First, a bit of introduction. Elizabeth Ritson’s 1816 poetical description of Norfolk, Virginia, its people, customs, manners, buildings, and foodstuffs stands out as one of the most remarkable renderings of an early American seaport town ever penned. Among my favorite passages are the enumerations of provisions for sale in the city markets. Reading Ritson’s couplets my fascination begins with the diversity of what shoppers could procure for their tables and then drfits to speculation about the elusive sensorium she invokes. Her’s is a vivid world of curiosity experienced through sound , texture, and flavor. Take, for example, Ritson’s catalog of fish harvested from the mouth and lower tributaries of the Chesapeake, some familiar delicacies, others forgotten or shunned by evolving tastes. All poetically memorable:
Of fish they’re many sorts, it’s true,
But none that’s very fine to view;
The firmest sort that can be found,
Are rocks, from seven to forty pound;
They are a white and solid fish,
Making a truly valued dish;
In shape like cod, from head to tail,
And cover’d with a shining scale.
But all fish lovers most admire,
And more than any sort desire,
Their fine sheep’s-head, which all declare,
Surpasses any turbot here.
 Fine mummychog are too be had,
With tailors, alewives, drum, and shad,
Sword-fish, sun-fish, dog-fish, skip-jack,
Cat-fish, black-fish, and tickleback.
Descendents of Ritson’s finned horde still swim the waters of southeastern Virginia as do others she doesn’t name: spots, fatbacks, menhaden – all once constituent in local diets, now distressingly diminished in their numbers. But, Ritson reserves her longest passage for the humble croaker:
Another fish, much priz’d, they seek,
Bringing to town from Tanner’s creek;
A horn proclaims the hog-fish near,
Quickly the light horsemen appear;
Upon a shabby nag they ride,
A pannier loaded on each side,
With fish so fresh that people hunt
Their coming in, to hear them grunt;
Declaring if fresh they’re found,
You certainly may hear the sound!
Perhaps, being us’d the pigs to hear,
The sound’s for ever in their ear.
The vision of fishmongers astride tottering nags slung with baskets of gasping fish destined for city tables is made more compelling by the sonic imagination. Horse hooves clop, the wet wood of the panniers creaks, hucksters sing out, a trumpet herald news of the catch…and croakers croak. For Ritson, an Englishwoman recently arrived in Norfolk, the cacophony of croakers resonated the exotic. For local gourmands, the grunt vocalized summer plenty. Croakers Croaking
It’s early on a fine warm August morning when I join H.M. Arnold at the dock of the Bayford oysters house and we push out onto Nassawadox Creek in search of fatbacks (jumping mullet or striped mullet). Before we pursue the mullet, though, H.M. checks his regular nets for croakers, blues, and spots. We motor through lifting mist up to one end of the net set near the far shore and H.M. starts the process of hauling in the mesh with its entangled unfortunates. “Andrew,” he notes, “says they were here yesterday.” Most of what he catches is menhaden (known locally by the dismissive nickname of Carolina spot) he shakes loose and sets free.
But there are croakers! And, they grunt indignantly as they are pulled from the still night darkened water, unwound from ensnaring mesh, and tossed into a basket for market. Splash, rasp, thud, croak. The last the distinctive grunt that captivated Ritson, a sound I remember from my childhood, a sound that reminds me that the world should be heard and smelled and tasted and touched. It is a sound forever in my ear.