I am bicycling home from a craft fair (where I have sold one flower fairy hat, one teething goose, and one stuffed pickle) hungry. My route takes me past favorite restaurants and food carts, and I think about stopping to buy ice cream because I am also hot, having baked slowly, a frog in a lukewarm pot, and I have eaten sugary things, ill-advisedly, my head is almost swimming for many reasons.
It is there, kitty-corner from the truck selling (not ice cream but) icy treats that are non-dairy, I see the seafood truck. Inside -- you walk up inside the truck, no sales window here -- a man who looks young for his age, with lines of good humor and work in the out-of-doors, is kneeling, shifting ice from bag to cooler, and I feel that I am walking into another state or a narrow shop beside a mountain lake. I look back at the noisy parking lot, just to be sure.
The salmon is $6.99 a pound, a chalkboard outside says, it is Alaskan and wild, which is all I will buy for my family, I have just heard the author of the book Four Fish on Fresh Air, he has told again the familiar refrain: farmed salmon is fraught with so many environmental concerns, wild is overfished almost everywhere, our world's fish are depleting fast as steamy stinking water out a paper mill's pipe. Here in the truck, the vendor shows me two salmon in the box; mine, three-and-some pounds, is $25. I hand over all my craft fair proceeds. "It's fresh, never frozen!" he says, and I imagine it fairly swimming here down the Pacific coast. I shake off the chill of the Northern Pacific; it braces, it sparkles in the corners of my eyes.
I take the fish in its slim plastic bag and put it in my bike's baby seat up front, it is substantial and slippery and I ride homeward through the neighborhoods and down Cesar E. Chavez Blvd, one hand close to the fish, keeping it safe. When I pull my bike into the backyard the fish slips, falls onto pine needles and wood chips, and I have to laugh, it is a pratfall, a slapstick flop if you've ever seen one, the comedic ululation is cinematic.
I set my husband to work heating the grill and, after unpacking and decompression and such, I begin, rinsing off pine needles and wood chips and salmon blood, picking herbs from my garden, slicing lemon, salting and trussing and salting again. "Where is the head?" asks Monroe, and we launch into a discussion of this fish and the tuna we canned last summer; where its head has gone, and where the fish might have, while whole, most recently swum. With Truman, we rush to the map, and I trace my finger up the coast of Canada all the way to Alaska. From where in Alaska did it come? I wonder to myself, committing to ask the man, later; Monroe has knowledge enough, and jumps down, running off to play.
With natural, undyed alpaca (the best for this sort of work), I carefully truss the fish, tying it so that it is neat and regular, pulling at the intersections so they're evenly spaced. I am proud of my handiwork, and I carry the salmon out to the back porch to fetch the griller and the vegetarian neighbor boy's eyes light up. "Can I touch it?" he asks with a light in his eyes that never appears when I bring out vegetables. He and Everett touch, admire the sparkling gem-like scales, "it feels so COOL!" they say, "it looks RARE." Indeed: this is rare, something to be held close, protected from flopping and wasting and environmental degradation. Everyone touches and admires. This is a whole salmon grilled with lemon and fresh herbs.
Later, after the vegetarian neighbor boy has gone home, we all eat the salmon with whole wheat pasta and cheese, with salad for me and cherries for everyone else. "I like this sall-mon," Everett says seriously, touching its grilled papery skin, contrasting it to the smooth glowing feel of the uncooked fish, and I appreciate everything: that he knows so well how to spell "salmon" that he (like I, age 12, with the winter months, "feb-rue-ary") pronounces every bit of it; that my boys know about fishermen and fish and the varying colors of their precious scales and their fiery flesh; that we are celebrating our nation's birth not with inscrutable tubes of meat but this. Sallmon, in all its coats and fresh from the endless sparkling ocean, rare and treasured, indeed.
one. Take a salmon, three to four pounds, or really any weight at all. Wild-caught salmon, from Alaska or a source known not to be overfished this year, is really the only option here. If it has not been gutted, now is the time; removing the head is not necessary, but some queasy folk, little and big, blanche at the sight of a fish's eye.
two. In the open space in the belly of the fish, sprinkle sea salt and pepper (a tablespoon of sea salt; many grinds of pepper), and about a half of an organic lemon, sliced thin, seeds removed. Pick whatever herbs you have fresh; I used sprigs of flowering thyme and parsley, a handful will do. Distribute these inside, as well. Sprinkle the skin liberally with sea salt, too.
three. Truss with kitchen twine or undyed yarn.
four. Put over hot coals, skin right there on the grate, for 30-45 minutes, turning once. Do you have someone who knows all about grilling? He'd be useful here. You'll need a careful touch to turn the fish to avoid more damaging pratfalls.
five. Scoop into the flesh. Eat. We eat the first night right out of the skin, then I remove the flesh (as boneless as possible) from the skin and tail and such and store for pasta dishes and salmon salad sandwiches and creamy-dressing-ed salads with fresh shelled peas and little lettuces. We know from where this rich pink flesh has come.
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