On the Northern Peninsula, a meal of fish and potatoes always means cod and potatoes. If any other kind of fish is used, then it's called by its proper name: mackerel or salmon or halibut.
In Part I of my column, "The Fish Eye", I wrote about catching my very first codfish and the beady look he gave me from the end of the hook. In Part II, I attempt to fry up a meal of fish and potatoes in my own kitchen.
I grew up only 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, but I might as well have lived a hundred miles away when it came to fishing. Langley was a farm-and-fruit-growing district; fish appeared in grocery stores on Styrofoam trays wrapped tightly in cellophane, with price tags affixed. Occasionally, if I visited Vancouver, a delivery truck blew past me, a sign emblazoned on the side: The fish you see on your plate today slept last night in Boundary Bay; meaning, I suppose, that the fish was fresh.
So, now I conjectured, if I had a fish, what would I do with it? It occurred to me that the frying of fish and potatoes involved more than just tossing a piece of fish into a frying pan. I figured in order for me to get it right, I would have to get some assistance from a cross-section of fishers and cooks. So, that's what I did.
For instance, if Scott and Glenda hadn't taken us out in their boat, and if Caleb hadn't insisted on dropping a line to catch a fish, and if Len hadn't been adamant that I try my hand at catching my own fish, then likely fish still wouldn't be on the menu.
Then there was Betty, who presented me with an open-ended offer: anytime I needed a lifejacket, I was to help myself. What a blessing.
After I caught my first cod, it was Scott who took the time to fillet the fish, presenting me with deboned fillets as well as britches and jowls. I took that cod straight over to Delilah and Selby (Mom & Dad Tucker) and she demonstrated how to fry the salt pork in a cast iron frying pan, roll the fish in flour, and fry it to crisp perfection, while he regaled us with tales of the fishery long ago. We sat down to a nice meal of fish and potatoes, and Selby was quite happy to finish off the britches and jowls on my behalf, and I was quite happy to let him.
Later in the week, Betty fried up a couple of fish fillets in vegetable oil, with onions, and brought them over with a side of mashed potatoes and corn. The fish was crisp and tender, and the meal was delicious.
Then, a niggling thought intruded: could I fry up my own mess of fish and potatoes, and where was I going to find a fish? After all, we didn't have a boat.
Sunday morning I drove through Ship Cove to see what was what. A mist rose from the sea, gulls soared and scolded, ducks paddled along the shoreline, a tethered speedboat rose and fell on the waves, and clusters of hemlock, wildflowers and buttercups waved amidst sparkling, dew-wet beach grass. I had just turned around to go home when Pearce drove by in his truck, rolled down his window, and offered me a codfish. "Get Len to clean it," he said, and drove off.
At home, Len took one look at the codfish staring up at him from the bag and said, "I think you should ask John."
John took the fish to the beach, along with a sharp knife that flashed expertly in the sun, and in five minutes handed me a beautifully filleted cod.
So now it was fish or cut bait.
I got out the cast iron frying pan, cubed the salt pork, fried it, rolled the fish in flour, and gently placed the pieces in the sizzling fat. The cats, smelling the cod, came out to the kitchen, angling for a handout. When the fish was crispy and brown, I scooped out a helping of potatoes, served up the fish with a dollop of tartar sauce, and we sat down to eat. The fish was tender and flaky, the scrunchions were crisp and flavourful, and the potatoes were awesome. It was the best scoff ever.
As a matter of fact, that Fish Fry was so good, I could honestly declare, "The fish I saw on my plate today, slept last night in Sacred Bay."