My first memory is of my grandfather. Well, I say “my grandfather,” but in reality my parents, grandmother, and possibly my aunt were present as well, but for me, it’s all about my grandfather.
The picture is hazy, but I am sure of one thing: there was a boat and we were on the water. I assume that we were fishing somehow as a certain dancing fish stars prominently in the memory.
I hear the slap of the water against the side of the boat. At this point, however, I’ve come to believe that my memory must be patching in pieces because, as I see it in the darkness behind my eyes, we’re in a canoe. And I know that cannot possibly be correct as neither my mother nor my grandmother would ever willingly get into a canoe like that. So we must have been in some sort of motorized boat, but I don’t hear the motor in my mind, so in my head it will always be a canoe. A blue one. Or maybe green.
I hear the slap of the water against the side of the boat. The thwack is strong and seems to echo with the ripples. It rocks us from one side to another, and me, sloshing against my mother and back again. The smell of the water permeates my skin, mingling with drops of sweat, leaving it damp and sticky and slightly sweet. The air tastes mossy like a hillside after a strong summer rain, ever so mildly sour and damp-earthy. It hangs around us like the branches of a weeping willow – flitting and flicking against our cheeks, never seeming to settle.
In my memories, we’ve arranged ourselves with the men on one side and the women on the other. I’m sitting in my mother’s lap, my grandmother to the side. Like all small children, I’ve found myself in the center of our small group. It’s at this point that I realize there must have been a motor and either my father or grandfather was its operator. I suspect my father. I still stand by the blueness (or was it greenness?) of the boat.
And then the fish. The smell hits me first, and then the fear.
It smelled as all fish do – slightly of algae and water and wet soil. It danced around the bottom of the boat, its small tail flicking specks of water that curled with the sweat on my legs. It flipped and flopped on the peeling wood until my grandfather wrapped his large hands around it.
“Fishy! Fishy!” he chanted as he brought the flapping fish level with my small, wide eyes. “Fishy! Fishy!” He wagged it around, making it dance in the air. Swimming with the wind, swooping and diving, closer and closer to my frozen face, its mouth moving in time with the rocking of the boat, gasping for air. Wah! Wah! Wah! it seemed to cry.
I sank farther into my mother’s lap, searching for caverns and crevices in which to hide, curling my face against her chest, my fingers clutching her shirt. My father laughed and I heard my mother exclaim, “Oh, Arnold!”
And then, splash! back in the water. It was too small, they said, too small for anyone’s dinner but for a bigger fish. Maybe next year.
Cornmeal Crusted Fish and Red Potato Chips with Garlic-Lemon Aioli
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup milk
salt and pepper
2 tilapia filets, halved longways
4 medium red potatoes
1 large egg
2 Tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons finely minced garlic
For the fish, begin by heating 2 inches of canola oil in a large cast iron skillet. Place the cornmeal in a large bowl or plate and season with salt and pepper. Pour the milk into a bowl.
To prepare the fish, start by dunking each tilapia half into the milk, dredging in the cornmeal, back to the milk, and back again to the cornmeal. Then, carefully place each piece in the hot oil. Let it cook for two minutes, then flip for two minutes more. When the cornmeal coating is nicely golden brown, remove the fish from the pan and let them drain on a paper towel.
For the chips, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, slice the potatoes 1/4 inch thick. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and salt and pepper. Toss lightly to coat. Bake at 450 for 20-30 minutes.
For the aioli, (aioli can be made in the bowl of a food processor or by hand, with a whisk. If you want to make it by whisk, the process is essentially the same, just whisk continuously and once it emulsifies do a little jig to celebrate how awesome you are and reach for an ice pack to soothe your sore arm.) blend the egg and lemon juice in the food processor. Very slowly, drizzle in the olive oil while processing continuously. Once the mixture is thick and creamy, add in the garlic and salt and pepper, to taste. Give it a quick pulse or two to combine.
The aioli can be chilled in the refrigerator for a few days, but is best within two days of making it.