The Church of Perch

Yesterday we met up and had lunch with a perch enthusiast. The season for this freshwater fish is waning, as the shacks are now coming off the lakes. With this warm winter, I doubt there are patches of ice strong enough to hold a structure.

Perch, before. Perch, before.

My father used to take me fishing when I was young. Our usual spot was off the side of the road at the old Georgia Pacific plant in Brattleboro near the Cersosimo lumberyard. The bank was rocky and the water still. We’d sit for hours as the sun glimmered off the ripples, blinding me and the boulders we sat upon soaked in the heat.

I had my own pole, though I was not pressured into catching anything. I was a pretty terrible fisherman, not knowing how to anticipate where fish would bite or how long to let the worm drown before pulling it back up to see if there was anything left on the hook. Whatever knowledge my father held, he did not share it with me.

One time he took me to a different spot, down a wooded path to a small soft landing covered with pine needles. He tied a plastic tarp between two trees, making a hammock for me. I remember it still as one of his most loving gestures. For hours that afternoon, I rocked in the cool shade while a little distance off, my father sat with his thoughts and slipped one fish after another into his catch bucket.

Sometimes Dad would make a fire and we’d clean and cook some fish there, having an early dinner as the sun lowered into the horizon. Always, we took the remaining catch home to scale and gut for the week’s food. When I was old enough, and especially when I no longer accompanied my father to the water, cleaning the catch was my chore.

I’d lay out newspaper on the kitchen linoleum, set the cutting board and knife upon them and two empty bowls—one for the scales and guts and one for the meaty bodies we’d eat later.

Perch, after. Perch, after.

Fish cakes were Dad’s specialty. For this, he’d use the cleaver and chop away at the cleaned fish until it was finely ground. He’d add his mix of spices and fresh herbs, combining it with his hands. The mixture was then made into patties and fried in a skillet. Like everything else, we ate this with sticky rice, jaew, and an assortment of fresh vegetables.

Two Laotian fish dishes I really enjoy are whole fried fish and sour pickled fish. Whole fried fish balances the flavor of fire with the soft flesh and goes well with just about anything. I love that you can eat the head, the bones, the fins, all of it. Laotian pickled fish, made with sticky rice, is a mellow tart delicacy that holds up even to cooking. There was a time in my life when I ate it for weeks on end.

I have never known for any of these dishes to require a certain type of fish. And given the randomness of what comes out of the water, how could one be so picky?

I never thought I’d eaten perch before yesterday, but a quick Google search shows me the same yellow striped fish that I’d seen many times in my youth. I’d just never had them served up this way, like little battered fingers. They were deliciously meaty. One order came with five fish. I could have easily eaten a double order, as my friend so eagerly did.

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