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Meet the famous fish throwers of Seattle’s Pike Place Market

Turbot, salmon and the occasional Alaskan halibut fly through the air at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, where fishmongers bring new meaning to catch of the day.

By Ella Buchan
Published 16 Jun 2020, 13:01 BST
People travel from all over to USA's Washington State to see the famous Pike Place fish throwers ...

People travel from all over to USA's Washington State to see the famous Pike Place fish throwers playing their slippery game of catch.

Photograph by Getty Images

At Pike Place Fish Market, the working day begins at 6.30am with ‘a huddle and a stretch’. This limbering up is necessary, Anders Miller explains, to prepare stiff shoulders for a shift of shovelling ice, hefting boxes and throwing fish weighing up to 15kg.

Former owner John Yokoyama, who sold the business to Anders and his fellow long-standing employees Sam Samson, Jaison Scott and Ryan Reese in 2018, started the tradition of chucking seafood through the air. It was a bitterly cold day in the early 1980s, and a customer ordered a bag of clams. He trudged from the counter to the stand — a journey of around 100 steps. Rather than shuffle back to the counter, where the scales were kept, he signalled to a colleague and threw the bag of shellfish to him.

Word spread and soon crowds gathered to watch king salmon and Alaskan halibut (never rockfish — too spiky) fly through the air. “It just makes it more efficient,” says Anders. “You call out the order and your colleague throws it.”

Now people travel from all over to see the famous Pike Place fish throwers play their slippery game of catch, with accompanying hollers, up to 200 times a day. There are even lesser-quality ‘stunt fish’ thrown around to give passersby a thrill. These are later donated to wildlife refuges including Wolf Haven, a sanctuary just outside nearby Olympia, to feed the animals.

Anders encourages me to attempt a catch. I wait, as instructed, with palms turned upwards and ready to grip. The headless, slightly mangled specimen slides easily into my hands (thanks, mostly, to an expert throw). Not all employees catch on quickly, says 43-year-old Anders, who could throw a 20kg fish in his younger days.

“Some guys, it takes a while. But the physical stuff you can teach. It’s more about turning up on time and having a good attitude. We’re very much a family,” he tells me.

It’s always been that way. Anders took a summer job here in 1999 and never left. Of the new owners, Sam has the longest tenure at 33 years, while Jaison was “basically born in the market” — his mother worked here when he was a child.

Anders admits that John Yokoyama (or Johnny, as they call him) “probably could have got more money” for the business, which was founded in 1930. But he wanted to keep it “in the family”. “He knew we already worked this place like we’d owned it forever. We deserved it,” says Anders. “And we won’t go anywhere until it’s in good hands again. We want it to continue.”

Along with tourist crowds, loyal local customers come for the sustainable, high-quality seafood, mostly sourced regionally and from Alaska. There’s Oyster Guy, a regular who always picks out his own dozen (“If we don’t see him for three days, I start to worry,” says Anders) and Charlie Cho, chef de cuisine at Korean gastropub Chan Seattle, who today is ordering black cod and clams for the evening’s menu.

“All these people just coming to my stall...” ponders Anders, slapping a grey-pink hunk of halibut steak on the scale. “What a gift.”

Try New England clam chowder when visiting Pike Place Market — a silky, creamy broth of seafood and other fish.

Photograph by Getty Images

Three of the best: Pike Place Market eats

1. Pike Place Chowder

The New England clam chowder — tender fish and seafood simmered in a silky, creamy broth — here has won several awards. Grab a small cup if you can’t quite tackle a whole portion (served in a hollowed-out sourdough loaf).

2. Piroshky Piroshky

Pirozhki (or piroshky, as they’re spelled here) are Russia’s answer to the pasty. Often served warm from the oven, they’re handcrafted in different shapes to reflect the fillings, which range from rhubarb to potato with cheese.

3. Ellenos Greek Yogurt

This thick, velvety yoghurt feels and tastes as indulgent as gelato. Choose flavours like passion fruit and lemon curd or try it in its pure, unadulterated form.

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