Fishy Incident

A few days ago something really disturbing occurred while I was cleaning fish. One of the things I’ve been most proud of learning in culinary school is how to scale, clean and filet a fish.  Our final exam is coming up next month and I’ve decided to prepare a dish using rape (monkfish). As I’ve written in the past, this is a very ugly fish with rows of tiny sharp teeth and eyeballs the size of marbles. It is not pleasant to clean but for various philosophical and conceptual reasons (which I will explain in a later post), it is necessary that I use this fish in my final exam.

I spent several days in the past couple of weeks attempting to concoct sauces using fumet (similar to stock) made from monkfish. In order to do this, you must clean out their heads which entails slicing out the eyeballs and peeling off the skin. I’ve got all that down though, no problem. However, I discovered the other day that as brave as I may think I’ve become, my nerves are not quite strong enough to bear any unforseen events while performing these tasks.

So here’s the scenario. I’m in the kitchen, cleaning out fish heads and feeling smug in my rubber gloves. A radio documentary about the Swedish royal family is playing in the background (did you know that the future king of Sweden is a personal trainer?) and I’ve already removed the giant eyeballs and dumped them unceremoniously in the trash. And then I see it. ANOTHER eyeball peering out at me from within the depths of the dismembered fish head. My first thought is that I’ve chanced upon some sort of monstrous three-eyed freak of the sea.  Shuddering, I look more closely and then see that nestled within the fish head, is yet another smaller fish. I scream and leap away. “Parasitic twin!” my mind screams in horror. But then I come to my senses and remember that fish do eat other fish and that perhaps it isn’t so unheard of for one to catch a fish, only to find another fish inside. But still, BLECHH!

I couldn’t erase the image for the rest of the day. Perhaps it didn’t help that when I threw away the smaller fish, I put it in the very top of the garbage pail where I could still run over and horrify myself by looking at it whenever I wanted. Then when Nico got home and I told him what had happened, he made me get the fish back OUT of the garbage and begged me to let him cut open the smaller fish to see if yet another even smaller fish would be inside. Not thinking that my heart would be strong enough to confront a matroyshka fish situation, I refused. He then insisted on bringing the small fish to school to show his class which I agreed to. So the little fish spent the weekend in a plastic bag in our freezer before being brought to school on Monday in an insulated lunch bag covered with illustrations of astronauts. “Nico has a dead fish in his backpack!” I cackled to his wide-eyed classmates as we waited for the school gate to open. (Ah the joys of being the odd foreign mommy! You can say whatever you want and no one is ever quite sure what to make of you. It might be a language issue or it could be that you really are just very weird, and if so, maybe all the people in your country are also weird so it isn’t even really your fault). When we got to his class, I very clearly told his teacher that she could (which I felt clearly implied should) flush the fish down the toilet after show-and-tell.

Some 48 hours later, I noticed an unpleasant smell coming from Nico’s backpack. Need I say more? This is a boy who won’t take snacks to school in the mornings like the other kids because he doesn’t like it when his backpack “smells like old cookies.” I’m wondering how he’ll deal with it when he discovers that instead, it reeks of rotten fish.

By the way, when I told the story to the chef at culinary school, one of the other students asked if it would be okay to cook the smaller fish as well in a situation like that. The chef compared doing this to performing an autopsy on someone, finding a recently swallowed burger and french fries in the stomach, and then deciding that the afternoon’s planned trip to McDonald’s was no longer necessary. In other words, no that would not be a good idea.