Recently I had dinner at Portland’s trendy and excellent restaurant clarklewis. The occasion was the visit of the esteemed California printer and publisher Peter Koch and his wife Susan who gave a presentation to an eager audience of youthful acolytes of the printing arts. Portland artist and publisher Sarah Horowitz hosted the evening and selected the restaurant which is conveniently close to EmSpace, the site of the presentation.
It will strike no one as a surprise that “bookies” are notorious “foodies.” Sitting between Peter and Sarah and across from Susan, I was positioned in the crossfire of witty and informed chatter about everything under the sun. Including, of course, food adventures.
Sand dabs were on the appetizer menu and I was over the moon. “What are sand dabs?,” asked Sarah. I explained that they are a small bony flatfish and they seem to show up on the West Coast about now. They weigh between 4 and 12 ounces in their West Coast variety. Properly filleted and simply dredged in seasoned flour and fried in butter, they are, to my palate, as elegant as scallops though quite different in texture. At the old San Francisco restaurant SAM’S, where I first tasted them, they came golden and arranged in a radiating circular pattern with a sprinkle of parsley and a lemon wedge. Last year when they were briefly offered at New Seasons Market they could be had for $4.98 a pound.
Really little fishes are on my mind lately because I have been pursuing them with my rod and reel this Spring and Summer. After landing a really big fish, a beautiful wild chinook, early in Spring, I broke out my spinning gear in pursuit of lake trout (skunked repeatedly) and shad (skunked on the Clackamas, skunked on the Columbia.) Oh, how I yearned for shad roe with scrambled eggs. But it seems that in both cases I was simply too late.
Undaunted I drove out to Sauvies Island where I could fish for the little channel catfish. They are golden and quite beautiful in their weird way. God knows they make, I would learn, the same disturbing sounds that their big East Coast cousins make.
This was old fashioned pitch-out-your-line-with-enough-weight- to-stand-up-to-the-current-and-present-your-worm-on-a-long- leader fishing. After a few casts I was feeling comfortable with the process. If I lost a rig to a snag, I added a little more weight and got my line further out. Then it happened, that definitive tap, tap, tap that says this is not a nibble, this is a strike. And I brought in the golden catfish. I was beside myself with happiness. Finally!
The Vietnamese man who was fishing with his wife came over with two needle nose pliers and showed me how to safely remove the hook. I had my prize. I was tempted to simply packed up and head for home. But, no, I still had plenty of worms and I was getting action. Fifteen minutes later I felt a barely perceptible tug. I set the hook cautiously and reeled in the prettiest little eight inch perch. And that was it. I headed home with dinner on my mind.
I gutted both fishes, scaled the perch and fried them up whole. What a contrast, the perch moist and firm, moderately crispy. A few grains of salt was all that was needed. Gorgeous. The catfish’s flesh soft, the skin very crisp. I put a pool of Frontera Habanero Salsa next it, dragging morsels through the spicy sauce. I have had experiences like this before. Catching trout from my canoe on Red Fish Lake in Idaho and frying them up for breakfast on a campfire. Pulling a sea trout (NOT a small fish!) out of the late morning surf on Assateague Island and tossing it on the bbq, the only accompaniment Eastern Shore strawberries the size of plums and sweet to perfection. Nothing transcends such moments.
I guess my affection for small fish is genetic. We always had herring, both pickled and in sour cream, on New Year’s Eve. It was good luck, you know. And my Dad was obsessed with sardines. During WWII he was stationed in India for a while. His Army Airforce group was flying support in the China-Burma campaign. At night the guys played cards for tins of sardines, a scarce commodity and their only protein source if they were to escape the regimen of Australian mutton that was the mainstay of the mess there. My dear Father could, at times, have upwards of a hundred tins of sardines on the shelves downstairs in our family house. I personally never allow myself more then ten.
The appreciation of little fish is not unique with me, of course. Witness the anchovy and its mercurial properties. The late book collector Gian Chiti would bring me a dazzling variety from fancy shops in Milan when he came to Portland on his yearly visits. And venture into James Beard’s AMERICAN COOKERY and fix his recipe for savoury baked smelts. He rhapsodizes over this dish from his childhood “served cold with a simple salad.”
Yes. Little fishes, little fishes... To know their pleasures...