I have a problem with aquariums. I love them and visit every one I can possibly find, but I can’t look at all those fish swimming around without getting hungry. All the fish look so darn tasty. Whether it’s the salmon, silver as Boeing jets, at the Seattle Aquarium, or catfish in New Orleans, which I fantasize wearing corn meal suits, I imagine all those finny beasts on my platter.
So, you might think I was a big fisherman. Catch my own dinner, hold up the sea bass for a photo, scale and gut it and fry it up in butter and white wine. But I have only been fishing three times in my life. I consider it one of my character flaws that I never became an angler; it’s a missed opportunity. But growing up in New Jersey did not nourish the outdoorsman in me. I knew a lot more about discount malls than I did about trout.
The first time I went fishing, I went out on a half-day boat with my uncle when I was a teenager, off the Jersey shore. We caught flounder and sea robin — certainly one of the ugliest of Providence’s creations — and the grown-ups drank beer the whole time. I figured that fishing, like TV football, was really just an excuse to lubricate the church key.
The second time I went fishing was some 20 years later when my wife and I were invited to a North Carolina pig pickin’, and were encouraged to fish in the trout ponds that our host had built near his house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I fished with cheese balls on my hook and caught a half-dozen rainbows and browns. They were good eating.
The third time, though, I went with my daughter in Alabama. We went out on a pier in Weeks Bay, off Mobile Bay, with Norris and Inez Allen. Inez was my daughter’s nanny for her twin daughters. In the South, a nanny is more than an employee; when you hire a nanny, you are starting a lifelong relationship. It’s more like hiring an aunt or an extra grandma for your babies.
We spent the day in October on the dock, casting and reeling in our bait. Norris caught some pinfish with our boughten bait, and immediately started cutting them up into little pieces, so we wouldn’t have to pay for any more chum. The fishing trip was really an excuse to picnic and gab.
It was a social event for my daughter, her twins, the Allens and my wife and me. Inez sat in an aluminum folding chair under the shade of a broad straw hat. She held a fishing pole over the side, but never paid much attention to it. Norris, though, was a dedicated angler.
“I like to go out at least once a week,” he said. “But I’ve had a problem recently, so it’s been a while. I got to go to the doctor again tomorrow.”
Norris was in his 70s and as lean as Inez was not. Norris caught the most fish, but I caught the biggest.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“That’s a white trout,” he answered.
It was about 10 inches long and weighed about two pounds. Most of what we caught were pinfish, three or four inches long, silvery discs in the hazy sunlight. But we caught a few white trout, too, long and torpedo shaped. They fought harder and splashed water angrily as we hauled them out of the bay.
I mention all this because of two things. The first is that we ate the best fish dinner that night I have ever tasted. I was in ecstasy. My wife can attest. I ate pinfish and white trout, fried in cornmeal the proper Southern way, and I nearly cried when I was too full to finish off any more fish.
The second is that the following day I went to the Weeks Bay Natural Resource Center, about a hundred yards from the dock where we fished, to talk to a park ranger and ask about the fish we caught. I wanted to find out more about our worthy opponents.
“What were they?” she asked me.
“Norris said they were pinfish and white trout, but I don’t know what their scientific names are.”
“Well, there’s no such thing as a white trout,” she told me.
(There really is, it’s scientific name is Cynoscion arenarius, and it is one of the weakfish family, not really a trout, but who cares?)
“No such thing,” she repeated.
“That’s too bad. It was the best tasting fish I ever ate. For that matter so were the pinfish.”
“Pinfish?” She seemed confused. “No one eats pinfish.”
“No? They were delicious,” I said.
“No. No one eats pinfish.” She repeated that mantra several times in our conversation as if that settled the matter, as we looked through several reference books trying to match up what we ate with the pictures and IDs.
It was one of those oblique demonstrations of the differences over race in America. The ranger was a White woman in her late 20s, obviously college educated, and just as obviously oblivious to the culture around her.
Black Alabamans eat pinfish with relish, but apparently the ranger’s well-to-do White family thought pinfish beneath comestibility. This wasn’t a case of overt racism, but an illustration of the profound breach between cultures, which is magnified in the American Deep South.
And I can guarantee, after eating a bellyful of pinfish, that it is White America that is cheating itself.