The Cuisine of Getting By
Several seasons ago, I was invited to join a handful of other media types for a few days of duck hunting in Louisiana. The gathering turned out to be something of a hunter’s hodgepodge: a famous magazine columnist and book author with enough star power to attract autograph seekers, a couple of nondescript newspapermen, a struggling young freelancer, a retiree and a Nash Buckingham wannabe with visions of penning waterfowl-tinged literary gold.
We arrived in fits and starts at Louis Armstrong International Airport from Kentucky, Wyoming, Virginia and Texas. From the airport it was a 45-minute car ride to the dock and then another half-hour boat trip to a creaking barge that had been converted to a no-frills but surprisingly comfortable hunting camp. The outfitter and his wife, with help from a nephew, ran the place.
It happened that I arrived first. Although it was early January, the weather was warm and humid—unusual even for south Louisiana (two days later, however, temperatures dropped into the 20s). As I dumped my gear onto the dock, the outfitter spoke to his wife, then disappeared back into the marsh. To an untrained eye, the Louisiana delta is a directionless mishmash of land and water. With time to kill and no place to go, I walked into the kitchen.
The outfitter’s wife was messing with some kitchen tools, apparently readying things for the feast that was to come. She was a friendly, pleasant woman who’d spent most of her life around hunters and hunting camps, and the conversation was easy. Outside the door just off the dock, I heard a commotion that sounded like fish jumping.
“If you wish to fish,” she said in a marvelous French/Canadian/Cajun accent that I will not try to replicate in print. “A rod is by the door.”
I accepted her offer. The fish resembled bluegill on steroids but were marked with dark vertical bars. They were easy to catch, and I’d hooked and thrown back five or six when the lady appeared on the dock. I caught another one and asked what kind of fish it was.
“Are they good to eat?”
“Maybe,” she said with a wry smile. “Clean some. We will cook them for supper.”
Supper turned out to be a good-natured, raucous affair around a crowded table piled with steaming crawfish, hot bread and a complement of cold beer and other beverages. We’d been at it for several minutes when the wife stepped toward the stove and returned with a plate of fried fish.
“Your sheepshead,” she said.
I recounted the dock fishing as each visitor forked a fillet. The meat was dense in texture and slightly muddy in taste—not unpleasant and better than I’m making it sound but probably a taste that must be acquired to be fully appreciated. I did have a second piece, but noticed that two of the guides we were hunting with the next day had quietly left the table.
The outfitter chuckled but wasn’t amused.
“Sheepshead,” he explained. “Some people don’t eat the sheepshead. Don’t want to be around the sheepshead. Won’t be at the table with the sheepshead.”
I’ve dined on a variety of critters, having learned that what people will eat largely depends on local customs and availability. Some dishes were delicious by any measure. Others triggered gastrointestinal freefalls. In an African village, I was once served roasted goat cooked over a dung fire followed by a warm, sour-tasting dairy product the name of which I could not pronounce even if I could remember it. It was the villagers’ equivalent to an American holiday feast.
“What’s wrong with sheepshead?” I asked, recalling some of my Kentucky friends who take a similar I-won’t-sit-at-the-table-with-that-fish view of carp. Other game can produce similar recoil. I once walked into a newsroom and was immediately queried by one of the sportswriters who asked, astonishingly, if I had really eaten squirrel, as a story I’d recently written claimed. I acknowledged that I had.
“Aren’t they like eating rats?” he wanted to know without a hit of sarcasm.
“I don’t know. I’ve never eaten a rat.”
The outfitter’s wife shot her husband a knowing glance and said something I couldn’t translate before bringing a second plate of sheepshead to the table. The first one was empty.
“There’s nothing wrong with the sheepshead,” she said, then halting, as though trying to explain the unexplainable, added, “It’s the cuisine of getting by. We eat what we have. Now, not so much. But when I was a little girl we ate what my daddy killed or caught. We would have been hungry if we had not.”
Readers may contact Gary Garth at firstname.lastname@example.org