By Sara Bir
It was going to be a treat. I’d bought the fish at the discount grocer’s seafood counter, which usually offers semi-thawed Thai shrimp or filets of tilapia brightly flecked with some snazzy marinade that steadily works on its flesh until, when you get home, the fish cooks up pasty and mealy. But the smelt was wild-caught and, at $2.49 a pound, a steal. They looked so recognizably marine and vital in their plastic pan of chipped ice, the largest of them no more then eight inches from silvery snout to tail. As a part-time vegetarian plotting a quick relapse, I wanted the satisfaction of eating an identifiable animal.
The plan was to pan-fry the smelt and serve them with mashed potatoes and spinach salad, what one of my chef friends calls a three-point landing: protein, starch, and vegetable in their assumed sections on the plate, the protein filling three o’clock to nine o’clock (protein always gets plated closest to the diner) and the starch and veg claiming the remaining two quadrants.
Ever since I stopped eating and cooking meat, the three-point landing had all but vanished from our dinner table. I missed making pan sauces with the fond clinging to the bottom of my favorite skillet after properly sautéing a cutlet. I missed the hiss of chicken stock and vermouth hitting a searing metal pan. I missed artfully arranging components on a plate just so, letting the rusty bones of my expensive culinary school training perform some deeply ingrained but long dormant acrobatics. I liked knowing that I could still pull off classy restaurant-caliber food at home. We never go out to eat, often because I’m disappointed with the food at the upper-mid-range places in town everyone fawns over; we carefully select the locations of the once-a-year splurges and then I realize my $23 trout is served with only three spindly spears of asparagus and a blood orange buerre blanc that’s underseasoned. Better to stick to take-out veggie burritos or cheese pizzas once a month; we know what we’re getting, and no sitter required.
The smelt was an opportunity to please Joe with both my talent and my thrift. How fun it would be to sit with a bottle of $5 rose and lift the spiny string of intact bones from our fish, to crunch through a tiny browned tip of a fin! We couldn’t go to the earthy, broadly smiling locals of some anachronistic European village and bask in their hospitality, eating lusty, rustic foods; we couldn’t go to cozy places in Portland that hoped to offer a simulacra of the same sunny Mediterranean thing right here under our own oppressively grey dome or our damp skies. But we could pull off the coup of having that meal in our own dump of a rental house as our toddler sighed the sighs of early evening sleep in her crib just two rooms away. No sitter, no corkage fee, no showy tattoos of pigs or chef’s knives on the tensed forearms of our posturing servers.
I’d never cooked smelt before. They’d appealed to me at the store in part because of their immediacy, the hint that we could have caught them ourselves on some rejuvenating fishing outing. Joe doesn’t fish. Daniel, my boyfriend many years ago, once took me to his family’s cabin deep in a West Virginia holler where we fished for trout in a clear, frigid stream using canned yellow corn for bait. Our catch was modest but enough to reasonably feed two. We fried them up using the Country Crock margarine from the cabin’s dormitory-sized refrigerator, and Daniel deftly lifted the rear fin of the fish to release the filet on one side, then the other, the perfect chain of bared bones resembling the cartoon skeleton a cartoon cat would dig up from a trash can.
That trip, it must have been Daniel who cleaned the fish. The few times I’d bought farmed trout, their bodies came eviscerated, their guts missing. But, newly examining the smelt I’d so breezily brought home, I find they are not gutted. It’s a decent pile of little fish, a baker’s dozen. After clumsily slitting open a few with my chef’s knife, I open up their cavities and scoop out the slimy brown organs and mushroomy red gills with my finger, just as the Joy of Cooking I’d looked at earlier during Frances’s nap advised me to. It’s tiny, stinky work.
The smelt give off the perfume of algae and barnacles clinging to the filthy blue foam float under a bobbing wooden dock, a smell of simultaneous life and decay. Yes, the disembodied segments of salmon filets I rarely allow into the house have fishy aromas, too, but they entail no liquid eyes or gritty digestive tracts to deal with. The smelt are wet and cold, and my fingers act up, turning numb and yellow-white.
