Old Classmates Go Dutch at Herring Festival

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"Is this your first time?" she asks.

Howie Sirota, Midwood High Class of ’66, looks at the raw fish on his plate. He has had the celebrated Dutch herring before. Years ago, Sirota was traveling in Amsterdam when the baby herring were running in late spring and fresh catches were sold from carts on the street, and he ate them just like the Dutch: Grab by the tail, tilt the head back, and down the hatch. But no, he’s never been to the Freshmen Mixer, the annual herring party held by his fellow Midwood alums Jonathan Swiller, ’65, and Mark Gothelf, ’66.

As legend goes, the old friends met for lunch at the cavernous Oyster Bar 31 years ago and saw signs for the Dutch herring, a delicacy that can only be found in a handful of places around the city (Russ & Daughters and Aquavit also have them) during a blink of a season that lasts two and half weeks each year.

The fish are chubby babies, and the high fat content is why they taste so clean. Dutch fisherman salt them in coolers, send them to the airport, and before long, the headless silver darlings have arrived at JFK.

The Dutch herring draws its own eccentrics, who flock to the Oyster Bar. Last year, an elderly customer the management called Jay — because they couldn’t pronounce his Dutch name — managed to scarf down 160 fillets during the brief season. (The Oyster Bar charges $7 per fish, and serves them until June 25th. Russ and Daughters sells them to go at $4.49 each, until July.)

Swiller and Gothelf, who were raised on herring that was chopped and pickled and creamed and doused in schmaltz sauce to disguise its fishiness, were blown away by the taste. So mild!

“It’s like buttah!” Swiller says.

Each year, before the herring arrive, Swiller and Gothelf invite everyone they know and everyone they lost touch with to sample the catch and catch up. The rules are, bring whoever you can, and everybody pays their own way.

The spine of the party is Swiller. Wearing a white suit and tie that match his white hair and beard, he scans the restaurant for “questing eyes” to invite over to his table, some who come back each year. Fellow Midwood alum Eric Weitzer, a psychoanalyst, calls Swiller a “people addict” and wonders whether there is anybody on the planet he has met and not kept in touch with. “Uncontrollably friendly,” is how another puts it.

“I’m the poster child for ADD,” Swiller says. He takes photos, writes poetry, lives upstate, and calls himself a “political pain in the butt in Orange County.” In 2005, he was listed by the Times Herald Record as “one of the most powerful people in the Hudson Valley.” Of the gadfly honor, Swiller says it's “very much like earning the title of world’s tallest dwarf.”

Gothelf is Mr. Yang to Swiller's Mr. Yin. “I don’t want to use the word 'grown-up,' but,” Gothelf says, and trails off. Gothhelf works in computers and it is his name on the invitation, Mixer diehards say, that is the seal of approval.

“If it wasn’t for Mark, people would say, ‘Oh, it’s just another one of Jonathan’s things’ and not show up,” Weitzner says.

Between the after-work rush from five to eight, about 40 or so mixers circled through. Amy Geffen, Midwood '66, makes clay pots by hand in Forest Hills. She and Weitzner, the psychoanalyst, kibitz about how it wasn’t fair that all the famous people like Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond didn’t come out of Midwood but nearby Erasmus Hall.

Artie Doskow didn’t touch any fish. “I’m not a fish person,” he says with a crinkled nose, “but if they had this party at a Taco Bell, I would come.”

At the far corner, Swiller scans the names of the guest book. When a Mixer friend leaves, he salutes them with an empty tulip glass that was once filled with Dutch gin. “See you next year,” he says, and gulps down the leftover fillets on the plates of his friends, by the tail, head back, and down the hatch.

“Hey now, that’s perfect form,” Howie Silota says.