The sky was placid blue, sleeping in the sunshine of a perfect San Diego afternoon. It was just the kind of day for an adventure. I stepped lightly in white patent leather low-heeled shoes, clutching a fistful of my orange-cream colored dress fresh off the Wal-Mart rack. Eleven-year old me was about to have High Tea at the Hotel Del Coronado.
My sisters and my best friend at my side, mothers in tow, I waltzed into the grand lobby of the old, seaside hotel.
We each had our own tea pot, chose our own tea, and had multiple options for silverware, of which I used as few as possible.
But the highlight for me (and anyone who knows me should not be even a little surprised) was the huge stacked tray of delicious cookies, crackers and biscuits. No ordinary snacks, were they. They were laced with fresh salmon, dill whips and vegetables sliced so thinly you could have used them for printing paper. At the bottom of the tray, somewhat overshadowed, deviled eggs sat patiently waiting to be tried. Ordinary and undecorated, they were easily overlooked. Their only ornament was a berry-sized sphere of a pepper-gray hue. It looked like a tapioca ball like we use in boba tea.
My sister had already eaten one and said it tasted spicy.
“Like pepper,” said my friend’s mom.
I had the egg and it’s mystery topping half-way into my mouth when my friend asked, “What is it?”
“You don’t want to know,” said her mom.
I pulled the egg out of my gaping jaws. What was that now?
Some hem-ing and haw-ing and finally my mom explained, “It’s caviar.”
That sounded elegant. What was the problem?
“They’re fish eggs,” said my friend’s mom.
Oh. That’s the problem.
No matter how much our mothers tried to convince us that it was a delicacy in Eastern Europe and many other parts of the world, I could not get past the basic fact that an almost-baby fish was sitting on my egg.
I tried to pass off my stubborn refusal to try it (all the other girls eventually broke down because they are weak and I’m an idiot) with a few badly timed puns like, “I don’t know mom, it smells fishy.” She neither understood nor appreciated the humor and I could feel her giving me the “Don’t insult our hosts” look. I felt misunderstood and pressured. And my new shoes were cutting into my ankles.
What began as an adventure melted into a pathetic, “hold yourself together, Mary” kind of afternoon. (It’s comforting to know that some aspects of my life never change – like my impulses to break down crying for little or no reason).
I thought to myself at the time, and again every moment that afternoon came to mind in the next few years, you’re still a kid. Life will give you dozens of opportunities to eat caviar.
For the record, I haven’t so much as seen caviar since that day. Opportunity is not a telemarketer – it will not keep calling if you don’t answer the phone.
But I think that was a turning point for me. That year I stopped shying away from things that seemed gross or weird or different. That year I got bit with the travel bug. I got hit with something that gave me an appetite for the odd.
And until this year, I have been an unstoppable force for misadventure and experience.
This year. Ah. This year I met the grown up version of my nemesis, caviar. It’s called, the fish.
Every Tuesday I make dinner for Jerry and Marilyn. Last Autumn, a woman at church gave us some fresh fish. For those of you who grew up like I did who think that “fresh fish” means the boneless fillet in the unexpired packaging at the supermarket, let me explain.
Fresh fish is a nightmare with a head, a tail, a spine, gills, scales and a little mouth that was only hours ago singing “Under the Sea” with Ariel.
To cook a fresh fish you have to chop off its head.
YOU HAVE TO CHOP OFF ITS HEAD.
Obviously, I was not emotionally prepared to handle this task. Jerry helped. Then he left the kitchen and it was just me and these two dead fish. And I was like, “Guys, I’m so sorry, but I have to batter and fry you.”
If their heads were still attached they might have told me to de-scale them first, but alas, they could not.
I soaked the scaley fish, heavy with bones inside, in egg and flour. Literally, this was the hardest thing I’ve had to do since tenth grade biology class when I had to skin the rat we were dissecting (I eventually paid a boy a Snickers bar to do it for me because I am weak and he was an idiot).
I watched the tails flop around in the pan as the sloppy batter slid off the fishy carcasses.
Maybe this doesn’t sound as horrible – horrible – as it really was, but if it means anything, I could not bring myself to eat the fish that night. Yes, like a four-year old, I pushed my plate away and said, “No thanks, I’m not hungry” as my stomach growled.
Fish and I have been on rough terms for the last few months and I have conveniently not been home whenever it has been served since then.
On Sunday, however, I went to go visit some friends for dinner after church. It was my first time being a guest in their home. While trying to be helpful in the kitchen (and then eventually just sitting and eating their leftover Christmas cookies) I noticed that fish was on the menu. I spotted several whole fish sitting in a pan. Without panicking, because I’m a grown-up, I told myself, “Aren’t you lucky you don’t have to cook this one yourself! No head, no bones…hopefully no tail!”
I didn’t give it a second thought and the half hour before lunch was served was delightful. But when we sat down to the table and our hostess brought over the pan, I discovered to my horror – my horror – that these fish were being served fully capitated and with a complete set of fins.
Crossing my fingers, I prayed quickly – “God, please let her give me the half with the tail!”
In my family, we take a fish steak (“fresh” from VONS) and divide it between at least three or four people. Granted, these fish were a little smaller, but not much.
I handed my plate over and the hostess gave me a huge smile with a side of trout. Which side? Both sides. The whole thing. The entire fish was lying on my plate. It may as well have been swimming in the Ocean looking for Nemo still.
I named him Bob. That was a bad move.
“You have to take the head and tail off,” said the host, grinning at me like we were about to play a very fun game. “Take your fork and stab underneath the fish’s head, then dig your fingers into the half behind the tail and pull on the spine. It should all come up together.”
It did. Clenching my jaw, I watched him de-bone his fish and place the skeleton, capped with head and tail, on a plate. Everyone else began dumping their skeletal remains on the plate as well and we passed it around like a moving burial ground for sad sea creatures who ended up being “part of our world” but without the prince and the Disney songs.
A huge, huge part of me wanted to start crying and tell them that I just don’t do fish. Alligator jerky, stuffed cow tongue, sea urchin – I’ve done it all! But I cannot do fish.
And then I saw my Dad’s face. He was looking at me the same way Mom looked at me when I wouldn’t eat the caviar – don’t offend the hosts. But more than that, I knew my Dad would want me to see the adventure in this. Just like there was adventure in the fish eggs, had I been brave enough to try them. Who knows when I’ll next get to man-handle a dead trout?
Without breaking my smile, I dug my fingers into that oily, greasy fish and ripped out its backbone. Then I ate the whole thing, plucking bones from my teeth as I went. The more I made a mess of the fish on my plate, the less it looked like a real fish, the easier it was to eat somehow. Poor Bob.
It’s hard for me to say this because it’s SUCH a cliché, but I actually had a really, really good time.
Afterwards we went on a walk through a forest behind their house. Blue mist hovered just above the muddy path and dusk bent down and covered us like a canopy. Skies here look different than they do in San Diego. Winter afternoons are gray and cold, but stunningly beautiful.I didn’t even mind that the boots I was lent to trek through the mud in clashed horribly with my Sunday skirt. Just looking at the sky, I hadn’t expected to have such an interesting day when the morning began.
I don’t think adventure comes when we’re looking for it or expecting it or dressed up for it. I think it comes, I think it has to come, from a place inside us that naturally rejects it. The place that wants to sit still, wear shoes that match our outfit or eat something that will not make us feel like joining PETA. The struggle, the fear, the journey – that’s what makes it an adventure.
Maybe it’s a small thing, but a decade after I refused to eat caviar, I conquered a fish.