Cooking With Dogfish

7558_10152270171910649_1029341572_nTexas geographically covers a lot of land mass, or in the parlance of the state Don’t Mess With Texas. Covering so much land, there is terrain of many variety and one can get buggery in the desert seeing no sign of human blight for miles in all direction, or you can drive mile after mile of coastal refinery and weird rape-shack villages, or see land so flat that the cows must find slaughter a respite from a life of cud-chewing ennui and the vacuum of the soul.
The day I drove south was just after an ice storm, the first such storm since Global Warming started back in ’97. The gently flat landscape was covered in a thin film of ice, and after the last condos and construction sites abandoned since The Great Recession of 2008, the weeds or shrubs or whatever glistened in the cold dim sun. It was winter, but the season down here usually maintains 60-70 degree days and today was about 40 or so. It was cold for Texas and considering that I had not brought warm clothes, I felt the damp chill of disappointment in not escaping Cold and her sister, Darkness the Weird Sisters of winter who I thought going off on a trip, I would escape.
The travel down the coast of Texas was long, longer than I wished and since the landscape both Human and Divine vacillated between ugly and boring by the time I came to my first truck stop, I was exhausted and confused. I felt a cramp in my arm turn very tight since I had injured it in a kayak somewhere in Florida the week before, such is my carbon footprint allowing me such a first world complaint. The burning sensation was gone, but there lingered a cramped discomfort that made me very aware of my shoulder in so many ways and reminded me that getting older was to be little fun for all the good laughs I imagine I will have with old friends and stories that bring just the right tear to the left eye.
As the road moved to the coast and away from the main highway, it got strange rather than picturesque. The settlement of the last few centuries were never thick enough to create a mass of historic housing stock, and what little there was like the rest of this Great Nation seemed squandered – equally divided between those who could not care and those who could not afford grand houses and quaint cottages other than to totally, thoroughly, absolutely, fuck them up. Peeling paint and plastic yard toys. Yards cluttered with boats, ATVs, Powersomething, and a dog or two. There is a sort of cottage that was build on the coast of Texas, perhaps inland too for all I know, that is very charming and while I am not familiar with the building habits of the Texans, seems to me to capture the spirit of Old East Texas, the small family house, a form of the East but tightened for the climate since most activities may have taken place outside long before air conditioning and comfortable ranch houses, a small porch incorporated into the house frame, tall dorm roof and simple windows lacking any ornament. Plan and simple, but in the shape very picturesque and charming, although sadly to a one, they were either ruined or unkempt showing signs of our age, where we need big houses in order to store all the shit we accumulate.
Port Aransas is accessed by a thin sandy road one can travel upon quite quickly, at speeds unheard of in most two lane roads Back East, but this was the Out West, this was the straight shot where one could see for miles and miles… and miles… and miles. Then, as if in a cartoon where the cop is hiding behind the billboard, the maximum speed drops and signs warn the traveler of access to the ferry and the many considerations of travel by boat. I had not considered this trip involving a ferry, but I was game for anything and the ferry crossing seemed ridiculously short for this day and age and for a deep Red State there seemed to be a lot of state workers minding this ferry and I imagined how much this service cost the municipality.
I had thought my trip was canceled. Several days before I got a call from the fisher woman I made a reservation with, she was very upset, apologetic and frank about how puke-tastic my trip would be. The fishing expedition was canceled for the day. Could I go Thursday? Well actually I am working Thursday and Friday. How about Monday? Well, you see the rub is I am not from around these parts and I will have to go home… I work Monday too. This is a weekend thing. OK, well, then perhaps another time. I was sad. That day blew chunks since other shitty things happened unconnected to rocking too and fro on some boat on the ocean. Then I got another call. Well the storm is moving faster so instead of 12-15 foot seas it should be 3-5 maybe 6 which is acceptable. The trip is on. I was very excited.
1555455_10152270175120649_2029444359_nI have never been deep sea fishing before this. I have not gone fishing really. My knowledge comes from reading books and Billy The Bass, the battery powered talking fish that is on the walls of certain dive bars I often frequent. So, this was more than booking a trip to go kill fish, this was entering an unknown, launching into the terror of the wild ocean and the salty characters I a sure to find on such a vessel… and killing fish. The death to all aquatic beasts… that part I was aware of since that first fish stick ever entered my mouth and I chewed beyond the fried bread part.
