Through a Wild Alaskan King

by Doreen St. Félix


I knew the Wild Alaskan King salmon I picked was not the freshest one lying in the ice display the instant I chose it. But it was the one closest to the tired-looking fishmonger standing on the other side of the glass divider, and in the heat of the moment — the moment being him asking me what fish did I want as soon as I passed through the door, me so harried by the hour-long rush to make it to Church Avenue before the market closed — I chose the undesirable fish. I arrived four minutes after the market was due to close, apologizing in a flurry and blaming it on an inconvenience serially late people like to call ‘Brooklyn.’ The scene: me shaken by a question that I heard as an onslaught. Him sounding dried out of that final drip of leftover patience a person reserves for the regular tragedy of working past sunsets. I went with the choice that seemed the least burdensome for him. I knew about this fish simply by the color, or its lack of color, by visually estimating its resilience, of which it had very little. A fresh fish lets you know it has still has some life in it by bouncing back when the fishmonger lifts it from the ice bed. This Wild Alaskan King lagged.

I could have taken it home with me still. I could have scaled, gutted, and filleted it secretly, after my mother had gone to sleep. I could imagine how sharply she would suck her teeth if she knew I had paid for something I didn’t want, if I had been so indulgent to my shyness’ recurring campaign that I took money out of my wallet even though I knew better. I could have dealt this way. But my need for pleasure won out; the thing plopping down so lifelessly into the fishmonger’s aluminum scale smacked me with the kind of nauseating embarrassment that pushes one to act against character. My own stomach turned at the sight of me. I had to take it back and request what I wanted, the truly resplendent salmon lying plump and heavy all the way to the left of the counter. Now eight minutes after closing, I requested more work of him, what I had been selfishly avoiding in the first place; I demanded the freshest fish in the voice of someone who has grown up thinking the customer is always right and other American customs like it meaningfully applies to them.

How to Scale and Gut a Whole Salmon.

With a discriminating hand, like the hands we understand surgeons to have. Like the surgeon’s hands but not exactly; the hands you use to prepare a fish must be more precise and less brutal, less creative. The reason for that becomes clearer to you as you begin your first cut. Living things are resilient. After most kinds of destruction, a body with blood still pumping bounces back, remembering its shape. I have known a surgeon or two who has alternately admitted or outright praised the time they made a wrong cut. “No one noticed it!” they go, and this is a half-true exclamation. The praise is due to the body. Living bodies notice; they will clot over the mistake for you, they will bleed out a signal, and the organs may even spread to erase the snafu before it settles into a wound.

A comparison more precise the surgeon’s hands, actually, since amateur butchers like myself necessarily enter the business of precision — the gardener’s hands. My hands take on a personality nearly identical to the gardener’s when cleaning animal flesh. Devotion to paradise motivates one gardener, in particular, to spend hours on her hind limbs, carefully pulling out the corrupted roots without disturbing the surrounding flowers in bloom. That work is a kind of surgery, a cleaning out. For me, I lean on my forearms, and I use a chisel-shaped knife to pick out the bowels of the Oncorhynchus tshawytscha fish, which is no longer in bloom.

Once past the bowels, when you go to clean a freshly caught Wild Alaskan King, you will find the insides are not at all the color salmon but a deep and enduring shade of red. This red is slick with gloss, a red anxious men throughout the ages only seem to observe in overripe fruits and in freshly kissed lips. In fact this shade of red occurs most naturally in freshly killed animals. You’ll see the brightness when you begin to splay the fish. Red has little to do with romance, though the little industry of successfully cleaning a Wild Alaskan King may fill you up with a sense of being a hero.

How I Cleaned My Salmon.

So thoroughly I nearly ruined it. That red color is never on my mind when I make the first cut from the anus to the fish cheek. I am too focused on keeping the fish intact along the spine so that I can serve it in well-sliced, identical steaks. The splay, when I see it begin to emerge all bright red underneath the guts I have to dig out, excites me to the point that this time I kept hacking well past the point of gut, of fetid organs, into the meat itself, to see if the layer underneath the first flakes was even redder, more vital than the top. Luckily, I was able to stop myself before the meat sustained any irreparable cuts. The steaks were beautifully uniform.

