Unbeknownst to me, my recent quest for octopus started with a meeting at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The event, sponsored by DukeFish, was a focus group on the possibility of starting a CSF (community sponsored fishery) in Durham. A CSF works much like a CSA (community sponsored agriculture), in which individuals purchase a “share” in a farm for a summer and in return get vegetables delivered every week. (Duke’s Mobile Farmers Market offers this option.) Think tuna and shrimp in your weekly box instead of squash and tomatoes.
I signed up for the focus group the second I heard about it and persuaded poor Fred to come along with me. Not realizing that the event had been organized by graduate students, I was lured by visions of free wine and product samples–crab dips with water crackers; sushi rolls; smoked salmon with capers, onions and heirloom tomatoes; seared tuna slices drizzled with organic olive oil and sea salt.
When we arrived, about five minutes late, the graduate students had already decimated the hummus, vegetable tray, ranch dressing, and pita bread to cobble together their pitiful suppers. Fred and I picked up some baby carrots and a few stray red pepper slices, scraped the remaining hummus from the tray, took our water bottles, and sat down.
Still, the group was interesting and the conversation productive–especially for me, since it led to the discovery of Tom Robinson’s Seafood in Carrboro.
As we discussed the possibilities of the CSF–the graduate students stuffed with pita bread, the rest of us trying to ignore the rumblings of our stomachs as they mulled over the carrot scraps– we agreed that it wasn’t easy to find fresh and reasonably priced seafood in Durham. “Except for Tom Robinson’s, of course,” said one participant, “which is the only place I can get sushi-grade fish. And it’s in Carrboro.”
Tom Robinson’s? Was it possible there was an alternative to $23/pound sea bass at Whole Foods and tired, mushy, dried-out supermarket offerings? I turned to Fred.
“I gotta talk to this guy after the meeting,” I whispered.
A desperate look came into his eyes. “Aren’t we going to get something to eat?” he croaked.
Fred often says he’s a simple man. He’s right. I knew exactly how to handle this one. “We can go get a pork sandwich at the Federal after this,” I wheedled.
The desperate look disappeared and was instantly replaced by hopeful anticipation. I knew I’d get however long I needed.
It turns out that the other participant was a writer for the wonderful blog Carpe Durham, and he lived in our neighborhood. Tom Robinson’s, he explained, was a little place, but the owner traveled to the coast once a week and brought in fresh seafood. There was usually a pretty good variety, and prices were reasonable.
Just a week or so later, the Octo-Pie project under way and no octopus to be found in Durham, I found myself giving them a call.
“Do you have octopus?” I asked.
“Yes,” said a Spanish-inflected voice on the other end. “But it’s frozen. Not fresh. Is that okay?”
You have the only octopus between here and somewhere in the mid-Atlantic and you’re asking me if it’s okay if it’s frozen, I thought. “That’s fine,” I said. “How do I get there?”
I drove down 15-501 from Durham, wended my way through Chapel Hill’s achingly slow and self-righteous traffic, smug in its care for pedestrians and conservation of our natural resources, and turned left on Roberson Street in Carrboro.
I would have missed the building had it not been for a small sign reading “Fresh Fish” stuck in the grass next to the street. Next to the sign was a small white cinder-block building, in a white gravel lot, looking very much like it had been lifted up from a little sea town in the Bahamas and plopped down in the middle of Carrboro.
Walking in to the building through the screened door, I saw just two medium-sized coolers and a stainless steel rack with a smattering of condiments. A Japanese family was pointing at the contents, speaking to each other in their native language, and apparently deciding what to order. The Japanese are very picky about their fish, and when they frequent a place, it’s a good sign.
I picked up four pounds of frozen octopus, a whole pink snapper (about a pound and a half), and a pound of whole shrimp (heads and all) all for around $50. The prices were slightly lower than at Whole Foods, and I was also able to keep the head and bones of the snapper for stock. On a later trip, I was even able to get some conch, pictured below. (It was fresh and had a wonderful flavor, but I botched the recipe I tried by not properly tenderizing the meat beforehand.)
My only reservations about Tom Robinson’s are 1) the place doesn’t exude the kind of cleanliness I like to see in a fish market, and 2) on a return trip, a little over a week after the first one, I saw a distinctive whole fish for sale that was very suspiciously like another from my previous visit. Still, the snapper we had was firm, fresh, and delicious, as were the shrimp, and the prices can’t be beat. Fred and I will be going back for more.
If you want to make a trip yourself, here’s the address. They don’t have a web site, so call them if you need more information.
Tom Robinson’s Seafood
207 Roberson St.
Carrboro, NC 27510-2349