When anyone asked me why my Daddy owned a Boston Whaler, I could recite his answer. We scalloped and fished on the Gulf of Mexico, but we also fished on Howard’s Creek off the Appalachacola River. Our little boat thrived in both salt and fresh water.
Owning that boat meant we spent a lot of weekends on the water. I loved punting hidden scallops into my net, unhooking feisty fish, but Dad also insisted I learn to clean my catch. I could pry open a scallop and scrape its milky white muscle clean out of its shell. And except for catfish (I was afraid of their defensive dorsal fin) I could clean and gut just about any fish.
At eighteen I left home—and fishing—behind. Since then I can count on two hands the times I’ve baited a hook. Last Sunday when my friend Ray Ryan called to say he had just caught a blue fish on Long Island Sound that morning and did I want it, my childhood fishing memories bubbled to the surface.
I’ve known Ray for twenty years. He’s one of the few people I know who seriously hunts and fishes. When Ray calls to say he’s just gotten back from pheasant hunting the birds are still warm and do I want any, the answer is always, Yes!… with slight hesitation. Yes, because they’re delicious. Hesitation because I’ve got to gut and pluck them.
And as much as I grew up cleaning my catch, it still pains me to pull warm entrails from a newly lifeless creature. I know this occasional sacrifice is good for me however—a reminder of what someone else does for me every single day.
So without hesitation, I accept Ray’s fish offer. It doesn’t matter if it’s been cleaned and gutted. I want it. Can I eat it tonight, he asks. “Yes, I can eat this fish tonight.” Can he drop it off this afternoon? “Yes, I will make sure I’m home to receive it.”
Now it’s my turn to ask a question. “Is the fish cleaned and gutted? Not yet, he says, but he’ll bring it over, and we can do it together. Perfect.
He arrives with fish, filet knife and steel, newspapers and a clean rag. Within a few minutes, his work is done. (OK, so I just watched.) There sit two skinned fillets that I season simply with oil, salt and pepper and grill. Meanwhile I make a sauce—extra-virgin olive oil with capers, cornichons, parsley and shallots.
As David and I savor each bite, I declare it one of the best fish I have ever eaten partly because it had been pulled from the Sound just that morning, but mostly because I had witnessed the sacrifice and was grateful.