She's gone off to polish a fish eye
Saturday 17 April 1993
table conversations: 'I hope she's found it.'
'Well, as long as she finds it before it rots.'
'I don't mind finding rotting things. It's the ones that grow I don't like.'
The eye in question belonged to the red snapper we had just eaten. Not to be outdone in the matter of conversations to test the squeamish, I felt compelled at this point to recall - for my wife and my daughter - the lady I knew who lived in Washington DC many years ago. She was called away from her baking by a death in the family. This death, which occurred in high summer (and Washington's summers can be very high indeed), took up two weeks of her time. On her return, she found her little frame house upended by the expansion of yeast she had been growing in her cellar.
At which point my wife did not exactly retch, but she did look at me peculiarly. However, she and my daughter had been having a conversation equally unpleasant - for most people, I suspect. They had been discussing the eye of the red snapper, which my granddaughter had mislaid in her bedroom - after spending some time during the meal polishing it. It was a prized trophy.
These grandchildren have been brought up by a man (my son-in-law) who, though he works in what some regard as a sober profession (he is an economist and banker), is a remake of Poseidon. His idea of leisure is to wrestle with nasty cuttle-fish and octopuses in Mediterranean waters. He has been known to say that unless he has conquered the fish in armed single combat (he swims with a knife in his teeth) he is not really satisfied.
As a result, his children do not swim very gracefully but are exceedingly good at standing upside down in the water, bottoms wriggling, and turning up all sorts of marine creatures. They have been brainwashed by their father into believing that nothing tastes better than bits of gill, the chaps on the head, fish-eggs and - well, what you and I would feed to the cat.
I bring this matter up because our attitudes towards fish are almost certainly governed, as are so many things, by our early experiences. Those of us who had apprehensive mothers - the kind who pored over a fillet of sole for minutes to make absolutely certain their little darlings would not choke on a bone - probably grew up to dislike fish just because they did have bones. Those who, like my wife, fed fish to their infants from six months onwards have children who really like fish.
But no one yields in sheer adoration of fish to these grandchildren. They are positively fixated; they beg for and squabble over heads and gills; and they are dab hands at gutting, cleaning and so on, which I consider a rather unpleasant task best performed by a fishmonger.
Most children are somewhat suspicious of fish, except in fish and chips. There are sound reasons for this. So far as I can see, the cardinal principle of childhood scoffing is that the food should be totally accessible for instant consumption.
This, too, is an area in which these particular grandchildren are expert. Their parents, who live in Rome, can consume a plate of pasta in under 90 seconds, and the record is dropping rapidly. The speed of their eating is due, I think, on the one hand to my daughter having spent years in a boarding school where the food supply never seemed adequate and speed was the only weapon against starvation (first crack at seconds, if any), and on the other hand to my son-in- law's belief that satisfaction of the appetite is best proven by immediate and destructive consumption.
As a result, my grandchildren, faced with heaped plates, simply lower their heads and go at it. They are like drills at a coalface.
Fish slows them up. Rather than consuming, they become fascinated surgeons, vying with each other to resection bits of fish brain, studying the rather viscous veins and other bodily connectors of fish as a surgeon might note a particularly interesting medulla oblongata.
Not so my Number Five son, who is their uncle and their age. He likes fish, but is dispassionate about them. They have to be handsomely cooked; the court bouillon must be just so; a bone on his plate is an insult; a fin something too gross to be touched.
I sympathise. But then I had an anxious mother; he has a Cartesian one. I had to work at liking fish, and I remain selective about them; he has had nothing but the best since birth.
I conclude that children divide into two essential types when it comes to food: aesthetes and savages. I know kids who will wrestle a bloody steak to the ground and gnaw at bones like cavemen; I know others who contemplate the clarification of a mirepoix with awe.
These grandchildren who hide polished fish eyes (the eye has not yet been found) were taught the primitive contact-with-nature mode; I was taught to be finicky, and have had to work hard to manage to become even a semi-savage.
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