(by Patricia Fieldsteel)
Growing up, I often lived with my maternal grandparents. Pop-up spent his childhood in France and was a gourmet; Nana was a contender for world’s most clueless cook. Her specialty was Stay-A-Bed Stew, a gray, gluey casserole of meat gristle, soggy peas, and overcooked carrots, garnished with frizzy parsley and guaranteed to induce a week sick in bed. Once my mother took French cooking lessons and became a good cook, she found pleasure in mocking Nana’s flops.
Nana began married life in a large house with eight servants, as well as two women who arrived Friday mornings to make sculpted butter balls for the week. After the Second World War, my grandparents sold their home and moved to an apartment. A housekeeper did the cooking, save for weekends, when she was off.
When we went to my grandparents’ summer house on Long Island, Nana left her culinary neuroses behind, along with her hopeless attempts at being the cook she could never be. At the beach, she did simple and she did fresh, often fresh caught or fresh picked—in effect, what she viewed as not cooking at all by Manhattan standards.
(with Nana, and a sliver of my mother, at the beach)
On the drive out from the city, we’d stop at family farm stands selling fruit, vegetables, and perhaps a homemade blueberry or rhubarb pie. There was no way Nana could ruin sliced beefsteak tomatoes drizzled with salt, fresh-ground pepper, and olive oil from the Portuguese oil importer who lived next door. Afternoons, we’d go out on Pop-up’s motorboat to fish. By mid-summer, the snapper blues were running, and cooking them was where Nana shone. Snapper blues are baby bluefish, their meat white and delicate without the oily, fishy taste of the adults. They’re easy to catch, especially at high tide, and are the ideal fish for children and beginners. We’d buy silverfish, also known as shivers or smelts, for bait and set out with a white plastic bucket to hold our catch. Today, at my home in Provence, I cook them for friture, dredged in flour and fried in hot oil, eating them with my fingers like French fries.
I was both disgusted and awed at the ease with which Nana would scrape off the scales, remove the heads and slice out the guts, spines, and ribs. She’d coat the fish in flour, toss butter and olive oil into the cast-iron pan that had belonged to her mother (another inept cook) and now belongs to me, and fry them to a crisp golden brown. Our idyllic dinners would continue into fall when the blues stopped running and my grandparents closed up the house for winter.
When my mother visited, the tension was palpable. Once Nana experimented with potato salad, expanding her admittedly limited repertoire by adding chopped cucumbers and hard-boiled eggs, served in a cut-glass bowl. She timidly asked if my mother liked it. My mother plunged both hands into the bowl, grabbing up enormous fistfuls and shoving them into her mouth before spitting them out.
Back in Manhattan, Nana returned to cooking meals that my grandfather claimed would “poison us all.” After his death, her culinary efforts descended to nadirs previously unimaginable. Often she and I would eat out at superb restaurants, but by then our family had irreparably shattered, and I was lost for years to the prison of anorexia. The beach house was sold, many years later to be washed out to sea in one of Long Island’s devastating hurricanes. Still, seven decades later, the memory of Nana and her lip-smacking snapper blues remains.
Patricia Fieldsteel is a native New York writer who has lived in Provence, France, since 2002.
Irene Aronson Wilner’s (Nana) Snapper Blues
fresh-caught snapper blues (baby bluefish)
salt and freshly ground pepper
Make a diagonal cut behind the head and gills of each fish.
Cut through the backbone, pull the head down, and remove it from the body along with the guts, spine and ribs. (Or have fishmonger prepare.)
Coat fish lightly with salt-and-peppered flour, shaking off any excess.
Heat mixture of butter and light oil, such as canola, in cast-iron frying pan.
When it begins to bubble (around 350 F.), add fish.
You may have to do a few batches or use several pans, as sufficient space must be left between the fish.
Turn over with spatula until the skin on both sides is golden brown and crisp and the flesh is white and flakey.
Drain on paper towels.
Cover and keep warm, then serve immediately with lemon slices and flat-leaf parsley.
(In reality, Nana insisted on the frizzy variety.)
Friture, sometimes called petite friture (“small fry”), is made with any tiny white fish such as smelt, whitebait or silverfish, eaten whole with one’s fingers and dipped in sauce. In France, they are associated with guinguettes (“gang-gettes”), 19th- and early 20th-century inexpensive drinking/dance establishments frequented by Parisian workers along the riverbanks just outside the city limits.
1 lb. fish
vegetable oil, such as canola
flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
several fresh lemons, sliced
Rinse fish in cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
Put flour and fish, in batches, in a plastic bag and shake, thoroughly coating fish. Dust off extra flour.
Heat oil to between 350 F. and 375 F. in deep pot or fryer.
Add fish in small batches, letting fry to golden brown, up to 1 minute.
Remove with slotted spatula and drain on paper towels. Keep covered and warm.
Fry in batches again for a couple of seconds and serve immediately with parsley, lemons, and sea salt.
Serves 2 - 3 as main course, 4 - 5 as appetizer
For easy dipping sauces, add fresh lemon juice to Hellmann’s mayonnaise and mix thoroughly.
For quickie aïoli, grate fresh garlic cloves according to taste and thoroughly mix with Hellmann’s, adding some freshly ground black pepper.