Though I’m not any good at fishing myself, I’ve been surrounded by good fishers all my life and always admired their passion, practicality, and imagination—their ability to think themselves into a stream, a lake, or the sea and predict where the fish will be. I have also always appreciated the gifts they bring forth from those waters.
My father was good at catching fish, in the southern Ontario lakes of my childhood. He caught smallmouth bass, yellow perch, pickerel, or, depending on the lake, rainbow trout, and every now and then a sunfish, which was a throw-it-backer. His favourite time to fish was in the early morning, from the dock of our rented cottage, and sometimes there was fish for breakfast, fileted, dipped in flour and fried in butter.
When I went to Greece in my twenties, I didn’t know much about sea fish, but through the kindness of many excellent fishers I gradually learned their names—sargos, skorpinai, melanouri, kefalos—and later found their names in English—white sea bream, rockfish, saddled sea bream, gray mullet. Each fish had its own method of preparation—grilled, baked, fried, or simmered whole with potatoes, carrots, and celery in fish soup. Fishing families did not eat this high-grade, expensive fish. They sold it. At home they dined on the cheaper marida or picarel, a small fish caught in nets, gutted, dipped in flour, fried in oil, and eaten whole, head included.
In Greek grocery stores, a common sight was a plastic-lined cardboard box, sitting open in an aisle, filled with large, stiff slabs of salt cod, not native to Greece at all but coming from as far away as Norway or Iceland. Greek cooks soaked the cod in water for two days, changing the water frequently, broke the cod into pieces, coated them in batter, deep-fried them, and served them up with skordalia, a dynamite sauce made from three ingredients: garlic, bread or potatoes, and oil.
Years later I ran into cod again, or tried to, on Henningsvaer, in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. My husband and I saw evidence of the cod fishery all around us. Drying racks were silhouetted against the sky on the rocky coast, and the long, skinny harbour bristled with fishing boats. We peered into warehouse windows and saw stacks of dried cod, stiff as boards, seasoning on wooden pallets before being exported to Europe, especially to Italy. The Arctic cod’s annual migration from the Barents Sea occurs in winter, and from February to May drying racks are filled with fish, rattling in the wind and sending gusts of fishy aroma into the streets of Henningsvaer. But it was October, and the fishing season was long over. We neither smelled cod nor ate cod, though we tried hard. Near the end of our stay, we accosted a fisher returning home with a fish in his bucket and mimed a request to buy it; he merely grunted and continued on his way.
The Henninsgvaer fish racks reminded us of the racks used by Yukon First Nations people, and the dried cod of Yukon dried fish, often made from whitefish. In the Yukon I have been lucky with fish, at least in the eating of it. Whitefish from the Porcupine River near Old Crow; Atlin Lake lake trout; Taku River sockeye; chum from the Yukon River near Dawson; pike from the Sekelman River; halibut fished off the coast of Huna, Alaska; and grayling from the Wind River, caught 15 minutes ago, gutted, scaled, dipped in flour, fried in butter, and eaten with the fingers, head and all. I appear to have a particular affinity for the eating of Yukon fish.
I have another, more tangential affinity for fish—I use the word “fish” as a mnemonic to help people with the pronunciation of my name. “Miche” looks as though it’s pronounced “Meesh,” the long “ee” deriving as it does from the French Michèle, my full name. But Miche rhymes with fish. I was named for my aunt, also Michèle, also Miche, who grew up francophone in bilingual Ottawa, and there is nobody left in that generation to ask how the long “i” in Michèle became the short “i” in Miche, so I will never know, but I cling fiercely to that pronunciation.
In grade ten the handsome, chatty boy who sat in front of me wrote in my yearbook, “Miche the dish/I sure do wish/you weren’t a fish.” In Greece all those years ago I spent hours snorkelling in sheltered bays, watching fish, swimming amongst them, grateful to participate in this luminous element where humans can visit, but not stay. In those hours, moving my flippers in the undulating sea, I felt I was a fish.
But in the end, I’m neither fish nor fisher. I’m a cook. In the kitchen, where we cooks are in our element, we must imagine ourselves into the people we cook for and invent dishes we think they’ll like.