Hanging Out in Rockford: Life is too short

I’ve been buying my fish in Chicago at Wabash Seafood Co. for about a dozen years. My friend Tom Christianson, who ran the Farmers Home Hotel in Galena for quite a few years, turned me on to it. Actually, it was I who first took Tom to the market, but then he jumped off on his own. One day, he asked if I had ever tried that little seafood store just down from Economy Packing. I hadn’t, but I did, and I quickly became a convert.

Around eight or nine years ago, Mike Whyte did a video about the Irish Rose for me, and we went to Wabash to record. Ron Rebello, the patriarch of the family (there are also three sons in the business), put his philosophy in the fish business out there for us. They always fly their fish in (one son, Manny, picks up every day at O’Hare at 3 a.m.), they fly in whole fish, and they never send anything out the door in which they don’t have complete faith. It’s a wonderful policy, and results in the most consistent quality of all my suppliers.

Whole fish is very important as fish, like any fresh substance, begins to deteriorate when it is exposed to oxygen. Keeping the fish whole slows this process. Obviously, being the final step in quality control is probably the most important thing of all. In any business, mistakes happen, and it is just before you ship an item that you can head that sort of thing off.

I love Ron for other reasons, though. He is the most self-effacing person I have met so far in my life. Absolutely unflappable; he is the textbook of how you should treat other people—like you want to be treated, but he raises it to a higher level. (Another person I know who is a master of this is Mike LaMonica, our local distributor of Budweiser.) I aspire to be like them, but it’s going to take a lot of meditation. I haven’t yet acquired their wisdom, but I’m trying to work on it.

I’m at the store when Tim, my personal salesman, tells me Ron has passed away. I knew he had a bout with liver cancer, but he received a transplant and was undergoing chemo, and so far as I knew, he was doing all right. I knew he had recently gone to the track, and we all thought that was a good sign. It is quite a shock to find out he is dead. I internalize this on the way home. I think about it more or less constantly for a few days.

In addition, Ron’s one son, Joe, is having a bout with colon cancer. You can tell Joe is his father’s boy. There is a quietness that could only have come from Ron. The third son, John, is the most assertive of the sons. They all let him be that way, but he really does a good job. John seems to be having a hard time adjusting to the sickness of both his brother and father, but somehow the business doesn’t seem to suffer. Tim, who runs the floor, probably has something to do with that. Ron once told me he was just like one of his sons.

I reflect about how this family business is so important to the success of my own. I sell more fish than I do steak, chicken and pork put together. I’m rather proud of that. The kind of fish I get from this fine family business has a lot to do with that. I drive in twice a week to buy fish from them. They don’t come out as far as Rockford. But I would drive in anyway. (I like getting each item from the best place for that particular thing. I don’t want to buy my lamb from a person or company that also sells pork. I want a specialist.)

Then, I see the Rockford newspaper, and it contains the news of Jon Lundin’s death. This is quite a second shock. Two of the finest people I know have died within a week of one another. I really start to think about how short life is. I decide to quit putting off my trip to Hungary. I call my son, and he says come ahead. I start training Katy to go to the market. (They love Katy at the market, but then I knew that beforehand.) I buy tickets online from Travelosity. I’m leaving Tuesday. I will be writing about my trip. As my son Drew says, stay tuned.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

from the May 30-June 5, 2007, issue

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