Saturday, June 11, 2011

Swim with the Fishes

If I screw my eyes tightly shut and twist my mouth just so, I can remember the night when, at the age of about four, I came to understand the food chain in an all-too-real, meal-altering realization. My Baptist minister father and my pristine homemaker mother and I were eating dinner at a Red Lobster in Mobile, Alabama. I was an only child until the age of six, so I fancied myself a miniature adult.

Anyway, as we waited for the hostess to lead us to our seats, apparently my eyes roamed every surface and thematic element of the early eighties kitsch décor until I focused my attention on the bubble-front aquarium which housed a host of brightly-colored fish. The wood plank walls, the ship’s wheel hostess station, the hand rails fashioned from thick, rough rope, and the warm glow of hurricane lamps—these were all interesting, to be sure. But the fish captured my every thought—my parents had recently taken me to the New Orleans Zoo, where I squealed in delight at all the creatures, but wisely and carefully managed not to get my hands dirty.


“Mom, do you see those fish in that fish bubble on the wall?”
Never one to ignore a teachable moment, my sweet mother probably said, “Well, Matthew, that DOES look like a fish bubble, doesn’t it? Those are special glass houses for fish. We call them A-Q-U-A-R-I-U-M-S. Can you say, ‘aquarium’”?

“Of course it’s an aquarium, Mom. What, did you think I was three or something? They talk about aquariums on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood all the time. But I’ve got a question about those fish.”
“Okay, babe. Ask me.”

“Well, okay. Are the fish in that aquarium the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean?”
“Yes, Matthew, those ARE the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean. Isn’t that neat that they are living in that AQUARIUM right here in Red Lobster?”

“If those are the same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean, are the fish on my plate the same kinds of fish that swim the ocean, too?
I’m not sure if my mother noticed the look of disgusted horror that had begun spreading over my small face.

“Why, yes, Matthew. Those are the very same kinds of fish that swim in the ocean.”
My memories are foggy at this point, likely due to the queasy shock that was spreading through my entire body. I’m sure my parents launched into a “Garden of Eden, Noah and the animals, God makes the animals to give us food” talk, but I was suddenly lost. I don’t think I ate any kind of seafood again for the next ten years. I was none too fond of chicken-on-the-bone, and luckily standing rib roasts usually were out of our price range, because it was just too much for my mind to assimilate when I saw a steaming plate of meat still in the shape of some kind of barnyard—or ocean-depths—carcass.

I remember fighting the urge to gag in Sunday School one day when the teacher started talking about the “Boy with the Loaves and Fishes.” I saw her move over to the electric skillet sitting on the piano bench and begin passing out her object lesson—fish sticks. I was in a second grade quandary. Do I risk hurting her feelings and not eating the fish? Or do I eat it and throw up all over the table?” I don’t remember how the situation resolved, but I’m sure I managed a politician-worthy smile and a “No thank you, Mrs. Betty. Thank you, though. What a neat lesson!” (Wow, did I ever lay it on thick.)
I finally acquiesced and began eating fish again in high school. In fact, lo these many years later, one of my favorite dishes to cook is a nut-crusted, pan-seared orange roughy with couscous, but you still won’t see me wielding a butcher knife and filleting it my own self. I’ve come a long way since then. I mean, recently I even roasted a whole chicken. I even managed to eat part of it at the flawless dinner party I was co-hosting. (It was great, but I’m just saying.) I still don’t like the thought of eating something with eyes still on it—whole fish, crawfish, head-on suckling pigs—these things are still beyond me.

*             *             *
With my less-than-stellar history when it comes to obtaining foodstuffs from the beautiful, briny sea, you’d think I would have noticed the ill omen when fresh out of graduate school, I walked up the hill to embark on an exciting new career—only to find that the place reeked of fish.

First, let me give you a quick crash course in the wild and wonderful world of therapeutic rehabilitation. Intended for adults with chronic or severe mental illness and/or developmental challenges, these programs offer clients (or consumers, as the current literature dictates) a structured program of work tasks and recreational activities intended to help them transition back into society after hospitalization. Each member participated in work tasks depending on their interests and previous experience. The “Office Unit” answered the phone, made photocopies for therapists, and kept the center’s store, at which clients could earn points to buy candy, cigarettes, and other sundries. The “Activities Unit” planned and carried out bingo, karaoke, and other table games. The “Maintenance Unit” attempted to keep the premises clean…You get the picture. In addition to group and individual therapy sessions and administrative paperwork (all for which my schooling at least somewhat prepared me), each staff person was expected to lead one of the aforementioned “units.”
As the newest staff person and thus the low man on the totem pole, I faced a completely unexpected joy for which I was neither prepared nor particularly suited—the “Kitchen Unit.” On my first day, after introductions to clients and staff, the director smiled at me with an odd little smirk and led me into the kitchen to meet the client who served as the head cook. I met a lady, who I’ll not describe here for the sake of confidentiality, other than to say that she was a delightful, talented, witty, and intelligent person who had faced a series of difficulties in life that I can scarce imagine. All of that I would learn later—but on this day, I must admit that she seemed like Attila the Kitchen Hun, bedecked in her plastic apron and hairnet.

My eyes were watering and my stomach quivered at the noxious fish stink, but Attila the Kitchen Hun grinned toothlessly and told me the day’s menu: Tuna Fish Salad Sandwiches with Potato Chips. I had to completely step outside myself as I snapped on a pair of yellow elbow-length rubber gloves. Holding my breath, there was nothing to do but dive arms first into the enormous vat of oily tuna, mayonnaise, and chopped sweet pickles. Apparently, when one mixes tuna salad for fifty, one finds it easier to use his or her hands. And said tuna salad leaves an odiferous lingering au de sardine that lasts all day, pervades car interiors, and causes roommates to exclaim, “My LORD, where have you been today? Good grief, go take a shower!”
Given my early horror at the eating of fish and my lifelong distaste at getting my hands dirty, I’m surprised that I lasted as long as I did in the wonderful world of therapeutic rehabilitation. For a year and a half, in addition to therapist, confidante, cheerleader, and encourager, most importantly, I became chief menu planner, grocery shopper, and Attila the Kitchen Hun’s sous chef.

So…if you need tips on feeding 40-50 people, 5 days a week, for under two hundred and twenty-five dollars, I’m your man—as long as you like tuna fish salad.

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