My little sister won’t eat white fish. No cod, no halibut, tilapia, or sea bass. Nothing. To Katie, white fish tastes like fear.
We grew up in the San Juan Islands on a shallow bay where an ancient elevated boardwalk stretched from our house on a hill over a soggy wetland down to the beach. There was an A-frame shingled shed beach-side where we stored lifejackets, oars, and motor oil for our small boat for which the motor worked half the time. Usually we’d throw on the oars and row out to set and check the crab pot, bringing home a haul of Dungeness crab for dinner.
The summer I was ten and my sister was five and the motor was in an operable state, my dad decided to take us fishing. There was an underwater ledge he’d heard about in the next bay over where ling cod liked to hang out.
We launched our row boat-cum-motor boat and putted around the point, my sister perched in the bow of the boat keeping watch for kelp beds.
“Do you think we’ll catch anything, Dad?” she asked with a sort of excited wonder.
Arriving at the spot, my dad killed the motor and handed me a rod. I didn’t have to wait long. Feeling a small tug, I thought maybe I’d caught some sea weed, but when the seaweed started pulling in the other direction, I frantically handed to rod back to Dad.
“I think we’ve got something,” I said, as he began to pull hard on the rod and reel our fish to the surface. My sister was excited, moving the 12 feet from the bow to the back of the boat to watch the action. My dad reeled, I cheered, Katie peered over the edge to watch for the fish.
Without much warning, the fish arrived. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen a ling cod, but there’s a reason they’re bottom dwellers. They’re as ugly as all get out. And they must be a cousin of the wide mouth bass, because this fish exploded out of the water, huge mouth gaping, teeth bared. My sister, whose head had been hanging over the side waiting to spot the fish first, screamed out and then burst into tears.
We forgot to bring a net. So the fish is thrashing around on the surface of the water, looking like he’s ready to swallow one of us whole, and my dad has no choice but to reel him up into the boat and land him on the bottom. My sister flew back to the bow, tucking her feet up under her, shrieking like she’s facing down Jaws. My dad flailed around looking for something to smash the thing’s brains in with, grabbed an oar, and started pounding on the fish as it thrashed underfoot. More shrieking.
Though our fishing expedition had lasted no more than ten minutes, my dad cut his losses and turned the boat around before my sister’s wailing raised any more of the bottom-feeding dead.
Just as the motor chugged on and my dad put it in gear, good old Mr. Ling Cod decided he had one last fight in him. He sprung up from the bottom of the boat, thrashing his tail and opening his wide, toothed mouth. I’m surprised at that point that my sister didn’t just launch herself out of the boat and take her chances. My dad grabbed a small gaff and shoved it through the fish’s head, putting him, but mostly us, out of our misery once and for all.
From that point home my sister was inconsolable; no amount of reassuring lessened the vehemence of her wailing protests. When we got to the shore, Katie ran up the rickety boardwalk, wet and defeated, to find my mom to tell her about the last time she would ever go fishing.
We had ling cod for dinner that night, sautéed with butter and lemon. My mom made my grandmother’s recipe, substituting the preferred thin sole filets with cod from our own backyard. The filets my dad and I cut off the bone on our beach now drowned in a sea of brown butter and sour lemon. The fish tasted of a rich simplicity, fresh with a light coating of nutty butter. It was flaky, if a bit chewy from its heroic fight for life.
My sister had stopped crying, but she ate Cheerios for dinner. She has never eaten white fish. Not one bite. Not ever again.
Adapted from my grandmother, Rose Babson
My grandmother made this dish as a weeknight staple, drawing on her love of all things French. The traditional recipe is made with sole, though you can substitute other varieties of white fish, like cod, if you choose. Serve with fresh lemon slices, asparagus, and crunchy garlic bread.
4 filets true cod, 3-4 oz each, with or without skin
1/4 cup flour
2 lemons, juiced plus a half a lemon sliced into thin rounds
3 T unsalted butter
Parsley, chopped (optional)
1. Dredge filets in flour that has been seasoned with salt and pepper.
2. Heat pan to medium high and melt butter. Add lemon juice to browning butter.
3. Sauté filets in the butter and lemon mixture until just cooked through, 3-4 minutes per side for thin filets.
4. Garnish with fresh lemon slices and chopped parsley and serve immediately. (My grandmother usually omitted the parsley, but I think it makes the dish a lot more appetizing. You could also top with capers for an added flavor punch.)