FRIED FISH: YOU GOTTA START SOMEWHERE
My mother, an all-around sportswoman, loved to fish, and she didn’t mind scaling and gutting her catch. She was, however, less enthusiastic about cooking it. Uncomplicated was the name of the game. Both my parents felt that the mild fish they preferred—flounder, drum, sheepshead—was so pristine it didn’t need much fooling with, although things changed somewhat when Mom began dipping into Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
She had rushed out to buy it the instant it was published, in 1961. She read it in huge chunks, like a novel, and until that book entered our home, I had no idea my mother spoke French. One evening, supper smelled especially good, but, “What in the hell is on the flounder?” Daddy demanded. Mom didn’t miss a beat. “Beurre maître d’hôtel,” she replied silkily, a little mysteriously. Daddy chewed a moment and swallowed. “Sure is good,” he allowed.
Unlike my mother, my father was not ambitious with rod and reel. When the spirit moved, he would light-foot out at four in the morning with his surfcasting gear, but, naturally, I like to think he was happiest when he sat with me at the end of our pier, waiting for something, anything, to swim along and bump into one of my laboriously baited hooks. We would sit there for hours, and no one ever interrupted our daydreams.
Mom either broiled fish or pan-seared it in the cast-iron skillet reserved just for seafood. We never had crunchy, deep-golden batter-fried fish, though. She thought it was common, and couldn’t abide the smell.
All too predictably, I adore fried fish and eat it every chance I get. Saint Peter’s fish (a.k.a. tilipia) on the shores of the Galilee. Pearl spot on a tiny island in the Arabian Sea. Sand dabs in Monterey, California, and catfish at the Taylor Grocery, just outside Oxford, Mississippi. Filet-O-Fish sandwiches at McDonald’s everywhere.
Now that I think about it, fried fish was my entrée into the food world. My gateway drug. My first real job, snagged on the fly the summer before I left for college.
It was at a Long John Silver’s Seafood Shoppe. My mother, who had died of cancer some months before, would have found this, by turns, hilarious and horrifying. She would have been proud that I was doing something to earn my keep and secretly convinced that I would end up working a carnival midway somewhere around Myrtle Beach.
Before I realized that the smell would never come out (Mom had a point), I really liked my uniform: a neat navy-blue skirt, with sailor-ish buttons, paired with a crisp white middy blouse, eerily prescient of the no-wrinkle cotton shirts found in mail-order catalogs today. I was not, however, thrilled about the enormous “Big Catch” button that had to be pinned each morning to the chest pocket. I wore it anyway.
Long John Silver’s, a seafood chain based in landlocked Kentucky, took the English notion of fish and chips popularized by Arthur Treacher and gave it a New-England-fishing-village-circa-1800 kind of vibe.
My boss was proud of what he sold. “Cod fillets, straight from Iceland,” he bragged, as I peered myopically into the walk-in. “Excellent fish. Going up quickly, very quickly, in price, though.” He gave the freezer door a worried thump. While steering me past the deep-fat fryers (“we basically fry the batches to order”), he let a solicitous, pudgy hand drift to my waist, and I fixed him with a glare I didn’t know I possessed. “Er, em, fresh oil makes such a difference,” he said, and offered me a small plastic basket of hush puppies.
Paralytic in math class for years, I discovered that I was a whiz at the cash register, at making change. “All you need to do is count,” a co-worker explained, and she was right. I also found pleasure in being efficient, in anticipating what customers wanted, and I was absurdly delighted at being voted Employee of the Month. Twice.
This past Friday evening, I came to a halt in front of our local Irish bar. “Fried Fish for Lent” read the sign in the window. I fell hook, line, and sinker, and arrived home with two styrofoam take-out boxes bulging with fat sandwiches, french fries, and extra tartar sauce. “I wonder if this fish is sustainable,” Sam said, a bit indistinctly, since his mouth was full. I pretended not to hear. “It must be one of those sacrifices you make for Lent,” he added. “Have a french fry.”