The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete. Swimming up the Columbia is a lesson in progress. Even before the dam, the waterfalls would have battered her forefathers. The rocks would have packed a wallop, broken the skin, bruised the flesh. Now the flesh starts bruised, already whaled on by 40-pounds-per-inch spray kept narrow and forceful by the steel holes boring through 200 feet of cement. The water directs her toward the spillway. She directs her body against the current.
All the roe she had to hoe.
Eggs were flying out of her tubes like baseballs firing out of a pitching machine. Follicular. Funicular. She looked at the cables of fire streaming above her. Follicles polishing those little apples.
Apple of her eye. Her silver skin turning apple-skin—ripening. Dying.
Water polishing the concrete to a smooth, slippery, no-holds, no-nook, no-rub step.
She flipped her body up the next.
Ten more flights to go.
Share a step with another salmon.
She had swum by him a while ago.
Now he swims in circles.
She has to jump over him as well as the stair.
Head over fin.
I am 11 years old and holding on to a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast. I must have been beautiful then. Three grown men stand around me. One with a stubbly beard lifts my feet and places them in the hold. To hold on. To get leverage. To bear down.
The other man, with a pair of sunglasses on his face and another on a pair of Chums around his neck, holds my hand, folds it around the handle of the reel.
My father stands to my left, cheering me on. Don’t let it go. It’s huge. Hold on tight.
Sunglass man pulls my hand toward my body, then out to sea. Following the turbines of the engine. Circling.
The fish, as it jumps out of the water, arches its back. It looks stubbly faced man in the eyes.
Sunglass man holds the fish. Stubbly man hits it over the head.
No one eats 48-inch barracuda.
They throw it in the cooler anyway.
Cooking filets of fish is not complicated. Salt and pepper the fish. Press the water out of the skin with a knife. Slide it across at a 20-degree angle. In the pan, in some oil, two minutes on the skin side, one minute on the flesh.
It’s the sauce that’s difficult.
First you need an herb rarely paired with food, like rue or lavender or chamomile.
Sometimes green tea. Or use demiglace.
Then you need an emulsion. One stick of butter per dinner party. OK, maybe two.
Reduce the green tea or lobster-body fish stock. Or warm the demiglace.
Strain through a chinois. Strain through cheesecloth. Strain one more time for good measure.
With a steel whip, turn in a cube of butter. Don’t let it melt. Emulsify means “to make one.” Make the reduction open up and hook elbows with a molecule of the fat. Water and oil don’t mix, my ass. Water and oil are the same thing—if you whisk fast enough and if you add the butter slowly.
Puddle the emulsion in the middle of the plate.
Pile under the fish some truffled risotto, some roasted potatoes, some chard wilted in wine.
For color, add citrus or tomatoes or little dices of carrot, strewn around the plate.
Let the fish rest for a minute or so. To redistribute the juices. To firm the flesh. Do not let the fish get cold.