The hour was early. The only lit building was that in front of the fishing dock. The engine of the craft was revving up and the wind blew the acidic diesel smoke into the building, I choked a little as I browsed the lead sinkers and hooks perhaps tipped with arsenic in order to complete the toxic content of these products. Fishing licence in my pocket that I bought the night before from a rather meth-mouthed good-natured young lady at a IGA or some such food emporium of the southern sphere, I paid my full bill and got a ticket that I was not to lose as that was the only proof that I was on this adventure, and that proof I had to hand to the deckhand. Strange to be in such primitive times, but I did not question, it was too early, I stood outside in the cold woad-dawn morning with the rest of the fishers, these large and local men who I was to join out at sea as Iaaak Babel amongst the Cossacks a very slight individual not raised to be outdoors and having spent far too much time in Gotham, little versed in the deep Red of Texas.
The craft set out at the allotted time and in the dark chugged out of the safe port of the lee of the island, the engines loud and the fumes thick. The inside of the craft was basic, hard benches, hard tables, hard lights. Trash can tied to a pole. Grim morning, as if I had entered the free beer part of some strip club outside of some frat town. Of beer, the lone female of the crew was setting up the bar and true to form I followed one of the sea Cossacks up to get a beer prior to 6AM local time. No sooner had I gotten my refreshment, breakfast in a can, that we opened into the ocean and the waves broke against the bow. The men had gathered into clicks, friend circles, the three Hispanic men, each representing a generation, took to covering their heads with their hoodies and all attempted to set the boredom I assume comes with sea travel. The largest group of men started playing dominoes, which was rather difficult since we were sloshing and crashing about in the waves. The barmaid spoke to me about rougher waters, those 14-16 foot swells and how she was bounced and bruised by the end of the trip. The boat heaved. A crew member entered the hold and read us the riot act that all puking was to take place over the rail and not in the can. We set the prow up and crashed down. I could see nothing out the window to give me a sense of direction or perspective and I for a moment felt the heaving growing inside me. I ate crackers. Drank more beer (the first is a home remedy for seasickness… the second, not so much). The sun crested over the open waters and the sea calmed. The craft pushed ever further. The bench was no warmer than before. The men looked grim. Up too early, too cold, the boat rocking and spilling the dominoes, this did not seem a sport of enjoyment.
Then.
All at once.
We slowed down.
The captain or whoever came on the PA system. We have found a good place for sharks. So we will stop here a bit and see what happens. At this, the men leaped up, no matter how fast I moved these lethargic shapes, these sleeping ones, these hoddie over the face generations came too action as if a bolt had been thrust into them all and someone somewhere was yelling “It’s Alive!” Except for me. I managed to just get out and claim a spot, a fishing rod towards the aft of the boat. I was given short instructions by a salty crew member. I pretended to know what I was doing, but managed to tangle the line. I was casting down deep. For sharks? Really? Somehow I undid the ruin of my line without having to further out my “otherness” to the crew and the Cossacks. Meekly I dangled my string into the waters. I did not know what to do next. Tug? Was I to play with the line to animate the meat on the hook? Slowly reel it in… since I saw it done that way in movies and cartoons…. Before I was able to consider the technique, I learned there was none. Something, something large, bit my line and almost pulled the rod out of my hands. I fought back. Again, not knowing what to do but a crew, a ship boy of some girth yelled, reel in, reel in. And so I did… until the line broke and I was alone with my pole standing on the rail. He was large, whatever you got was much larger than the line…. I was directed to another pole, one with a meaty chunk on the hook already since we were to move to whatever pole was free, this was no place to bond with equipment.
I dropped the line in again. The sun had come up enough to show the contours of the ocean and some of the waves crested white and appeared much larger than they actually were there being no point of reference for perspective. The ocean is unique every second, changing shape and pattern perhaps never to occur again, all waves and white caps rising in just that moment and held for a second, never to return. Yet in this torment of eternal movement the water is monotonous as any desert and just below the surface even a few inches in the alien realm of the aquatic held reign.
We were miles out, away from any land. The air was yet cold, the sun was not fully exposed due to early morning clouds. I was to be cold and wet all day. Then, as before, my line shook and pulled. I this time carefully and without any emotion, as cold as whatever was at the end of my hook, reeled in with slow and methodical turns of the crank or whatever fishermen call that wind thing at the core of pole fishing technology. It was a hard fight, a war between atmosphere and ocean as I drew in some creature from the deep parts of the Mexican Gulf. In a moment, I saw that I had a small shark, and as directed I pulled him to the surface of the water, and as a cat’s claw a boat boy piked the shark with a hook and drew him aboard onto the deck and as directed we all stood back, many of the Cossacks unlucky in their own catch aghast over my winnings.
The little shark bled profusely on the deck as it flopped about. I was asked my number, the allocated number we all were given in order to identify our catch in the cooler and as I gave it the deckhand carved it into the skin of the wee beasty. I was both proud and revolted. Amazed and guilty. While I have eaten many fish sticks, eaten several schools of fish and vacuumed entire beaches of sushi, I had not seen the blood, the eyes, pulled one of these fine creatures out of the dark cold depths and said, you, you I will kill.
