The catfish chronicles
Up here in the High Doganate, where we have been rather ill this week, to the point of seeking medical attention, Lent proceeds apace. With illness comes a form of writer’s block: not a failure to write, but instead, a failure to write anything remotely publishable. If one has been a hack journalist through too much of one’s life, there can be no such thing as “writer’s block” in the strict sense. The internal switch may be toggled to “blather” at any time, so long as the fingers can type. Attention is dangerous: they are the pieces I write at full attention that get me in trouble. Too much passion in them, and the views are all wrong. I’d still be employable today, if I had not strayed from half-attention. I have no discipline. At any moment I may suddenly focus, in a most gratuitous way. As periodical editors often warned, this is unbecoming in a journalist. Better stick to email, when the fit is on, with old and forgiving friends, who have seen these fevers before and know that they will pass.
Alas, this happened once even when I was cast as a food columnist, surrounded by the grocery adverts in a Wednesday consumer section, and accompanied by other food columnists with beats such as “Healthy Eating,” “Vegetarian Delights,” “The Organic Chef,” “Wine for Wellness,” “The Whole Earth Gourmet,” and so forth. The editor thought I could do no mischief there. I don’t know what got in me to write an essay entitled, “Why Vegetarianism is Morally Wrong,” and conclude with a Serbian sheep’s head recipe. But there you go. There was a violent attack on tofu; a mean-spirited lunge against muffin eaters; an idyllic aside on the importance of smoking in the kitchen (all the great chefs were smokers, and I touched on the symbolism of the ash that drops here and there into the finest dishes).
I persisted in this vein, and in a little time all the other columnists were threatening to quit, and the supermarket chains to withdraw their advertising. My last piece was on the advantages of wine drunk in immoderation, on the old Greek scheme, in celebration of Bacchus. It included my memoir of a long and happy weekend from my youth. Alas, it never appeared.
Meanwhile, one of the office feministas and commies — a self-appointed legislator of newspaper mores — had made a big storm over an innocent piece I had written, in appreciation of “White Trash Cookery.” She had read only the first “graf,” and thought I would be taking a kick at the welfare customers. Had she got to the second paragraph, she might have noticed my invocation of Ernest Matthew Mickler. For it was the cuisine of those pigmentally unenhanced, and materially impoverished, along Hurricane Alley, up the U.S. south-east coast, by which I was enthused. They use “oleo” (margarine) for their cooking oil, as the French use butter. Too, they interpret the contents of tins as raw ingredients, on the analogy of vegetables. The black people, in those parts, had had the wit to move a little inland, isolating the whites along the low-lying shores in a form of (breezy) island culture. But the latter had acquired from the blacks, in transit, a genius for adaptation, and a taste for hot spicing. It was a fascinating story; nothing to do with our wretched urban underclasses. “You must learn to read, Janice,” was my only defence.
You put your faith in Thomas Jefferson, or you put your faith in God. (See Leo XIII on this point.) Curiously enough, it was the subject of one of my food columns. Technically, it was justified, for there was a book of recipes from Monticello, generated, I think, by some of those Daughters of the American Revolution. A copy had fallen into my lap, and I was pretending to review it. I ran out of space before getting to that, however, owing to a lengthy digression. I have always preferred the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire — “For Queen and Country,” with a prayer, and a badge. Unfortunately, they have been in recession. But they were noble, well-dressed, proper ladies, and the Children of the Empire Junior Branch always neatly turned out and well-behaved. For dignity, and serene authority, I would pit a chapter matron of the IODE against a Dowager Empress of China. But I did allow that Jefferson had been an ardent opponent of the demonic metric system, which continues to spread havoc and confusion through kitchens across America to this day. For the envoi, I gave hints on the lush rotis to be had from the island of Nevis, birthplace of Jefferson’s rival, my esteemed Alexander Hamilton.
