Once upon a time, I was every American EatingWell Magazine reading Mom that wants a skinless, boneless, eyeless salmon filet. Or, I was every cheesecurd munching Wisconsinite that, living as far from an ocean as physically possible while still remaining on Earth, chows on beer battered cod each Friday night. That was a great person to be. That was fun. Then I went about Asia a bit and was introduced to the idea of preparing, serving and dining on whole fish, especially freshwater river fish. I didn’t try it. It seemed like an unmerited and tedious effort to accomplish nothing more than an overly ostentatious display. I came back to America and continued with the assumption that fish should be consumed exclusively as a soulless and skinless filet or as a battered and fried nugget. Another trip to Asia still didn’t change me. Finally, a third adventure – 2019’s Eastbound rambling – got me to sit down in front of a whole fish – bones, meat, skin, eyes, fins. I was certain that the tediousness and messiness of eating it would outweigh any reward, but, for $2.50, I figured I could bear that risk.
I went back to the same restaurant and ate a whole fish (sometimes two), going through their entire repertoire of species and preparations, every night for the next two weeks. Call me a convert.
Now I’m back in America. The northernmost ‘burbs of Milwaukee. The acreage is whitetails, holsteins, corn, and soybeans, and there are no 3-walled establishments serving steaming plates of whole fish, no markets with kiddy-pools of fresh caught carp and other river fish. If I wanted to dine on a whole fish, it would have to be self-provided adventure from start to finish.
The target was a carp. “Why a carp!? Garbage fish. They taste like mud!” says everyone. But do they, now? Have you had one? Because I have, so I will tell you first-hand, they can be delicious. I wanted a carp because it’s authentic, delicious, abundantly available and because “told ya so”. I conducted some research and asking about, rigged up some poles, casted and waited. Despite the motivation to “prove a point” and a plethora of carp leaping from the water each morning, a carp on the end of my line proved elusive.
Finally, one morning at dawn I had a “feeesh on!”. Carp was the target, bluegill was the hit. I landed the pretty little ‘gill and brought it straight up to the kitchen. Locking pliers, cutting board, sharp knife. Dispatch any remaining life with a cut to the back of the skull. Grab the tail with the locking pliers and use the knife edge to descale, scraping from tail to head. Slice the belly from jaw to vent and remove the guts. Score the sides every ½”, slicing from dorsal fin to belly. Rinse the cleaned and prepped fish off, and by that time the wok was hot with canola oil. I fried it 2-3 minutes per side, listening to delightful cracks and pops carry through the morning air. I picked a big plate, poured on a soy-vinegar-chili sauce and garnished with baby chives.
Wow, beautiful, thank you Universe, thank you Earth, thank you Feeesh! A feast. One modest size bluegill, rather than a bite or two of filet, is a satisfying meal. The usual filet meat was good, yes. But it was actually the least best part. Even better was the thin layer of fatty skin, cheek meat, belly meat and crisped up bits of gill cover, cheek, little side fins, belly fins… The meat was quite good, and if you like a potato chip, there would be nothing not to love about these crispy bits. Don’t knock it until you try it. A beautiful meal, and a wonderful full use of the harvest from the bounty of our land.
An adventure in the memory books, all before 7am.
This took place several weeks ago. Since then, a handful of smallmouth bass provided more beautiful plates (plus a tasty and nutritious ramen stock), full bellies, gratitude for the abundance of the land, a tasty treat, a shared adventure.