Friday, May 18, 2007

My First Meat

"Food is an agricultural act," Wendell Berry writes. With this in mind, I garden, putting as much of myself into my food as possible while living in New York City. What, then, of meat?

I've been a vegetarian all my life. I decided for myself long ago that the first time I could catch, kill and prepare meat would be the first time I'd try eating it.

Easter: on a fishing trip off the Coromandel Penninsula, New Zealand, about 16 miles out from the sundapple shore (cold morning cooking into hot afternoon, partial clouds--), I cast my first line with six friends on Ian's boat, the Avian. It's quiet and gorgeous. The water is calm; scattered with islands. Clear jellyfish babies swim in little curved parenthesis just under the surface of the sea.

I've never really been fishing, and I'm afraid of embarrassing myself. Thankfully, I catch four fish--including, quickly, the first of the early day. Snappers. They're about 25 cm long apiece, spotted green and pinky-gray, and in the plastic cooler where we toss them they take a long time to gasp to death. It's the biggest Christian holiday of the year. I'm torn between the lovely symbolism of our multiplying fish and my surfacing distaste at the mounting numbers of our killing. Gulp. Yum?

We take in many more fish, but after my first few, I stop fishing. It's enough for me to watch everyone else bring in more than I thought we need. We catch tarakihi, cod, trevally, parrot fish, and gurnard. Spectacularly, Pam catches a fish and snares a second fish above it in a loop of her line. In a climactic end to a dwindling day, we even land a small blue shark who bites his way off the line before he's in the boat.

The things I cannot bring myself to do: cut and prepare the bait. I also find myself unable to twist, in the assertive way Gary can, the fish's jaw from the barb of the hook. Nor can I toss it into the cooler. I have dropped a cat from my lap and watch it land itself untangled. This fish, as it hits the plastic with a smack, is too much for me.

In the end I prepare my fish simply, per Pam's recommendation. I'm surprised at how wetly muscular it feels. The bone prickles up like nettles under damp silk. I slice it out. There's less give than I anticipated: not tough, but bound. I dab the meat with Kleenex. There's a bit of blood on one side. I pat in in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of flour, lemon pepper, and black pepper. I fry it in (already warm) 2 tablespoons of butter. I put it on a plate and have a seat. The first bite comes up. It's delicious. But after three bites, all I can think of is pulling the barb of the hook through the fish's mouth. Of the minutes turning into a quarter-hour, the fish still alive and gasping on its side in the cooler. Oh my God, I realize, I'm eating fish.

So I stop. It's just not for me. I'm crying, and embarrassed for it, but that's the end of that.