My husband is cooking a red snapper for dinner. With the head on. Because that’s how sophisticated people cook red snapper. So later at our dinner table, there will be the whole fish lying on its side, its one visible eye unfocused and baked. And then we will dig in, taking whole chunks from the fish’s side while the eye remains, starched open until we strip the fish of everything it has down to its many bones. And then we will throw the fish carcass out, eye and all.
In Nicaragua, years ago, a whole red snapper was served to me by a waiter in a roadside restaurant that had only the fish and one or two other things on the menu, it being a time of great scarcity in the country after the Sandinistas took power and before prosperity came. I had my newly adopted toddler, Joe, on my lap. He was sweaty and sick with diarrhea and his diaper overflowed onto my skirt which I was wearing because, at the time, women in Nicaragua did not wear pants. Now I would be wearing pants.
In any event, I had to take him and my skirt hurriedly to the bathroom where I tried to wash us both in the doll-sized sink. He was too new and too weak to hold on to me so he flopped backward anytime I let go of his back, making it impossible to hold him with one arm and wash with the other. So I put him on the floor below the sink where he looked up at me, seeming to wonder what trick of fate had brought him there under the sink pipes. We returned to the red snapper, still staring at the ceiling, both of us wet but cleansed of the past.
I remember little about the rest of the meal except that I put the white napkin over the fish’s head. It was too much right then to pretend the fish’s face didn’t bother me. I wasn’t sophisticated. I was foreign and midwestern and used to eating fish that had either been beheaded and cleaned by my father or had come frozen for the ages from the grocery store.
So my husband comes into my room just now to ask me about the fish. He tends to buy things that he thinks will be fun to cook and then ask me how to cook those things. He bought the red snapper from a truck that comes from New Orleans to a gas station near where he works. He gets shrimp there, too, which we ate last night and will eat tomorrow. It’s all good stuff, I don’t doubt it. I trust the truck. I do. And my husband has a recipe from the New York Times which, as you probably know, is the gateway to food paradise.
So I tell him (my husband) that he needs to be sure that the fish has been scaled. He seems baffled by this as if he never watched his father scale a fish in the cleaning shed after an early morning fishing trip. My dad would put his finger in the little perch’s or sunfish’s mouth, hold the fish steady with his thumb and then scrape the scales off with a fish scaler. It always bothered me because I figured the fish could feel the scraping. And that became another reason for me to consider my father an unfeeling brute – which he really wasn’t but I was into my fiction.
My husband is downstairs now and I hear pots and pans rattling. There is no fish scaler in the house so he will have to use a knife. In my mind’s eye, I can see the fish unwrapped on the counter, its dead eye scoping out our remodeled kitchen, waiting for what’s next, expecting sympathy from me that I am withholding. This fish is no perch or sunfish. It is a red snapper, after all, a fish of history and substance.