Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fish tales (but no tails, please)

I was listening to the radio, and a guest on a talk show was touting a new restaurant. One of the dishes he rhapsodized over was pickled herring. Pickled herring? What memories that brought back! Smelly memories.

Older generations in my family, having Eastern European roots, loved pickled herring, creamed herring, and heaven knows what other malodorous dishes. As a young child, I insisted on being seated as far from the herring eater as possible, sometimes in another room.

Herring wasn't the only victim of my disdain. I also couldn't stand to smell—or look at—sardines. Those beady eyes. The heads, the tails. Yuck.

While other Jewish children were eating smoked fish, I declined. When lox was served on bagels, I opted for the cream-cheese-only alternative

Later, as a young adult, my parents and my contemporaries chose when and where to eat out based on who had the whitefish special. I tried it a couple of times—at least it didn't come with recognizable body parts. But I found it "fishy" and sometimes bony

I often order fish in a restaurant, especially because the latest research tells us it's a way to ward off early death. But I limit my choices to halibut (in spring and summer), sea bass, tilapia, cod...all mild species. I love any fish that doesn't taste like fish.

With so many great restaurants offering a wide variety of these non-fishy fish, I can order with confidence. The only problems I've had have been in foreign countries. In Amsterdam several years ago for a conference, a large group of us went to dinner at a highly recommended restaurant. Entrees were delivered to the table, but mine lagged by a minute or so. When it arrived, my sour expression made everyone laugh. On my plate, giving me the Evil Eye (I swear), was a whole fish—head, tail, gills, and all of its bones. My colleagues knew about my squeamish attitude toward seeing my food as a whole being, and someone quickly summoned the server. My plate was whisked back to the kitchen to be filleted. I was only slightly embarrassed…even though two of my fellow diners were my boss and his boss.

I’d love to think that I’ve matured and am game to try different types of fish and seafood. But this hasn’t happened. In fact, I’ve regressed. I grew up on salmon patties and liked them reasonably well. I ate salmon in restaurants in the 60s and 70s. But I no longer can tolerate the taste of salmon, which tastes like…salmon. I won’t order mussels, clams, or prawns, and before I order a Caesar salad or dressing, I check to make sure no anchovies have come anywhere near it.