Herring in Ukraine to fried whiting on my street. Melville to Jewish legend. How easily we eat fish caught from depths we don’t understand.
It’s uncomfortable to look into the eyes of a fish. Pearlescent, clouded, redolent of the sea and its own death, it looks at you sideways—literally—and, with the eerie white inner lips of its gaping mouth open, tells you nothing at all. I can’t tell you when I first encountered one, but I remember, as a kid, summers by a lake, and big silver trout gasping and flopping in red buckets, till we pitied them and tipped them back into the brown water. The fish heads I saw later were on ice. I stared into those shallow dead eyes, and I thought I would never be hungry again.
I’ve always thought it odd that we serve fish at the beginning of a meal, in tiny, flaky portions, or poached in delicate mousselines, when mostly it comes from depths we cannot enter: from the heaving seas, from foaming pools we’ve never encountered. Whenever I go to the ocean I am reminded of my own death—my impossible smallness against the serge expanse—and I lie on my belly in the breakers, too afraid to trek out beyond thigh height, knowing the taut ropes of hidden currents could snap me into a dark salt heart beyond my breathing.
Nonetheless I return yearly, get sugar-fine sand in my hair, and let the iron tang in the air drive me to a desperate thirst. All my life, I’ve lived on the East Coast, at the edge of what Sylvia Plath called “the freakish Atlantic.” I have seen it lap at the stark-black sand of Maine beaches, and twine, tarry and rain-pocked, between the hulls of Connecticut pleasure boats. From the Atlantic we get cod, white fish of all kinds, herring, haddock. The vast trawl nets can be hundreds of feet high, catching all manner of pelagic sprawl in the deep, where the pressure would crush a lung like an egg. We don’t think about it much. We eat the light flesh and then the next dish comes.
In Russia, strings of dead fish are for sale, de rigeur, along the sides of roads. They are strung up like paper chains in roadside stalls, and flies perch, curious, on their fins and ridges. The salted, dried flesh is meant to be peeled off strip by strip and eaten as a snack with beer. The dried roe pouch of the female fish is the most prized, and its taste is extraordinary: bitterer than any coffee, unbelievably salty, sticky as toffee, faintly acid. Your mouth remembers it hours later, a tinny echo behind the teeth.
What’s always been true: The best neighborhoods I’ve ever lived in have whiting for sale, fried, and crumbs to roll the flesh in, in stinky shops that make fries by the hundreds. The best main courses I’ve eaten are salmon with butter, big wedding slabs topped with crisp little caps of lemon. When I was a child my dad would make a New England chowder, out of bacalão and cream, and thick-cut carrots and onions and a few cloves. The simmering broth filled the kitchen with a milky hush. Once for New Year’s I spent the better part of a day and a half making a pre-Soviet Russian recipe called kulebiaka, food of the tsars, a fish pie filled with rice and greens, topped with cut-out pastry birds and stars. The pretty thing was devoured, and the year flowed in and left me like a tide.
To fear the sea and, at the same time, eat its bounty is a natural condition, although not everyone reacts to water the same way. Melville’s most famous opening chapter posits water as a conduit to thought, for poets and laymen alike. “Meditation and water are wedded for ever,” he writes, prescribing proximity to the ocean as a cure for the ails (“hypos”) of civilization.
The whole great and weird journey of the book takes place on the water, and sometimes in the floating charnel house of the tryworks, where whales are dismembered; at the heart of the book, the great whale is an unsubtle symbol for the unknown and Manichaean forces that drive the universe, Ahab the ambitions of man, et al. And yet even Melville—maker of the most enduring, and loftiest, of marine metaphors—is surprisingly cavalier about the process of eating fish. The chapter entitled “CHOWDER” is one of the few in the entire book which dispenses with consideration of sin or fate; instead, it sinks into the bowl, dwelling on taste. “Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me,” Melville writes. “It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.” For breakfast, Ishmael orders both clam and cod chowders, and “a couple of smoked herring by way of variety.”
Yet even if Melville—author of florid moral legend about the deeps—neglects to comment on the ultimate strangeness of eating marine creatures, Jewish legend posits that the eating of fish is the ultimate reward for righteousness. In the Talmud, in the book of Bava Batra, amidst a hallucinatory sequence of marine legends, Rabbi Yochanan asserts that the righteous will feast on the flesh of the leviathan in the Messianic era, and live in a hut made of its skin. (The leftover hide of the leviathan will be fashioned into necklaces, amulets, and girdles for the moderately righteous.) The eyes of the leviathan, the rabbis say, produce an extraordinary brightness, enough to light the broad, dark waters of the nighttime sea. The wages of the righteous, their reward for scrupulous faith, is to eat its body. It is not the righteous who slay the leviathan—such hubris would not become them—but the angel Gabriel with the aid of God, who halves its body with his might. For their love of Torah; for their good works; for their generosity and assiduous study, they are granted the chance to feast on the conquered beast—to vanquish the ocean’s most fearsome inhabitant. No mention is made of its taste at all. Fear, one supposes, cannot live alongside scholars in the house made of the hide of the leviathan.
The best fish I ever ate wasn’t the tastiest; I didn’t even cook it myself. It was in Ukraine, in the town of Vylkove, which is dubbed “The Ukrainian Venice”—Venice because it is built on canals, Ukrainian because they are narrow, algae-choked, and reeking. I arrived with my friend Riva on a minibus from Odessa that careened through Moldova and out to the small strait at the edge of the Danube on which the town is situated, and we tumbled out into the white sun, nauseated and excited. We found an old woman, an Old Believer from an Orthodox splinter sect, to put us up in her airy white house, with a tiny grape arbor behind it; and a man to take us out on the Danube in the morning.
We pushed off at dawn in his little red boat, out through the reeds to the marine preserve that served, here, as an aquatic border between Ukraine and Romania. The whole earth seemed like it was made of water, a broad silver expanse, and we moved in silence through an abundance of houseboats moored to piers. Russian notices pinned to their exteriors announced that their inhabitants were selling homemade wine. When we had sailed out for what seemed to be a long time, the sun getting fat and hitting the water like a rain of dimes, we saw the pelicans. There were hundreds, sitting beak to beak on the water like a bunch of gossips, their comical faces dipping into the placid surface of the Danube, then rising and skimming away and settling again. The boat purred toward Romania and back, under the hot hush of the sun and the buzz of the wind through the tall grasses, letting the water lilies brush our hands like fins. And when we came back to the town, there was herring to eat—slabs of it on black bread. The little bones were white on the white plate, the flesh pricked with a little salt. Then ukha—Russian fish soup with potatoes and tomatoes cooked to perfect softness; mugs of subtle broth; and the flesh of one huge fish plucked straight from the river, boiled till it melted on the tongue. With the cup in my hands, the broth cooled with a blown breath, I let the sun fall over me like paraffin; as if I were one of the righteous, and this was the feast of reward.
Fact-checker at the New Yorker magazine. Loves dogs, men and horses and owns none.