Mid-gutting, a naked and baby-fresh damp Frances pads to the kitchen, her hands clasped expectantly behind her back. These post-bath visits to the raging inferno of dinner prep are one of the few times she behaves demurely. “Mama, mama!” she calls, reaching out. With my fishy, frigid hands immobilized, I still can’t help but scoop her up using the crooks of my elbows. I kiss her and point her back to her father, who reads books to her in a marathon bedtime session peppered with explosions of shrieks and gigging.
I read to calm her; Joe reads to delight her. I like to time the cooking so that dinner hits the table just as Joe creeps out of her bedroom, but usually I get to the end of my prep and sense that he won’t emerge anytime soon. I’ll tap on the door and say, “Ten minutes and we’re eating.” Sometimes he won’t come out for another twenty; he lingers in there searching for some kind of elusive peace, hoping Frances will fall asleep in his arms and open a portal to her carefree non-adult world and invite him along to stay forever.
Even with the window cracked to the chilly March air and the feeble but noisy vent fan on, the cooked smelt assert their presence throughout the house. Joe makes his way from Frances’s room just as I remove the second batch of fish from the pan, and he scowls. “Whoa! It stinks in here.”
Yes, I agree, it does. It’s the exact duplicate of the cooked fish stench that haunted the stairwell of the sublet apartment where we stayed in Queens the summer of our doomed and ultimately aborted move to New York City. A Greek family lived on the second floor of the three-floor building, and the residue of the seafood they fried hung heavily in the humid city air. Joe constantly complained of that family, of the way the dubiously employed adult kids who still lived there constantly slammed the door. “So those are it? The smelt?” he says, looking skeptically at the tangle of heads and fins I just heaped on his plate. He says “smelt” the way you’d say “chum” or “chub.” He shirks, repulsed. “How are we going to eat those?”
“Like I’d told you, the meat falls right off the bone. You just lift the spine out like a chain. I can do it for you, if you like.”
“Uhhh…I don’t think I can eat this. It’s just…you know.”
The day before, when I’d bought the fish, I’d told him my plan, how we’d be eating these little fish like they do in trendy restaurants. He’d seemed into it then, unless he hadn’t been listening, or hadn’t understood. I guess I talk about cooking food a lot, using terms that don’t have any meaning for a person who doesn’t cook food. I guess it’s easy to tune me out. It’s certainly no effort for me to tune him out.
“These have faces. They look like fish.” He’s trying to excuse himself, to extricate his feelings from my hostility, but it’s only digging him in deeper. People who gladly eat dead animals but don’t like to be reminded that they are eating dead animals are not people I have much patience for.
“Okay, so don’t have the fish. You can have mashed potatoes and salad for dinner.” Mashed potatoes and salad is what a kid who’s not into what Mom made for dinner eats. I feel like I’m Joe’s mom a lot of the time.
“Mashed potatoes and salad?” he says. “That’s not very exciting.”
“So make yourself something else.” He does not. Joe eats a modest serving of unexciting salad and mashed potatoes, and by that point I’d be happier if he’d slapped together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead, because at least he’d be proactive about getting what he wants.
I find I no longer want my smelt, either, but I gamely eat a few ounces. The flesh does fall right off the bone. The caper sauce is excellent. I drink most of the rosé. Before we opened it, I had been thinking maybe we’d have sex later that night, but right then I wasn’t even interested in being in the same house with Joe.
A few days later, I made smelt salad with a dab of the caper sauce and the leftover flakes of smelt—rich and fishy and still with some stray bits of crispy skin, fin, and needle-thin bone. I ate this at work atop long pieces of toasted rye and cornmeal bread I’d made myself, interspliced with nibbles of a kosher pickle I’d pickled myself. It was a splendid lunch, serendipitously Scandinavian. All it needed was some pickled beets. And while it’s no feat to make no-knead bread, or to make kosher pickles (that it’s all a matter of letting cucumbers and garlic cloves sit forgotten in salt water for a few days seems like an April Fool’s joke), I thought to myself, “I am awesome.” I wanted Joe to be saying this, and for the same reasons I was thinking it: that I made things that tasted good, that I figured out how to on my own, that I so shrewdly navigated our little family’s constantly ailing finances through cruel storms into civilized ports of comfort and even occasional refinement.
