Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A fishy tale

This is a cheap recycle of a post, but.... well, I thought I'd told the story on here before, and it deserves to be told, needs to be told.

A day or two ago on my mate JES's blog I threw down the phrase 
"I can't eat fish either. I was frightened by a mackerel when I was four." 
- which he kindly said was one of the funniest comments he could imagine ever receiving. But I feared he thought this was just a dada-ist quip I'd made up on the spur of the moment. No - in fact, it was quite true.

This is how it came to be....

A mackerel fishing excursion when I was a small child, in a very small boat off the south coast of England. I was both exhilarated and terrified about being sundered from the land for the first time (I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate fascination with the sea, perhaps even before this); and intrigued by this idea that we were looking for these strange elusive creatures hiding far below our feet.

But then we happened upon a shoal, and started landing them in numbers – using long, thick lines with multiple hooks on them. It hardly seemed fair: no actual skill involved. And I found fish very unsettling. I don’t think we ever ate them at home. And I’d probably never seen a live one, certainly not at close quarters – except maybe a tiny goldfish here or there.

So, when one of the mackerel squirmed off its hook just as it was being hauled onboard, it was quite a shock to me. It plopped right at my feet. And someone yelled at me to catch it, to pick it up – because, on this boat, there was quite a gap between the edge of the planking of the deck and the hull, and so this fairly small fish would easily slip through down into the bilges. It seemed to be wriggling in that direction for all it was worth.

Of course, knowing nothing about fish, I had no idea what their convulsive writhing would feel like in my little hand; or that they had such a distinctive odour, which no amount of washing would completely remove; or that they were so SLIMY, and that their translucent scales would come off all over your hand.

Yep, I was plenty freaked out enough by that moment. And further freaked out by my parents’ apparent unconcern or incomprehension of my trauma.

Then, that evening, I was woken up and frogmarched out of bed to join the dinner table to sample some of the fish that “I had helped to catch”. I was really not up for that, for so many reasons: being half asleep, being haunted by the fish’s dying wriggles in my hand, being wary of new food at the best of times. But I was forced – forced – to try a mouthful. And I nearly choked to death on a bone.

Fish – all seafood – has made me vomit spectactularly whenever I’ve tried it since. I’m sure it’s psychosomatic, but…


Tony said...

But how ROTTEN for you! Not just the nasty experience when young, but being cut off from the joys of pescatophagy for a lifetime.

I used to love oysters, but fifty years ago I had a bad one and ever since then I cannot go near one, let alone swallow one, without dire results. This gets a laugh when doctors ask if I have any allergies.

No other fishy things, not even other bivalves, have this effect, happily.

At least you are not missing anything much in China; as I remember, fish there is fiendishly expensive and not very nice; their freshwater fish is disgusting, consisting of bones and mud.

Froog said...

Yes, I'm often glad of the excuse to turn down a fish dish here.

I think the better restaurants import stuff from the south of China or from Japan. There is a conspicuous shortage of seagulls along the north China coast (I heard a rumour they tried to bus in a few thousand for the Olympic sailing events at Qingdao; but, of course, they didn't stick around for long). I suppose it's a good thing the pollution has got so bad that there simply aren't any fish here at all any more. But any they do catch, either inland or offshore, are going to be chock-full of toxins.

JES said...

I still think that was a great line, especially in the non-sequitur context of your original comment.

Probably best, for your sake, not to dwell too much on the specific subject of (as Tony says) pescatophagy. But I used to have (and possibly still have) a similar aversion to ham, at least when prepared however my mother used to prepare it when we all lived at home. Especially when boiled in a big kettle with chunked potatoes and *shudder* wax beans.

My granddad took me fishing once at a little brook near his home. I must've been about 10. The first fish I ever caught was a pike, which looked like a baby barracuda. It freaked me out so badly that all I could do was gape at it; he kept yelling at me to get it get it get it BRING IT IN. Finally it bit through the line and splashed away in the brook. He told people that story for years, always ending, wistfully, "I could just hear that fish crackling in the pan; I could just SMELL it...!"

Froog said...

Yikes - a pike, even a small one, is a very scary fish! I think it was rather irresponsible of your grandfather to asking a young child to pick one up. They have those nasty inward-pointing teeth that are almost impossible to disengage once they've bitten you.

Froog said...

The Classical pedant in me feels obliged to point out that the correct term is probably icthyophagy.

'Pescatophagy' is one of those unlovely Latin-Greek hybrids (like 'television'!). And, if it means anything, I think it would be 'eating fishermen'.

lines are down said...

Funny, Froog (well, maybe not so terribly funny, but relevant), I had a scarring fish experience at that age, too.

I was never afraid of fish, having "helped" my dad reel them in since I could walk, and was tremendously excited when I was finally old enough to wield a line by myself (age four). I caught my first specimen on a family vacation : a rainbow trout, a tiny thing. It was glorious—-iridescent and spotted—-and after we eased the hook from its mouth, I watched it swim in the bucket we’d brought to keep the catch fresh, a tiny plume of blood trailing it in slow circles. It was the sole resident of that little pond as the afternoon wore on, and I watched it with pride, as though I’d hatched it myself. Since I was the only one to have landed anything all day, I was adamant that we keep it—an insistence vastly disproportionate to its (mini-golf-)trophy size—so that I could show it to my mom and she’d see what an impressive provider I was. My dad made me promise that if I kept it, I would eat it. I agreed. (That was the foreshadowing--right there--did you catch it ?)

At the end of the week when it was time to go home, we cleaned up the cabin, my dad emptied out the little fridge; he called me to leave the broom and come outside; when we were standing on the porch, he bent down, hands cupped in front of him. I looked: he had the little trout, wrapped in aluminum foil. The sunlight did nothing for it; all the sparkle had gone from its colored scales, its silver eye. Even the foil looked dull.
"This died for nothing," he said.

One sad, dead fish pupil stared up at me through its metal shroud. I was a murderer. I’ve never been able to enjoy eating the things since.

(Of course, now I blame my dad for this. How did I know how to clean and cook the damn thing? But it doesn’t matter, it’s not a thing of logic, as you well know!)

Froog said...

And yet you still eat them (without enjoyment), C? And go fishing?

Or do you just scratch the itch by singing songs about fishing?

Froog said...

My fish-sensitive vomit-reflex - "all in the mind" though it may be - is astonishingly sophisticated.

Once during my student days, at a dining club formal dinner at college, a seven or eight course affair, the second or third course was a small dish of monkfish. It was firm and boneless, and not very strong-tasting; and it was served on a bed of creamed potatoes, which helped it down, and seemed almost completely to disguise its fishiness.

90 minutes later, shortly after completion of the meal, I suddenly came over feeling a bit wobbly, and had to dash off to the loo. There I promptly threw up the 8 or 10 tiny pieces of monkfish I had consumed, and nothing else. Despite the fact that there were by now several other courses sitting on top of it. Uncanny! You could almost make a party trick of something like that.