while the biggest giant Koyen's brought in tipped the scales at 22 pounds.
The normal-sized burbot can feed two people easily, Koyen said.
If Koyen hauls in a surplus of lawyers, he sends some to his cousins, Is- land natives Chase and Hunter Bjarnarson, who run Island Fever Rum Bar & Grill in Jacksonport, the former J.J.'s Restaurant on the Highway 57 main drag. At those times, Island Fever is the only other Door County estab- lishment serving up fresh lawyers -- and, presumably, not-so-fresh lawyer jokes in its advertising.
Not that Koyen will ever get enough of the puns.
"My 'Fresh Lawyers' sign is the second most-photographed one on the Island, behind only Schoolhouse Beach," he said.