Friday, March 13, 2009

The Past Tense of Smelt is...

Saucyman - I have always felt the rod & reel set should just bypass the fishing and cook the bait. I hear they do this in the Midwest - Do people actually eat smelt or is this just a non-fishing tale? Smote Me

First of all, they deep fry the smelt before eating it. Secondly, while you might think those who write menus would choose the pleasantly innocuous and purposefully vague "fish fry", the fact of the matter is Friday night Smelt Fries used to be as common as weeknight bowling leagues. Both have become a tad anachronistic, but the last time I was in the Motherland between Ash Wednesday and Easter a fella could still get a basket of smelt, cabbage salad and a long neck beer (For under $9.99 - all you can eat to boot) if he looked in the right place.


The Northeast has a tradition of public buildings dedicated to civics and learning - in the form of Town Assemblies, Lecture Halls and grand libraries. The public meeting areas in the Midwest were constructed on a more modest scale for insular communities - Fraternal Orders of Moose and Elk, religious auxiliaries like the Knights of Columbus and the organizations like the grange all offered like-0minded individuals a place of their own. While temples of thought, discourse and participatory democracy might be fine for Damn Yankees, Midwesterners used their outposts to well, drink, smoke, play cards and eat fried foods.

Late winter is smelt time. A large Catholic population either is or should be abstaining from meat on Fridays. That and being 1,000 miles from saltwater in any direction means the lowly smelt - a favorite for ice fishers is a perfect fit for the season of austerity. The freshwater smelt, A.K.A. the rainbow smelt is leaner than its ocean going or Columbia River cousins and actually is good for reasons other than bait.

The smelt is beheaded (Smiting Smelt), gutted and dipped in batter before it is deep fried (It would be fair enough to say the enterprising Midwestern cook vacillates between deep frying and topping with cheddar, but for the smelt, the deep frying works). A lighter beer batter or flour and/or corn meal whipped into egg whites is preferred to a heavy bread crumb dredging. The fish is cooked bones - which can be eaten- all served up unironically in a basket.

I'm not sure if I am getting old, soft or nostalgic but I kinda miss the smell of frying oil mingling in the air of church basement. Now if you'll excuse me I have an urge to find a game of euchre.

No comments: