It arrives at 11:14 a.m., Tuesday.
The doorbell rings and, since I am enjoying a cocktail as I recline on the couch at the front of the living room, I ask my 4-year-old grandson, Bodhi Valhalla King, to open the door and see what is up.
“If it’s a bunch of circus clowns with a van, slam the door. Don’t believe anything they say about candy.”
Who could it be?
Is it a pair of aging, female Jehovah’s Witnesses, torn support stockings bagging on swollen ankles, the duo bearing copies of The Watchtower and the revelation I am not among the fortunate 144,000? A would-be home invader armed with a Korean .22 and a mid-price Ronco Navy Seal Team 6 Commando knife, the meth-addled goofball tattooed around the neck, up the cheeks, and across the forehead, the waistband of a pair of soiled baggy shorts sagging below his hips? A local political candidate, bright, smiley, and stupid, lusting after a guaranteed salary and benefits, seeking votes in a run at the throne in the county assessor’s office? Circus clowns, with a van and candy? Who knows?
I have been meaning to install a metal doorbell button attached to a live 120 line, but I am lazy.
“There’s a big white box on the porch,” Bo reports. There is also a glob of green snot on his upper lip, and a smear of yellowing mayonnaise on his cheek. He is one of my favorite human beings; I try to be like him however and whenever I can.
“Well, make yourself useful, and bring it in,” I respond, taking yet another pull of an assertively Tanqueray’d beverage. It needs a bit more lime, I tell myself, as I listen to the kid grunt, the foam container scraping against the doorframe. I rise and stroll over for a look-see.
The box is labeled “Rush!!! Extremely Perishable.”
Well, I think, very much like me. I’m a big fan of correspondences, so this must be a positive omen!
“Open it, open it,” yells B. Valhalla. His feet are dirty, and I remind myself to force him to take a bath later in the day. I also remember that I need to remind him I have purchased a pack of sliced Havarti cheese, and that he can partake of this favored treat if, and only if, he can figure out how to open the package without benefit of a sharp instrument.
I take the package from B. Valhalla’s charge, and remove it to the kitchen island.
Before I open the container, I amp up my cocktail with a blast of gin and cool it with a few cubes. I adjourn to my office in the basement, and ingest a couple droppers’ full of a special tincture brewed by my pal, Joe, then, after staggering up the stairs, I am ready.
For the grand opening.
“Is it a special Star Wars figures set,” asks B. Valhalla, as he perches on a stool next to the island. “Are they from the dark side?’
“Not exactly,” I reply, “though nearly everything I interact with ends up on the dark side, sooner or later. This,” I say, executing a dramatic gesture in the direction of the Styrofoam, “is a gift from the gods, given you are desperate enough to believe in one of many Bronze Age myths. But, even though I’m a staunch agnostic, I expect the contents of this box will provoke an otherworldly experience. We are about to deal with something supernal, lad. An extraordinary thing.”
“Fish, my little man. And, not just fish but…The Fish!”
I open the box to reveal a large bundle, wrapped in white butcher paper, the bundle surrounded by high-tech cold packs. I free the load, remove the paper, and there it is, inside a blood-smeared plastic sack.
A Japanese mackerel (not entirely whole, since it is gutted prior to transport). A plump beauty, family Scombridae, plucked from the waters of the Pacific somewhere south of Japan, on a line to Australia and New Zealand, and whatever else is in that vicinity.
“According to the label on the sack, this baby is a full two kilos,” I tell Bo. “Way back when, I used to buy weed by the kilo. These days, you can’t get an ounce of bud for what I paid for a kilo of Oaxacan lung poison in ’66. Avoid the habit, Bo, it’s entirely too expensive and, now that marijuana’s legal in our fair state, it’s become but one more element in a tangled and nasty capitalist scheme.”
I take the bag to the sink, grab the fish by the tail, rinse it inside and out with cold water, bed it on paper towels on the countertop, and dry it completely.
The fish is a marvel, its plump body tinted blue/green above, going to silver at the belly, its fins yellow/orange, eyes as clear as when they spotted the unavoidable net, its gills fresh. I resist the urge to fall to my knees, and chant. Or, at the very least, hum.
At this juncture, it is right to wonder how this fish got to my house. After all, it’s not like there is a fishmonger here in Siberia With a View — this disorganized clusterfuck of a community tucked away in the armpit of the southern San Juans, 8,000 feet above the level of an ocean nearly 1,000 miles distant.
True, there is a “fresh fish counter” at the local market, but I hesitate to purchase seafood that has developed dark spots in flesh rendered lax during four or five days from the water, and leaking gray liquid into the pan in which it is displayed. A frozen fish section at the store offers better quality products, but limited options. I can tolerate only so much flounder, low-grade Coho salmon, or cod.
The brute on my counter arrives in a next-day shipment after it is plucked from the depths of the Pacific. Its origin, and its transport, makes it an extremely expensive item, as in $32 per pound, plus shipping.
Bo climbs up on a stool and the two of us goom at the high-dollar, plump piscine torpedo, like a couple of lab assistants examining Einstein’s brain.
“What are you going to do with that?,” asks the kid.
“I am going to break the mother down,” I say. “I am going to salt the fillets and let them sit for a number of hours, then I am going to grill us some saba shioyaki.”
“I have a friend at my school named Yaki,” says Bo, his eyes glued to the specimen before him. “His mom talks to herself, and Yaki poops his pants nearly every day.”
“There’s a lot of jetsam floating in the society’s wake, my boy. But we have better things to consider.”
I take my finest, thin-bladed chef’s knife, sharpen it, hone it, and prepare a large cutting board for the impending surgery. Then, Bo and I hustle to my “office” in the basement, where we board the computer and steer it to the Internet. After we watch a half hour of You Tube baby tiger videos, I locate a Japanese site featuring an elderly gentleman demonstrating the proper way to butcher a whole mackerel.
The video soundtrack is in Japanese, so I tell Bo we must be on the alert for any and all visual clues. I pause the video, take on another dropper load of Joe’s tincture, and I am ready to learn.
Bo deserts me as the old guy guts the fish and hacks off its head.
“This is boring. I’m going upstairs to build a space ship out of Legos.”
I watch the video four times. The old man has an alarming amount of hair in his ears, and he coughs repeatedly — a deep, wet cough. For a moment, I fear that the Japanese mackerel carries some sort of spore, or totes microbial evil, but I remember how much I love saba, and decide to forge ahead.
One might wonder at this point who provided this pricey fish, given I am, as an acquaintance puts it, “a totally dissolute ne’er-do-well, kept only by a saintly wife from a degrading life spent under a bridge, housed in an old refrigerator box.”
Details are forthcoming.
Flush with a blast of Samurai butchery tips, I attack the fish. My efforts do not reflect the skill of my master. Where the ancient Japanese coot deftly produces two, meaty fillets, each the length of the fish, then creates four perfect fillets from the two, I hack my way to a several fairly large slabs (skin on), a few smaller ones, and a flutter of shapeless scraps. I am proud of the fact I waste little flesh, and do not slash myself, producing a wound worthy of a trip to the emergency room.
Bo is back with a formless clump of Legos, and he watches the procedure from the point where I whack the head from the beast and cut off its fins and tail, then he helps me liberally salt both sides of each slab with kosher salt. The slabs are placed in glass dishes and left in the fridge, the salt pulling moisture from the flesh, rendering it denser prior to grilling.
“Can I take the head home with me?,” Bo asks as he pokes at the gills with his finger.
“Sure,” I say. “I’ll put it in a small plastic freezer bag, and we’ll put the bag in your backpack. Don’t tell your mom, though. Let her find it in your room in a couple days. It’ll be a great surprise. She’s going to think you’re the funniest human being on the planet.”
(Detail 1: I got the fish as a gift.)
The salted slabs rest in the fridge for about six hours, after which time I take them out, rinse them in cold water, dry them thoroughly, put them on plates, and leave them to come to room temp while I dispatch short-grain rice to the cooker.
The remaining prep work is simple.
- Slice thin rounds of serrano pepper, three peppers total.
- Shred a daikon radish on the box grater.
- Take a bottle of shoyu from the fridge.
Bo, daughter Ivy, grandson Banzai, friend Amber, her daughter, Giana, and 6-month-old son, Maximus, will join Kathy and me for dinner. With kids slated at the table, I prepare a mess of store-bought pot stickers for any of the youngsters who are repelled by the fish. I halve four baby bok choy, and ready them for the grill, oiling them, and seasoning them with salt and a bit of pepper.
In time, the rice is ready; the bok choy are grilled, long enough to slightly char and soften them, and are removed to a warm plate. The pot stickers are toasty brown, and I toss a small amount of water in the pan, cover the pan and steam the little brutes for a couple minutes. They are put on a warm plate, ready to sit on the table next to little dishes of dipping sauce.
I mix a fifth gin and tonic, heavy on the gin, complete a round of cleansing breaths to center myself, and…it’s Go Time!
(Detail 2: I got the gift from my pal, J. We have known one another for a long time.)
The fish will be grilled, fast, over pretty high heat. This is one of the oiliest of our finny friends, so the skin side will crisp up quickly and nicely, the flesh side turning golden brown once it meets the heat.
Fish to the grill, skin side down for four minutes. Oil begins to flow and drip to the heat source below; black bears in the next county turn their noses to the air; eagles soar to a snag on the hill next to the house, summoned there by the mega fish alert signal. The entire neighborhood smells of sizzling mackerel fat.
Fillets are flipped, going flesh side down for three to four minutes. Fish placed on platter and hustled to the table.
(Detail 3: the same type of cancer plagues J. and me, and his ability to enjoy food has been hampered by treatments. As a result, he has taken to vicarious pleasure, some of it coming as he reads stories about what I am cooking and eating; I have refused treatments, and have not lost touch with taste. Recently, J. told the oncologists to shove their treatments up their own asses and, with luck, his ability to enjoy one of life’s most blessed aspects will return.)
We eat the fish according to a well established plan, one taught me by my friend Naomi Nakano nearly forty years ago, at the long defunct Mandarin Café, on 20th Street, on the then-treacherous north edge of downtown Denver (a part of town now gentrified and asparkle with trendy boites, pretentious eateries that label sandwiches “sammies,” and coffee shops featuring beans hand picked by orphans and roasted one at a time at secret locations in Tanzania).
The Tani family owned the Mandarin. At the time, the redoubtable and wiry Mrs. Tani was at least 400 hundred years old, from the looks of her, and she held court at front of house. Her son, Ted, was the chef, and a wonderful cook the man was. Naomi and I would share an order of whatever sashimi Ted recommended, and split an order of gyoza, before the chef served each of us half of a Japanese mackerel, expertly grilled.
Here’s the drill: piece of fish goes into the mouth atop a wad of grated daikon moistened with shoyu, the pile garnished with a single round of fiery serrano.
A bit of rice to clear the head, and it’s back to the start line. Continue until all the fish is consumed.
(Detail 4: J. and I correspond on a regular basis, and during one of our exchanges, we touch on the topic of foods we long for, treats once savored, but now the stuff of memory. I mention saba, noting that it has been many years since I’ve been able to snag a suitably fresh fish during one of my occasional trips to Denver — a prize to pack in an ice chest, hustle home to Siberia With a View, and plop on the grill. A day later, I get a message from J: “I gotta guy.”)
Banzai and Bodhi perform as expected; they are not timid eaters. Banz has two small pieces of fish, Bo three. Neither takes a liking to the daikon, and the serrano is out of the question. Each wolfs down three of four pot stickers. Gianna treats the fish as if it’s a pile of plutonium, but she handles the dumplings and rice well. Max gets a tiny taste of saba, then devotes his attention to making new sounds, gnawing on his knuckle, drooling and, like Yaki, crapping his drawers.
We adults devour the rest of the fish, every fillet, every scrumptious scrap, and teeter to the edge of saba-induced delirium.
(Detail 5: I know that when J. says, “I gotta guy,” he usually means Lydia Liebchen, the spectacular chef at Jersey-based DeBragga, purveyors of the finest meats to the finest restaurants in the known universe.
Previously, J. gotta guy’d Lydia, and procured a 24-ounce, A-5, Miyazaki Wagyu ribeye for me. Lydia provided me with precise instructions regarding the beef’s preparation. Lydia makes magic happen.
Sure enough, J. again goes to Lydia, who’s gotta guy: Dirk, at Dirk’s Fish, in Chicago.
Dirk’s gotta guy who can get a Japanese mackerel.
The Guy Wheel is set to spinning at max RPM.
J., Lydia, and Dirk, keep close tabs on the process and, as requested, I notify J. within an hour of the arrival and inspection of the goods. Houston, we have liftoff. The guys have done it!)
It is a memorable feed.
We adults remain at the table for quite a while once the meal is over, dazed, adrift in an oil-slicked reverie, lips and chins glistening.
That night, I wake at 3 a.m. to the odor of fish oil. Before I go to bed, I shower, scrubbing everything I can reach, but I still reek of mackerel; my pillowcase smells like the hold of a trawler. I’m convinced the bears have found their way to my yard; I hear them huffing and scratching at the deck posts, frantic, determined to make their way up to the grill. The eagles are perched on the roof, frustrated, screeching. There is a mob of agitated Witnesses blocking the driveway.
Two days later, as I recall the bliss, somewhere in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, south of Japan, on a line to Australia and New Zealand, and whatever else is in the vicinity, a school of mackerel is missing a member. In a bedroom in a house in Siberia With a View, high in the San Juans, ten miles from New Mexico as the crow flies, a fish head waits in a backpack to surprise a mom.
All is well: I can now die knowing I had a chance once again, and perhaps my last chance, to enjoy a major portion of saba shioyaki, and to share the experience with other folks.
And I’m damned thankful I have a good, old friend … a friend who’s incredibly generous, and who’s gotta guy.