God bless aimlessness. Without it, there may have been no Calumet Fisheries, at least not the current incarnation of the incredible fish shack located in Chicago’s South Deering neighborhood. “My grandfather [Sam Toll] purchased it for my uncle [Len Toll] and my dad [Sid Kotlick],” said second-generation owner Mark Kotlick. “They didn’t have any career path, and my grandfather thought, ‘You need something to take care of your families.’ “
Calumet opened in 1928 and Sam Toll purchased it in 1948. Mark grew up in the business. While he pursued a degree at Bradley University, he also worked weekends learning the art of fish-smoking from his dad and uncle. Though he now also works as a construction manager, he continues to smoke hundreds of pounds of fish on the weekends in the original smokehouse behind the retail building. “This isn’t just something you can Google and learn in one weekend. It takes a lot of practice and experience,” Kotlick said.
Calumet sells between 300 and 500 pounds a week of flaky, pink smoked salmon ($15.89 a pound) alone. To create the final product, they break down whole Alaskan salmon into hundreds of steak-like cross sections. They hand-sew little twine handles into the steaks so they can hang them on the “stick,” a rack in the smokehouse. Then they brine the salmon in a salt-only brine or a garlic-peppercorn-salt brine overnight. After brining, the salmon is hung in the smokehouse, where it absorbs the smoky essence of a burning oak wood flame for six to eight hours. The two-day process requires an experienced hand. “Nowadays commercial smokehouses use compressed wood pellets. They program a screen and walk away,” Kotlick said. “We know when the fish is done by listening to [fish] oil drop in the fire, by squeezing the fish and by sight.”
In addition to the smoked Alaskan salmon, they fry up shrimp, catfish, frog legs, smelt and even chicken nuggets ($3.69- $15.95). Kotlick also smokes Lake Superior whitefish, Lake Michigan trout, California sturgeon and shrimp from Bayou La Batre, Ala.. Their longtime shrimp purveyor Dominick Ficarino had his own reality show, “Big Shrimpin'” on the History Channel. Calumet’s tender, peel-on smoked shrimp ($22.99 a pound) is one of my favorite eats in the city.
Calumet, which was awarded an American Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2010, has received many requests to supply local restaurants. “We’re too small for that,” Kotlick said. “But, we have supplied Publican Quality Meats from time to time, and Alinea orders a ton of smoked shrimp for their Christmas party.”
Those familiar with Calumet know that it’s located next to the 95th Street bridge, the spot where Jake and Elwood Blues jump their Bluesmobile in the “Blues Brothers” movie. Kotlick remembers that time. “It was 1979. My uncle took quite a few pictures of the original filming. They built ramps. The fire department and police department were in the water under the bridge. Now they’d do that effect digitally on a computer. It would take ten seconds. It took them three days to set up that shot,” he said. “We closed down and negotiated a deal with the film company who paid for three days worth of sales. We fed the whole crew including [John] Belushi and [Dan] Aykroyd.”
According to Kotlick, there were around 25 to 30 fish shacks on the Chicago and Calumet rivers in the ’40s . Today, there are only a few stalwarts like Lawrence’s Fisheries and Calumet left. Kotlick attributes his longevity to his employees. “They’re fantastic. I can’t say this enough. They’re the reason we lasted so long. … We’re not gonna have a Hot Doug’s situation and just pull the plug. I hope to be around for a long time,” he said. “Also, nobody likes change. Except for a new roof and some doors, we’re the same as we were in 1928.”
3259 E. 95th St. 773-933-9855