The fish were so fresh they were flipping. They were not highfalutin' fish. No firm Atlantic swordfish, or sweet Gulf of Mexico grouper.
These were fish ordinaire. Three panfish, redbreasted sunfish as best I could figure, pulled from the lake at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore county.
The fish arrived at our door on a Sunday night in the clutches of our 8-year-old son. He had caught them when a neighbor had taken him and another boy on a trip to some area fishing holes.
As soon as the kid came through the door, he let me know he had a culinary treatment in mind for his catch. "Just roll them in cornmeal and fry them," he said. "They'll be delicious."
I turned down his request. It was 9 at night. The kid had to get to bed; the next day was a school day. Moreover, I was not up to the task of cleaning and frying three fish.
Disappointed but not defeated, the kid put the fish on hold for a later meal.
Fancy restaurants sometimes keep their live catch in large, glass tanks filled with clear, bubbling water. We don't usethat kind of tank. We use a plastic laundry bucket filled with tap water sitting under the basement sink.
The fish-in-the-bucket routine was familiar. The kid had used it on fish he had pulled from cool Vermont lakes, from languid Kansas ponds and from the cloudy waters of Lake Roland.
My efforts to talk the kid into immediately releasing his catch have been unsuccessful. I have tried appealing to guilt, telling him to let this fish "go back home." I have tried appealing to idol worship, pointing out that the "best fisherman in the world," his college-age cousin, always released the trout he caught.
My pleas have fallen on deaf ears. When this kid goes fishing, he fishes for keeps.
While his fish are swimming in the bucket, the kid observes them. Sometimes he names them. But life in the bucket is not good for the fish. Eventually they start to swim "crooked" and that is the signal the time has come to fix them for supper.
I wanted to avoid this scenario. So I hatched a plan. The fish could be fertilizer. This, I figured, would teach the kid about "the cycle of life." More importantly, it would mean I did not have to gut the fish.
I had picked up the old fish-as-fertilizer tip years ago in history class. It was one of the farming tips the Indians passed along to the Pilgrims. In my mind I can still see the drawing in my school book showing happy Pilgrims planting fish in their corn fields.
I did not have a corn field, but I did rent a garden plot in a city park. The garden, I told myself, is where those fish were headed. So while the kid slept, I acted. I pulled the fish from the bucket, tossed them in a plastic bag and put the bag in the freezer. Later the kid and I would take them to the garden. When I told the kid about the plan he seemed to like it. Burying appealed to him.
But a funny thing happened en route to the garden plot. We drove into the middle of a party. It was the weekly Sunday afternoon get-together of young people who park their cars along some of the roads in Druid Hill Park. They turn up their radios and socialize. This get-together happened to be on the road I take to get to the garden plot. I was stuck in a convivial traffic jam.. The slow-going was fine if you were a young person checking out the action. But I was a dad with two kids bouncing around the back seat, and three fish defrosting in the trunk. It was not my thing. I gave up trying to reach the garden plot, and drove the kids and fish home.
On the way back to the house, my son and his buddy kept asking me, "Why don't you cook those fish?" They wore me down. And so the other night I defrosted one of the almost-fertilizer fish. I cleaned it, rolled it in cornmeal, fried it in a skillet filled with hot oil. The whole house smelled liked fried fish.
When my wife and I tasted the fish, we both agreed the flavor needed help. I sprayed it with a slice of lemon.
She covered the fish in a sauce verte -- a mixture of mayonnaise, watercress and onion. The sauce was left over from a previous meal. It was the first time I had seen sunfish in a green sauce. It was good, not great.
The fisherman who had goaded me into cooking his catch, took one "microbite" of the fried fish and wrinkled his face with displeasure.
And instead of asking for second helpings, he, too, voted to donate the remainder of his catch to the garden.