They say your first kill is the hardest. It was actually simple. All I did was stand back, the man with the hook subdued the creature and avoided the teeth, carved in my number, and tossed him in the cooler on ice. I knew that in the cocoon of technology I live, all of nature, the blood on the deck, the muddy strip mines, clear but forests, the pain and hard work of life was pushed from me so that as I bought my new iWhatever at the Apple Store and listened to Techies Under 30 talk about great ways to PhotoShop bananas so they look like skateboarding waterfalls ham hock boom rum ham iPod Twisted Sister, all I had to do was step aside and give my number. Order the Spring Monkey Fish Crunch roll… that’s #34 with miso soup…. I was programmed not to think of the chickens that went into my chicken nuggets (or spider goats or whatever), the rare earth children dig from the ground for Playstations(tm), or that being a pescetarian still lead to the deaths of countless fish and the waste of millions of other creatures caught up in the nets. We were out there to murder, perhaps not as effectively as the large trawlers, the ships that net all living creatures and dump back the dead ones no one wants to eat, but we were out there in order to eat the fishies.
1535557_10152270172485649_1706295220_nThe Cossacks all did not fare as well, while one or two others caught sharks much larger than mine, I was among a small society who managed to haul in that first catch of the day and be able to then brag that that catch was a shark. The rest of the day I was not as lucky, and I kept catching some kind of fish that the man on the line would tell me I was unable to keep – he would tear it off the hook and toss it back. One such fish, I was told they were not in season so hence had to be returned to the waters, was punctured by the slender knife the man kept with him, a thin filet knife stabbed the fish several times. I must have had pure horror on my face since he explained quickly that this was to remove the air that had inflated in his bladders and allow him the opportunity to swim back down to those depths I had rent him from. In one move, stab, stab, toss, the fish landed back in the water, however like so many, he did not just swim away. Catch and release is a kind term. Poor fishie just floated upside down for a bit… gulping at the air, then turned a bit, again, and then returned to floundering upside down…. I watched the waters. The shapes and patterns move the fetch of those trades pushing the rise and trough of the waters as the fishie was carried further and further away from that craft that has so discarded him. While my intention was to turn him into a sandwich, it felt hollow and a pulse of regret filled me looking at his large fishie eyes floating above his alien land half in his world, half in mine. The sharks love the Fish And Wildlife Management said one, we have to toss aside so many good fish because they don’t fit the measurement or are not in season but it’s a waste. There was several such fish about the boat in different states of distress and a few did come to and returned to the deep waters with but a few chunks of flesh missing. I gathered myself and took to a new rod, the dead squid attacked, I dropped it again to forage in those dark sour waters below.
Just then, one of the more experienced crew, a fisher himself, started a clatter and began to reel in something large. Up and up he pulled his catch – the man with the hook came for they knew it was a big something, perhaps a large shark. Indeed, it was exciting to see the shark manifest itself at the upper waters, the beast pulled and heaved, it looked like the pole would break at any minute, but the man with the hook stabbed the beast and three men took to the pole and hauled in the shark that pounded and hammered the deck in protest.
They measured this monster.
And, he did not measure up.
So, with no ceremony they lifted the shark out of his gasping pool of blood and sea froth and tossed him overboard, where at once it swam down and out of sight in order to tend the wounds and live for another day or be consumed by the shark we should have caught, the one of appropriate size.
The day continued on in this way. Fish caught. Examined. Tossed back to the sea or strung up and placed in the large cooler at the stern. At some point, the crew gave up on the day. The fishers returned to the hold and collapsed into inactivity, save for continuing to drink beer as we had all day. The barmaid started to take stock, the crew jumped about washing this and that of the boat, scrubbing off the salt, beer, and blood of the day. The boat turned back to safe harbor and the sun came out just in time to set and we returned to the port in darkness however to greet our arrival was the family members and fans of the Cossacks who eagerly awaited their catch. I gave my catch to the barmaid. The first time I have ever tipped a woman with a heap of fish and a shark, but she was excited about this as was her elderly aunt and uncle on shore who took my picture with my heap of killed fish. We hung the slaughter up on hooks and everyone took pictures as our forebears have since the invention of the camera. I was again disappointed that I had to leave my catch, as truly, despite all the violence I did want to smother some of these fish in butter or blacken them with creole spices in order to nom them. But I could see in the eyes of the young woman, that I had made her family very happy and that felt very primal, tribal, as I had shared my hunt with the village.
That night, floating in the hot tub, the steam of the hot water rising into the cold air, I gazed up at the stars. I wondered about that dark ocean out there. And the fish punctured and floating away his eyes watching the water and our boat recede from view hidden in the troughs ever widening. Was he ever eaten?
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