May 24, 2010
Our first reader-written story comes from Deb Terrill in Kankakee, Illinois.
Fear of Fish
By Deb Terrill
Most people would call me an adventurous eater. In my work as a food and garden writer, I am occasionally accused of ‘fancy food’ promotion.
“I always read your columns,” people will say, “but some of them are, well…We’re meat and potatoes people.”
I grew up in a meat and potatoes family too, and the cooking couldn’t have been more Midwestern, white-bread, start-with-a-can-of-this or a-box-of-that pedestrian. No chances were taken.
This began to change when I met my in-laws.
As a child, I was afraid of so many foods. What kind of cheese could possibly be white? Velveeta wasn’t white. And moldy blue cheese? Please. Clam chowder? Forgive me for this, but those clams looked like something that came out of a really ill person’s nose.
We never ate fish when I was a child. Not once. Not even a fish stick. I did see it occasionally—old Mr. Miller across the alley would clean fish in his backyard, cutting open the belly of the scaly, wiggling creature and spreading the guts out on newspaper, wiping his knife on his coveralls as he worked. I got to help bury the wet newspaper bundles beneath the peonies. No, I would never eat fish.
Grandma, who liked to tell stories as we peeled potatoes or shelled peas, once shared a vivid tale about a cousin who went to the beach and fell asleep on the sand. (As always, she began with the declaration: “Now this is a true story.”) According to Grandma, a crab climbed into the sleeping girl’s mouth, entered her throat and almost choked to her death. True or not, that image remains with me after 50 years, and I still don’t eat crustaceans of any sort!
Visits to the Amish farms to buy meat were fairly hair-raising, too. For people who were not risk takers, my grandparents were amazingly okay with the plethora of scary circumstances that filled our chest freezers with moo and oink. I managed to avoid the invitations to watch the hog butchering (ever hear a pig scream?), but Grandpa would not tolerate my reluctance to watch the pans of souse being made. Souse is a sort of jelly made from simmering bones, studded with the parts of a hog that, from my perspective, were never intended to be eaten—ears, tails, tongues, organ meat, probably even eyes. I tried not to see the sausage being oozed into ‘natural’ casings as I ran out of those barns.
The first time I ever trimmed a whole beef tenderloin required popping an Atavan.
My in-laws ate things like rutabaga, artichokes, sourdough bread, tiramisu and brandy-soaked fruitcakes, none of which I had ever tasted before. But I learned to love the oceans of brine that spread over my tongue from a good Kalamata olive and to appreciate the piquancy of a pickled caper in my piccata sauce. Now, I adore a good Maytag cheese and immediately notice the sad lack of anchovies in a Caesar salad dressing. And fish! They fed me flaky white cod and buttery sole fillets and never once asked me to eat any skin. These days, I jump up and down and clap my hands when my husband catches a walleye. My fresh-caught, home-smoked whitefish pate has become a signature appetizer when I cater.
But in some ways, I am still afraid of seafood. When I see celebrity chefs sucking down raw oysters, scooping up that green thing in lobsters or slurping squid ink, I am quite certain that these people lack the gene responsible for self- preservation—the one that makes us spit out poisons. (Or are they more evolved than I?) Every dinner invitation that comes my way is met with consternation over the possibility that shellfish will be involved. Steak tartare, sushi, or slimy okra I could manage. But please God, not a crab.
In the event of such a catastrophe, my plan is to look at my cell phone and declare: “Oh my God, my cousin has just had a freak accident at the beach! I’m sorry, but I have to go…”
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