The one thing friends and family could always count on with David Masch, the Cape Cod fisherman and food columnist affectionately known as “Pops” — he would never turn down free fish.
That’s how Masch ended up with a sink filled with hagfish, an eel-like species that secretes mucus and bores into other fish, eating them from the inside out. A friend offered him 200 pounds, but Masch took just 25. After some research, he grilled them like hot dogs on a hibachi and served them with a Korean dipping sauce that guests liked so much they took second helpings.
“In spite of our instincts, we all knew enough to trust Dave and ate plenty of hagfish — for the first and last time,” said Jay Allison, who hosted the hagfish dinner party and regularly featured Masch’s fishing excursions and recipe adventures on the Cape Cod public radio station he founded.
Masch, who died in January from a massive heart attack at the age of 75, embraced whatever came his way and left a lasting legacy on how to combine New England’s passions for fishing and eating. A local food columnist for On the Water fishing magazine and author of two cookbooks, “Cooking the Catch,” volumes I and II, Masch earned the nickname Pops during nearly three decades as a cook and counselor at the Penikese Island School, an institution for troubled teenage boys on a nearly deserted island off Cape Cod.
At Penikese, the kitchen was the heart and soul of the tight-knit community. Masch used an old wood stove to create tasty meals from the local catch for boys typically raised on junk food. On the island, he introduced the teenagers to night fishing, got them excited about gardening, and taught them how to make bread. Former students stayed in contact, and as recent as last year, still sent him free fish.
“Around the dinner table is where Masch was able to influence a lot of these young people who lacked a sense of family,” said Phil Stanton, a retired wildlife biologist who met Masch on Penikese. “They would sit down, eat his food, and have these good conversations about changing their lives.” Stanton, who bonded with Masch over fishing and hunting, also offered a steady supply of seafood over the years and eventually was nicknamed “Predator Phil” in Masch’s food columns.
Stanton still recalls the first meal Masch made as one of the best they ever shared. Masch filleted the striped bass Stanton had caught, layered it with potatoes and onions, topped it with stewed tomatoes, and baked it in the oven. During their decades of friendship, Stanton said, “You never walked into his kitchen without finding something you wanted to try.”
Masch moved from Michigan to attend Harvard and fell in love with the ocean after reading “Moby-Dick.’’ He became a student of fish — from sea to table — and eagerly shared his culinary skills with family, friends, and locals at a chowder competition, and with readers in “Ask Pops” and “Cooking the Catch” columns that appeared for more than 14 years in On the Water.
He featured species that fishermen often catch but aren’t in most seafood cookbooks or at the average fishmonger: scup, tautog, eel, dogfish, white perch, whitebait, black drum, or
His cookbook “Cooking the Catch” was more like a journal of a guy who loved life on the water, filled with salty humor, interesting stories, and sketches of fish. Most recipes are created with readily available ingredients such as garlic and olive oil (he used to pack both on trips, he said, in case he ever ran into some clams). Masch also made classic recipes like finnan haddie (smoked fish in white sauce) and brandade de morue (salt cod and potato puree) seem like no big deal. He loved exclamation points, and frequently ended recipes with over-the-top encouragement: “Your guests will think you are a magician” and “You have a meal you could proudly serve to anyone on earth!”
Over time, “Cooking the Catch” has become the go-to book for many basic fish recipes — from cod cakes to sole meuniere. “Cooking the Catch, Vol. II,” released late last year, set recipes to the seasons (February dishes include steamed mussels Portuguese and Chinese scallops and eggs), and honored Masch’s unpretentious approach to the kitchen by including dishes made with canned fish for the winter months when local catch is tough to come by in New England.
His musings frequently touched on the competition he had with his son-in-law Scott Britton, who is described in the most recent cookbook as “contender for leading cook in the family.”
Britton credits Masch with teaching him that littlenecks, half necks, cherrystones, quahogs, and chowder clams are all the same animal, with different names, depending upon their size, and how to prepare clams on the half shell (littlenecks), stuffed and broiled or baked (cherrystones), or made into chowder (quahogs).
But the most important lesson Masch imparted, Britton said, was to always cook too much fish.
“Whatever he made for dinner, there was always enough that if two or three extra people showed up, there would still be ample food,” Britton said.