Daniel—Daniel of the trout and the remote Appalachian cabin—loved my food. It enthralled him, as did nearly everything about me. Only once was he less than thrilled, at a dry and chewy noodle kugel I’d baked using thick Amish egg noodles instead of the lighter supermarket kind, and even then he tactfully said he didn’t think this misguided Amish-Jewish fusion ranked among my culinary triumphs. I broke up with Daniel because I eventually found that I was not capable of being adored so much by one person. He spoke French and rebuilt motorcycles engines and split wood with an ax and won awards for his journalism. He thought everything I did was wonderful, and I left him.
Which I don’t regret. On paper the relationship was ideal, but in practice the responsibility of being idolized smothered me. Now I try to please the man I did marry by being who I am, and it backfires. Even when I set out with lovely intentions, I have to cook on my terms. To love me is to love my food. For him, I do not slice onions but dice them; the limp, stringiness of cooked onions reminds him of worms, the sight of which makes him retch. For him, I eschew spaghetti and fettuccini and linguini for the same reasons. For him, I buy Tofurkey sausages. There are far greater concessions.
When I was a teenager, you could have knocked me over with a feather if you told me I’d someday marry a skateboarder who plays drums and makes art, so elated would I have been. Skateboarding is the thing Joe slips away from the house for on Sundays, leaving me alone with Frances to cope with a pile of smelt and a cold, muddy playground calling her name. Then he goes to band practice. Then, after dinner, he washes the dishes and complains about how difficult it is to clean a sheet pan in our shallow sink, and about the amount of dishes there are to wash, even though I never reach for a utensil or pot without first thinking, “Do I need this? How can I go about this prep in such a way as to minimize cleanup?” because that is what working in professional kitchens and graduating from one of the top cooking schools in the country will pound into you. Then, after the kitchen is acceptably immaculate, Joe gets out his colored tape and works away at his art. The sight is so familiar by now that I don’t even notice him. He shows me a new piece and I can’t come up with convincing enthusiasm if I do like it; if I don’t like it, I just say “hmm” or “ahh,” then retire to the bedroom with a book.
Would that have happened with Daniel or someone else, that after more than ten years together he’d wander in from the garage, black grease under his short-clipped nails and an industrious evening of manly repairing and improving under his belt, and I’d grunt in indifference? Would the oily cling of cooking smelt put him in a grumpy mood once he set foot in a kitchen thrumming with the energy of a meal in unstoppable progress?
A week later, we still have some of the caper sauce. I cook two decent-sized artichokes in the pressure cooker to serve with it. It’s taken me years, but I finally figured out that artichokes taste best when you cook the hell out of them. I put them on a plate, one for me and one for him, and set an empty wooden salad bowl next to it for us to put the leaves in.
The artichokes are rich and meaty, more so as we work towards their gray-green hearts. Cleaning an artichoke is involved, about as much work as gutting a fish, though it’s not nearly as slimy or fishy. Eating an artichoke is work, though tasty and relaxing work. We obliterate our artichokes, dipping them in caper sauce and leaving behind only a thorny pile of spiny scraped-up leaves, and Joe gladly works his way toward his favorite part, the rich and tender area toward the center of the base and stem, and I realize you can’t count on everyone to be satisfied with making a meal of artichokes, or to think of such a thing as a special occasion, and I decide to let the smelt thing slide.
SARA BIR is a writer, chef, and librarian who recently relocated from Portland, Oregon, to southeast Ohio. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a recipient of the Greenbrier Scholarship to the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers. You can read more of her writing at www.sarabir.com