by Oliver Sacks

Anyone on the sixteenth floor of the Roger Smith Hotel, in midtown, at five-forty-five on a recent June afternoon would have seen a puzzling assemblage of people in the corridor: a construction worker from Brooklyn, a mathematics professor from Princeton, a couple from Aruba, a father with an infant strapped to his chest, and an artist from the Lower East Side. It wasn't immediately apparent what had brought this seemingly random slice of humanity together. Had one come up in the service elevator, though, an unmistakable aroma would have given a vital clue. By five-fifty-nine, almost sixty people had gathered in the hallway.

At six, the doors to an event room opened and the crowd rushed in. There, in the middle of the room, lighted, draped, surmounted by a huge glittering block of ice, was an altar: an altar covered with hundreds of fresh herring, the first of the season, just flown in from Holland. This was an altar consecrated to Clupeus, the god of herring, whose annual festival is celebrated in late spring by herring-lovers the world over.

Entire books have been published about cod, about eel, about tuna, but relatively little has been written about herring. (There is, however, a delightful book by Mike Smylie, “Herring: A History of the Silver Darlings,” and a fascinating chapter in W. G. Sebald's “The Rings of Saturn.”) But herring have played a great part in human history. In the Middle Ages, they were carefully graded and priced by the Hanseatic League, and supported fisheries in the Baltic and the North Sea—and, later, in Newfoundland and on the Pacific Coast. Herring are one of the commonest, cheapest, and most delicious fish on the planet—a fish that can take an infinity of forms: marinated, pickled, salted, fermented, smoked, or, as with the exquisite Hollandse Nieuwe, straight from the sea. They are one of the healthiest fish, too, full of omega-3 oils, and without the mercury that accumulates in the big predators like tuna and swordfish. A few years ago, the oldest person in the world, a hundred-and-fourteen-year-old Dutch woman, said she attributed her longevity to eating pickled herring every day. (A hundred-and-fourteen-year-old woman from Texas attributed her long life to “minding my own business.”)

There are many species of Clupeidae, with varying sizes and tastes, from the Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus, to the pilchard (much loved in England, and often served in tomato sauce), to the tiny sprat, best smoked and eaten bones and all. When I grew up in England, in the nineteen-thirties, we had herring virtually every day: smoked herring (kippers or bloaters) at breakfast, perhaps a herring pie at lunch (my mother's favorite dish), fried herring roe on toast at teatime, chopped herring at dinner. But times have changed, herring is no longer on every breakfast and dinner table, and it is only on special, joyous occasions that we clupeophiles can come together for a real herring feast.

The great traditions of herring are maintained by Russ & Daughters, a Houston Street emporium that started as a pushcart on the Lower East Side, nearly a century ago, and still sells the largest variety of herring in New York City. It was Russ & Daughters that organized the recent herring festival.

There are certain passions—one wants to call them innocent, ingenuous passions—that are great democratizers. Baseball, music, and bird-watching come immediately to mind. At the herring festival, there was no talk about the stock market, or gossiping about celebrities. People had come to eat herring—to savor them, to compare them. In its purest form, this meant seizing the new herring by the tail and lowering them gently into the mouth. The sensation this produces is voluptuous, especially as they slip down the throat.

Guests started from the great central table, the altar covered with new herring; washed these down with aquavit; and moved on to satellite tables, where there were matjes herring, herring in wine sauce, herring in cream sauce, Bismarck herring, herring in mustard sauce, herring in curry sauce, and plump schmaltz herring, fresh from Iceland. Oily and briny, schmaltz herring can last for twenty years; taken from the Baltic, they were a staple food (along with black bread, potatoes, and cabbage) of poor Jews throughout Eastern Europe. For my father, born in Lithuania, there was nothing to compare with them, and he ate them daily all his life.

Around eight o'clock, after two hours of eating and drinking, the pace slackened. Slowly, the herring-lovers left the hotel, still discussing favorite dishes with fellow-travellers as they went. They sauntered slowly up Lexington Avenue. One does not rush after such a banquet; indeed, one's whole perspective on the world is changed. Some of us, the New Yorkers, will meet again, at Russ & Daughters. But the rest, after they have slept the deep sleep of the consummated herring-eater, will start counting the days to the herring festival of 2010.