Like weeds, fish entrails would not be dirty in any other context than human pleasure. More than mere garbage, the guts are actually poisonous to you — a state that still bears value, according to the gardener’s assessment of the relationship between her flowers and their weeds.

Of her wisteria, the gardener Jamaica Kincaid cried out: “why is my Wisteria floribunda, trained into a standard so that it eventually will look like a small tree, blooming in late July, almost August, instead of May, the way wisterias in general are supposed to do?” The practice of garden management and cultivation persuades people like her, those interested in control but disposed to awe.

To make matters more unruly, the flowers were also surrounded by some weeds. The sight of blue wisteria mixing up with the appropriate late summer flowers, two months after the wisteria should have bloomed had natural order not failed, was awesome to her in the new meaning of that sensation: not a blinding but a soulful glee. Kincaid lost control of order in a very small way, cowed as she was — think of that: gardening literally forces genuflection — to gardening, and the ensuing beauty of that failure bloomed “with a color and shape that reminded [her] of mourning.”

Her frustration with the way the flowers went those summers, even though they grew beautifully, passes through me each time I pick up her book My Garden. It is a secular frustration. My Garden is a secular book. If there are questions of the morality of work in this book — which in this comes from Christianity or capitalism but either way from unresolved cultural zeals — that is because the reader has grown up in an ugly place inhospitable to flowers. Or the flowers grow there without any work apparent to this reader. The fish ends up on plates but the labor does not and this reader and their friends go about getting or eating beauty ignorantly. The entrails seem to have never existed. Some people live like this, very thick in theories about labor of man but unlearned in how to wield a knife.

Kincaid is from the West Indies (I am too) and the fate of coming from small places, the world population known to carry knives, compels the resolution grounding My Garden: a big commitment to look through small things as if they were a world unto itself. I have the audacity to say her work influences mine. Granted, I tend to food and she works with flowers. Still, both works promote a type of industriousness that is more pose than mood — the gardener and the fishmonger alike are bent over their projects until their necks and arms ache over the grueling job of destroying natural, whole things to the point of being fine for whatever human pleasure.

Every worker’s body is blemished by their work. It can be a romantic incorporation. There are centimeter long cuts on my fingers from cleaning fish, and Kincaid lovingly developed debt and small blisters for her garden.

My Garden is a small book — you must read it because you will come across sentences that will make you sigh rather than think — and she wrote it with her eye obsessed on one thing she liked and cared for very much: her garden. When I read it, I see my world as it might have been, were it liked and cared for very much. It would still wilt; the wisteria would not always take, even then.

Jamaica Kincaid resolved to look at the wisteria as only wisteria, not symbols of or gestures to anything else. She did it so well now she has now earned the curious epithet of being a “gardening writer,” which may sound frivolous to those of you who were not born forced into small spaces.

In this column, I resolve to focus on my little thing, which is food, the work it takes from me, the taste. My intentions are so serious they are ridiculous, which is how I behave: ridiculously, delusionally focused when I am elbow-deep in this animal or that squash. I’m governed by labor and luxury, and when I’m involved in preparing food, the two are splendidly confused into the same instinct.

This month it was the salmon. I am writing about it, using my slightly-cut up fingers to write free-hand, three weeks after I prepared it, which is very significant when you think about how many times you ought to eat in almost a month’s time. 40? 45? No, I have probably eaten sixty full meals since then and no meal do I recall as vividly as this one, which wasn’t supposed to be as delicious as it was, if you remember, had I not momentarily cleansed the everyday anxiety that prevents me from getting precisely what I want. Two times this particular salmon changed a face — first, the fishmonger when he got annoyed, and then secondly, my mother when she tasted it, lying on bed of coconut-scented polenta. Her face contorted and she offered an otherwise nonsensical response, that the salmon stuck on the roof of her mouth like syrup. When I tasted it, I was so pleased to find that she was right. The salmon did linger on my tongue, and the fish still tasted of the mineral waters off Kalgin Island, as if it had been caught in the morning in the pond out back, most likely because I seared the salmon so expertly that although the outer meat had been heated to a pale orange color, the inner meat maintained a wet iridescence nearly translucent enough to be picked up, held to the light, and looked through.

Doreen St. Félix is a writer living in Brooklyn.