Where I grew up, fish came in a stick

Standard

‘Not that my palate is all that sophisticated now’

I had fish for dinner last night. Which means that I ate in a restaurant. (Yes, I was masked. Except when I was actually eating said fish.) See, now that I am a grownup — and a rather broken-in grownup at that — I can handle eating fish. Certain kinds of fish. Once in a blue moon. But I still can’t cook it.

Me, after having not cooked fish for dinner

See, fish was not something in my Mom’s meal rota. We had pork chops (which came with mashed potatoes and canned corn), and “Swiss Steak” (which came with mashed potatoes and peas), meat loaf (ditto), chicken (double ditto) and sometimes — because it was “good for you,” — liver (which came with creamed potatoes and green beans.)

And fish was generally not found on Midcentury Midwestern restaurant menus. I can’t remember fish appearing, like my salmon last night or my branzino last week, even in “tonight’s specials.” No, fish mostly came in a stick, battered and fried — and was primarily eaten at school lunches on Fridays as sort of a penance. Or during Lent. Ditto.

I don’t have a photo of fried fish sticks. But this one of fried chicken is much better. In many ways

In all my growing up years, I can’t recall anyone of my acquaintance — certainly not anyone in my family — saying, “Gee, Mom. Let’s have fish for supper.” No, fish was what you ate as sort of a default option.

Oh, sometimes a Dad would head out with his buddies and “go fishing.” But this wasn’t an Abercrombie & Kent sort of brook trout fly-fishing excursion. This was a “let’s pile in the bass boat and go get us some crappie” sort of deal. (Incidentally, “crappie” is a real fish, and pronounced “croppie.”)

Youngest Younger Brother Doug proudly displays his crappie catch

If you made the mistake of going along on one of these trips, the Dad(s) would delegate either hook-baiting and/or fish cleaning to you, as the lowest man/girl on the totem, er, fishing pole. Ugh.

This sort of chore effectively ruined your appetite for the possibly-delightful crappie feast to follow. Eating the results of a Dad Fishing Trip was right up there with eating the results of a Dad Hunting Trip. Except you hardly ever found buckshot in the crappie. Bones, yes.

This “fishing trip” was an excuse to screw around on skates. Trust me, no one had to clean fish after this excursion

The other fish one might find in the waters of Clinton County were gar, big long bony creatures that floated on top of the river — or catfish, big fat creatures that hung around on the bottom. No one I knew ate gar, though they were purportedly fun to catch and throw back. Catfish were served in a few Clinton County restaurants, and weren’t so bad if you put it out of your mind that they are, quite literally, bottom feeders.

There are catfish in these waters. You can’t see them because it’s so muddy. Which is, erk, just how catfish like it

Speaking of fish, once in a while as a special treat our family would eat at a Howard Johnson’s. I’m not sure if they exist any more, but when I was a kid they had these orange roofs and served pretty fancy food. They were kind of the restaurant equivalent of not just a motel, but a motel with a pool.

Me, when I was graduating from grade school to high school, and from fish sticks to fried clams

I remember I would always ordered the fried clams. I thought I was very sophisticated. Then, when I went off to college, I got really fancy. Sole Veronique! (Basically, a frozen white filet with grapes on it) And the piece de resistance: surf ‘n turf. (A frozen lobster tail paired with a steak) Hmmmm…I could go for surf ‘n turf right now.

No surf on this menu. Digging the Cowboy Steak in Upstate New York

After The Dude and I got married I was introduced to all kinds of new fish. Like bluefish. All I can say about bluefish, which was a Dude Family Favorite, is that is an acquired taste that I, um, never acquired. I used to push it around my plate and hide it under some lettuce. That is, if I couldn’t sneak it to Sam, the Dude Family Dog. (Sam loved me.)

Dude introduced me to sushi, too. Why on our very first date, which was my first time at a sushi restaurant, I consumed my first — and last — plate of sashimi. Where I grew up, fish came in a stick, and raw fish was bait. Or what you ate when you were the main character in The Old Man and The Sea.

But now, many years later, I happily consume many, but not all, kinds of (cooked, please) fish. Last night’s was salmon, and it was pretty delicious, if huge. There is a leftover chunk in the fridge right now. Seemed like a good idea last night to save it, but today it’s reminding me of leftover sushi, about which I wrote a pretty hilarious story once. (See “Radio Days.” You won’t be sorry.)

Turf. With no surf. It’s what’s for dinner chez Barbie tonight

I still don’t cook fish — much. The Child went through a lemon sole phase, so I dutifully complied to her wishes by putting it on our menu. Thank goodness she tired of it. See, I can cheerfully handle raw meat, but there’s just something about raw fish…well, I won’t go on. Except to say that tonight I am cooking dinner in the Ken & Barbie Kitchen. And it’s not gonna be sole. Or even reheated leftover salmon.

New York City. December 2020