I, for my part, as a United Empire Loyalist, put my faith in God, with a tender regard for the British monarchy, and a passing lament for the late Secretary of the Treasury, the revolutionist who, uniquely among those “Founding Fathers,” seemed almost fully to grasp the actual limitations of political action. (Would he had understood pistols as well.) Unfortunately it would take a book or more to explain that Hamilton is to be remembered not as the advocate of central banks, nor federal bureaucracies to any other purpose, but as the sworn enemy of worldly idealism, to say nothing of the cheap political posturing that invariably accompanies it, with sufficient wisdom to see where “enlightenment” can only lead. He was, to his credit, instinctively a monarchist, too. He was an “if/then” man, not a political dreamer. All he wanted was some sound money. And grilled beef; he was a tyrant for grilled beef. That was what to put in his roti.
Too, as I was reminded this week by a piece in Forbes magazine (the column of a certain Thomas Del Beccaro), he opposed any Bill of Rights, whether federal or state. That makes anyone a hero in my cookery book. All such Bills are sophistical, and invite legalistic twisting. Hamilton understood: he was British like that. A written Bill of Rights turns the corner, from everything is legal unless the law says no, to nothing is legal unless the law says yes. A government without the power to abrogate freedoms has no business guaranteeing them. So render it powerless; only a fool trusts a keeper with his freedom. From the moment such a guarantee is declared, verily, our liberties are now under siege. The USA Constitution descended upon a people who had enjoyed unparalleled individual freedom for a century and a half, under the British Crown. In response to the puling, demagogic oratory of colonial politicians, they exchanged this for a system that could ultimately deliver Obamacare. (So did we, incidentally: pshaw on “democracy.”)
What we need is to abrogate all the Bills and Charters, and restore the (mediaeval) Common Law — to uphold the rights of the defenceless Little Man against the Monster State, and all other organized powers contriving to oppress him. But that is not all we need, for outside of Lent, we might also hanker for a grilled beef roti. And with plenty of scotch bonnet in the sauce.
This week’s principal culinary accomplishment, up here in the High Doganate, was a catfish curry. Unfortunately it was made at half attention, I doubt that I could reconstruct the receipt. But, you know: coriander, fennel, cumin, chillies. Lots of garlic and ginger. Fresh, if you can find them, lemon grass and curry leaves, and those wonderful “rampe” or pandan or screw-pine leaves that I found even in Parkdale, ground up in oil in a bottle from Sri Lanka. Goes with yellowed rice: ghee and ground onions, more leaves, turmeric root, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, and whatever else I put in.
Oh, and coconut milk. How could I forget about the coconut milk.
Not everyone likes catfish, I am told; they go into fits about “bottom feeders,” and of course, some of them die. But what can you do? Cars kill more, and even though nobody eats them. So, if you are the neurotic type, say an Ave before you dig in. To me, catfish are wholly admirable creatures, like goats. They feed on the underwater grasses, but also on anything else they can find. They can be insolent, like goats, or like some of my favourite women. We call them pla mong in Siamese. (The catfish.) Slithery and scale-less; also easy to gut. Catch them with nets: they’re too smart to take hooks. I love their droll expressions, as if they’ve been listening to heretic eels all day and they’ve had enough. They should put one on tabloid TV, to chew the riparian cud with one of those angry white males. Let the fish tell us what he thinks really happened to Flight 370.
They were so plentiful in the rivers and klongs, the poor people ate them for a staple. (The catfish. In Siam.)
“There is fish in the stream, and rice in the fields,” as we say (in Siam). Except, during the monsoon, when there is rice in the stream and fish in the fields.
I cannot say enough for catfish (also, pan-fried, or roasted on the fire).
Do you know that they go quite crazy for Wonder Bread? There is a colony of them, that swim under Little Irene’s Swamp House, up there by Penetanguishene, where I have house-sat from time to time. You get your Wonder Bread from the grocery shelves at the local gas station. Since it is not suitable for human consumption, you break it up and toss bits on the water. Great convulsions of catfish thrash joyously as it lands. Some will leap, and even squiggle a few inches onto a mudbank to fetch a piece. I have spent hours, fattening them in this way, and feeling happy, and at peace, like a catfish on one of his more philosophical days.