Tiny Smelly Fish

Last night, just past sunset, Naomi and I took a walk on the Venice pier.  It was jammed with fishermen—men, women, kids, black, white Korean, Latino. All it needed was a velvet rope by the lifeguard station and you’d think it was the most popular club in LA.

It was a warm night and the fish were biting.

As we walked to the end, we saw an elderly black man reel a spiny lobster up on the end of his line and land it on the concrete deck.  The thing was a foot long and flapping its tail like mad.

“You got dinner!” a couple of younger guys yelled over to him.  The man shoved the lobster, still very much alive and snapping, into a backpack.

A few feet down a man reeled in a small sting ray as a blond family of tourists took pictures, and just then the man next to him hooked another stingray. “I caught his brother!”

The pier smelled of dead fish and sweat and saltwater and had the compressed energy of a crowded subway. Lines flying, hooks being yanked and set, crowds milling about the latest catch.

It made me think of the last time I went fishing.  Last year I took our son Adi on a man’s trip to Rancho Leonero near Cabo.  We went with my dad, my brother Mark and brother-in-law Jeff, slept in cabanas by the beach, fished for mahi mahi, and drank beer and played cards at night.  It was supposed to be major men-in-the-family bonding time, because men love to fish, right?

It was fun, but the fun was marred by… fishing.  We caught big fish, real animals, and it became clear to me I’d lost the emotional detachment to all the blood and brutality that entailed.  I was thinking about this when Naomi—reading my thoughts?—turned to me and said, “Adi told me he was really grossed out on your fishing trip.”


“He said it was like murder.”

The truth is, it skeeved me too. My dad hooked a marlin, and by the time he got it to the boat it was dead tired.  It’;s skin was riuven with parasites and scars, and the thing was barely breathing. Marlins are catch and release—they’re basically lions with fins, as beautiful and as rare. But the captain decided it was old and was about to die anyway, and commanded the Mexican deck hands to kill it. They took to it with a pair of billy clubs, bashing it’s thick skull with a series of horror-movie thuds: “Otra mas!  Otra mas!” Until the life went out of it.

I saw Adi turning away.  I turned away. 

“I felt the same way,” I told Naomi.  “But we eat fish.”  Even Adi, who is otherwise a vegetarian, eats fish still.

“Yeah, but we don’t kill it.”

“There’s no difference,” I said.  “If you can eat it, you should be able to kill it.”

There followed. On that hot, killing field of a pier, a discussion between the seminarian and her student on the levels of moral culpability. 

If you can’t kill it, don’t eat it, I said.  That’s the beginning of moral responsibility.

“I can eat all the chicken I want,” she said, “I don’t want to kill it.”

“But you’re still responsible for that chicken’s death,” I said.

“Not if I didn’t kill it,” she said.  “Are you the same as a soldier on a battlefield? Are you as responsible for the death of the person he kills as he is?”

“If you support the war, yes,” I said.

“That makes no sense.”  Mrs. First-in-Her-Class-in-Talmud was trained to think in fine distinctions, in varying shades of grarys within grays.  She had married someone who tends to think with his gut… who tends to live by his gut.

We went back and forth like that.  We never agreed, we never will on this point.  There’s some people who can separate the wrapped chicken from the clucking bird, and some who can’t, even if we wish we could. 

Really Tiny Smelly Fish

I realize this blog needs less words and more recipes, so here’s what I made a couple of nights ago, when Whole Foods had fresh sardines that, unlike most things at Whole Foods, didn’t require a second mortgage.

So you can’t eat tuna because there’s like three of them left. And each one of those has enough mercury to poison a new planet.  And you can’t eat swordfish because they have worms the size of cobras curled up in their firm white flesh.  Farmed salmon destroys the environment and anyway has the texture of flab. And rockfish is out because it’s depleted, along with roughy, sea bass, grouper, and Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean seabass).  What’s left?  Really tiny smelly fish, like sardines and herring and mackeral and anchovies.  There’s plenty of them so far, they’re wild, they don’t live long so they haven’t the time to collect toxins,  and they are high in Omega-3 fish oil, which is the Lipitor of the Sea.

Grilled Sardines

½ c. olive oil

1 t. fresh thyme and a bay leaf

1 strip lemon rind, chopped

salt and pepper

¼ c. fruity white wine

6 large fresh grape leaves

6 fresh sardines

In a large bowl or casserole, mix the first five ingredients together. Marinate sardines a few minutes in the mixture.

Wrap each fish in a grape leaf. Place on preheated hot grill for 10 minutes, or until the leaves are blistered and the fish is cooked through.  Serve it with fresh lemon.

Naomi devoured the fish, but my favorite part was the crispy grape leaves.