Have you ever gutted a fish? I have. One of the few activities my father and I did together when I was a child was fish. He owned a trailer in a trailer park that overlooked Canyon Ferry Lake just outside Helena, Montana. I told my friends at the end of every school year that I would be going to visit my dad at his “cabin” at “the lake.” Cabins sound cooler and wealthier than “mobile home.” It wasn’t a nice trailer, either. The walls were made of thin particle board, the deck was rotted, and it smelled of mildew and cigarettes. But I could tell people my dad had a “lake place” and a boat, and it sounded like a life I wanted.
My dad and I fished in the mornings. Sometimes he wouldn’t let me come, but most of the time, if I heard him rustling about, I’d quickly pull on shorts, an old t-shirt, and a pair of dirty sneakers, and rush out to the living room to catch him before he left. He’d drive us down the steep hill to the marina, where his boat was docked. When I was very young, he had a small motorboat with a center console and seating area at the front. I loved that boat because it could go fast, and I loved the way the wind rushed around me when the bow was in the air. Later, he purchased a pontoon boat that better suited his slow, relaxed manner.
Most of the time when we would fish, it was silent, with the exception of a radio that played easy listening tunes from the likes of Barry Manilow and Perry Como. We each had our own rod and would sit near it as the boat trolled the water. Occasionally, one of our lines would click, and my father’s laid-back nature would briefly disappear as he jumped and shouted and frantically turned his reel. Or he’d wrap his arms around me and help me yank against a creature that did not want to die. The power a four-pound animal has as it faces its own mortality is startling.
Once we had a fish on the line and managed to pull it into the boat, we’d unhook it and throw it into a bucket filled with water and close the lid. For a few minutes after, I could hear the weight of its body slamming against the walls and the sloshing of water as it struggled to live. Then silence again.
When we had caught enough for the day, or the sun became too warm, or the lake filled with speed boats and Ski-doos, he’d steer us back toward the docks. Before we parked the boat in his slip, he’d stop at a cleaning station. Each of our fish dangled on a chain of hooks like some sea god’s necklace. One by one my father would unhook the trout and lay them on a cutting board.
“See, your knife must be very sharp,” he’d tell me as he sliced across the neck, just below the gills. “Then you’ve got to slice from the neck to the tail fin. Make sure it’s one clean line all the way down.”
My hands were small, and the fish were slick with slime, but I managed the job. The belly of a trout is the most pure white I’ve ever known, whiter and softer than snow. A living white. Then we’d split the belly open and shove our hands inside the whiteness, pull at and rip out the red organs. This was not an easy job. Sometimes the connective tissue would stretch and snap, resisting this final indignity.
Later, my stepmother would show me how to scale and and filet the fish. Then we’d grill it in tinfoil with lemon, butter, salt, and pepper. My dad was adamant that we eat the fish in its most natural state, that too many ingredients masked the flavor and richness of its cooked flesh.
I hated it. Rainbow trout taste like fish, and I hated fish. But I ate it every summer, year after year, until finally, as a young teen, I said no. I also stopped getting up for those early morning runs to the docks. Then, I stopped coming to see my father entirely.
My mother hated fish. And not just fish. She hated nearly every kind of creature or plant that came from a body of water. So did I. For most of my life, I refused to touch any kind of lake or seafood. My mother also hated my father. I did not, most of the time. This felt like a betrayal. I hated some of the things he did–drinking too much, gambling, bringing me to bars, but mostly I did not hate him. He seemed too simple to hate.
My father is quick to laugh. He doesn’t yell much or get worked up about most things. He likes to watch the news and then switches the channel to a game or an old Western. He whispers when he thinks, constantly. The two-hour drive from his home in Livingston to the trailer at the lake was the same as the boat rides: quiet, except for easy listening music or oldies, and also, his whispering. I remember trying to decipher the words that he formed with his teeth and tongue. I’d stare at his mouth. They were mostly numbers. His accountant brain was doing math, counting and counting. What he was counting, I don’t know. I think I asked him once, and he drew back and furrowed his brows at me. He didn’t know about the whispering.
I don’t know if I didn’t like fish because my dad did, or because my mom didn’t. Both could be true. At points in my life, I’ve hated each of them, and sometimes both of them. Perhaps, simply, I didn’t eat fish because my taste buds were immature, and fish is strong and smelly.
Whatever the case, for most of my life, I did not eat fish, or any other creature from a body of water. That is, until a few years ago.
I’ve been more adventurous in my eating for the last five years or so, because food has become a passion of mine. After years of struggling with body dysmorphia and anorexia, the most liberating feeling in the world is enjoying food. Food has the ability to nourish the mind, body, and soul. It can bring people together who otherwise wouldn’t speak. It can heal literal and figurative wounds–comfort food is called such because it is true. Food is power, as an agent of tradition and in the sense that calories allow us to continue to live.
So I decided to try fish again in my late twenties, and even more bold, I decided to try shellfish–clams, mussels, oysters. I have a whole new world of eating to try. But I had and continue to have standards and limitations as to when and where I will eat seafood or fish. Most of the time, I will not eat it unless I am in a place that is near water, like Seattle or North Carolina, both places that I’ve been to in the past few years and where I’ve had incredible seafood. I also don’t like to eat seafood or fish in a place where the food must be shipped at a great cost to the environment. I am also against raw fish, like sushi. I just don’t like the way it tastes–the strong fish smell, the salty brine of the water.
But I made an exception last week. After the heavy, rich, fatty foods of Thanksgiving, I needed a break. I wanted something fresh, vibrant, acidic, and light. Ceviche fit that bill–it is raw fish or shrimp that is “cooked” in citrus juices and seasoned with peppers.
My wife and I decided to try Zona Blanca for the first time. Zona Blanca is a ceviche bar, the brainchild of Chef Chad White, of Top Chef fame. Chef White is originally from this city, but he spent most of his career elsewhere until recently. He decided to come back to his hometown and join our burgeoning food scene, which couldn’t make me happier. As a foodie, a converted Spokane believer, and a Top Chef fan, having Chef White here is awesome.
I ordered the agua chile verde, a shrimp ceviche with cilantro, cucumbers, and chiles. Abbie had the pescado escabeche with rock fish, chicharron, and pickled onions. We both had a margarita to match. The food was excellent, as was the margarita (I’m picky about margaritas, and this one had the right balance of sweet to sour).
I thought about my mother as I ate, how she would scoff and turn her nose at our food. As I ate, I knew the texture of the plump shrimp and bite of the acid would leave her shaking her head. I loved the crunch of the tostada and cucumber against the juicy shrimp pieces, bursting with citrus. I relished the heat of the peppers, countered by the smooth mayo. How different we are, and always were.
As for my father, he stopped fishing years ago. I think he even gave up his boat. It was falling apart, and he didn’t have the money or the will to fix it. He also moved into a different trailer at the lake, a nicer home than he ever lived in before. He’s sick now, and I don’t know if I will see him again before he dies.
I’d like to tell him I eat fish again.