Ode to a workhorse boning knife that is a natural extension of muscle and bone

The unmistakable shing of high-carbon steel — that’s what a fish knife should sound like, not the dull, war-club clank of stainless, the music alloyed and tempered clean out of the metal at Faustian temperatures. Ask any cutter with salt in his socks.

My workhorse blade is a boning knife — a 7-inch, hickory-handled, flat, soft-steel Dexter-Russell, the industry standard in fish towns worth knowing. If you said Dexter 1377 — or 1375 or 1376 or 1378 — to five deckhands and more than three were mystified, you’d want to try the next town over.

My latest 77 arrived a blank slate from Wilcox Marine Supply in Galilee, Rhode Island, before a sagging commercial fishery and its questionable small-town credit sent the family operation into mothballs. The blade carries, I like to think, a final faint residue of the last bright days in the fishery. Wish I’d bought the box.

When I’m cutting a lot, I think about Samurai tradition: cold steel rendered hard as industrial diamonds through systematic, meditative heating, stretching, folding, hammering, shaping, cooling — years of this in the production of one blade, a weapon of love and humility, a sword imbued with a monk’s soul.

If my factory-issue blade cost anyone a week, he became unemployed on the eighth day. But over seven years in my right hand — separating the living striped bass, bluefish, tuna and tautog from the most readily edible portions of their mortal coil — it has undergone a comparable metamorphosis. Only the steel has kept a count of the dead, the wood handle warping off its rivets, seized in revolt to the rust end of its burnished steel spine with 23 turns of tarred whipping twine.

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Between trips and between fish, it has yielded to the small, incremental persuasion of 100,000 glancing strokes against steel of all sorts, a diamond honing steel first, then (and ever since) the reciprocal edge of a second knife. It has seen a block stone twice — once to wipe off its factory edge and remove some material to thin it, a second time to remove more material and shape my own rough edge. Contrary to knife lore, most stones are brutal instruments with a blunt-force application. You’ll spend big-shot dollars on real, precision whetstones, the best of which — to no one’s surprise — come from the same culture that brought you the samurai sword and hara-kiri.

Like all good tools, my 77 has ripened with time and the religious maintenance high-carbon fish knives demand. Repeated blood-staining, oxidation, polishing, oiling, tuning, dulling through heaps of fish have rendered its steel a dusky brown-gray — patina would be the right word if I wore a leotard in place of oilskins.

The first generations of my 1377s withered years ahead of their predicted life, victims of serial dullness and my relentless, ham-fisted sharpening act. My wrists were headed for an untimely demise then, too. To cut fast with no discernible edge — which I did for several years — transfers strain from blade to wrists, elbows, shoulders. You work toward carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, bursitis and every other known repeated-motion ailment until that fateful day you do something right with stone or steel by mistake and wind up with a fish knife like a straight razor. A month later you’re still trying to replicate the error; either way, your cutting arm is in remission, and you’ll do anything to stay ahead of dull.

Like all motions of toil on a pitching deck, time and repetition streamline the swipes that nick away minute coils — the burrs, chips or flat spots blades accrue in repeated contact with bone and scale — to the smallest effective number that brings your edge back.

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So went the cuts: The first three sawing passes that cleave the quarter-size scales layered like cedar shingles across the base of a broad bass tail. The angling of the edge forward in one fluid motion, steel laid against the flow of comb bones on a diagonal set for the first authoritative stroke — right-left, tail-toward-head — along the striper’s starboard flank in a rhythmic clacking, steel-over-bone, all the way to the collar. A second, gentler pass back down the same line aft extends the fissure to the top right quadrant of backbone.

Three feathering swipes with the knife point just behind pectorals — meat held away from the center bone — separate flesh from rib cage in a maneuver borrowed from codfish guys when I still handled enough of that species to learn from it. Two more quick passes, head to tail, disconnect the fillet from side one. The side-two sequence — different process, same result — goes off with practiced ease, force tightly controlled, blade angles reflexive. After years, wood and steel become natural extensions of muscle and bone.

Zach Harvey

The frame never lies: Where edible flesh remains, so, too, does room for mastery. When frames are stripped bare, you’ll usually — 2,000 fish later — duplicate results in three strokes less.

What a cutter learns is the 1-to-5,000-scale meditation of the swordmaker in feudal Japan: the art of perfection concealed in the smallest number of necessary movements. Simplicity — real and apparent — the standard unit of artistic merit.

No flourish or Zorroesque wrist gymnastics. Showmanship, you realize somewhere along the line, is an embarrassing notion when you deal in a currency of living things.

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