When I was 6 years old, my parents and I lived in a three room apartment above Kresge's dimestore. We had no refrigerator, so in summer Mother ran water in the sink to keep the butter, eggs, and milk cool. Fortunately, the A & P grocery store was several stores down, on the other side of Lafayette (Main) Street, so we didn't have far to walk lugging our bags of groceries. Usually we didn't have more than two bags, since we had to shop every day or the meat or fish we bought were sure to spoil.
After spending five years in refugee camps (primarily in Germany) where the tastiest food I remember eating was sourdough rye bread with bacon grease, I was overwhelmed by the dazzling array of products on the A & P shelves. I had never seen canned food, packaged cake mixes, sliced bread, or dish washing liquid. In fact, the only items I recognized in the entire store were eggs, apples, cherries, and oranges. I had eaten an orange on the American war transport ship General Black, so I wasn't entirely ignorant
In the early 1950s Lake Michigan still had a profusion of whitefish, and since Latvians eat a lot of fish, my parents bought not only whitefish but perch, bass, walleye, herring, and smelt. My favorite was whitefish. It took up my entire dinner plate, but I had no trouble devouring every last bite. No trouble, that is, only after Mother and Father taught me how to eat fish.
Because fish have bones, eating a fish was not EASY the way meatloaf is. The Latvian word for fish bones is "asakas," and it refers exclusively to the fine bones of the fish -- unlike the word "bones" in English, which can refer to either those of the human or a fish. Something "ass" is "sharp" -- which is, of course, the defining nature of fish bones.
As I have mentioned in previous articles about Latvian character, Latvians are always attuned to potential dangers that could, if one is not vigilant, result in death. It comes as no surprise then that eating fish was something requiring training, watchfulness, and utmost caution. The word "ass" is a significant clue here since it can be used to describe a knife as well as the sharpness of a fish bone. A linguist might well conclude that Latvians equate eating fish as dangerous an activity as eating knives.
I assume everyone who has ever fished or who is my age knows how to eat a fish that one has to debone after it has been fried, baked or poached. If you lay a cooked fish on its back and spread it open at the belly, you will see that one side of the fish has thicker, longer bones than the other side. The trick is to try to remove as many of them (on both sides) as possible with the slow, careful lifting and removal of the vertebrae. If the fish is soft and tender, it is easier to remove the vertebrae, but inevitably, some bones snap off and stay imbedded in the flesh.
With each bite of fish I took as a child, I savored the flavor, letting the fish almost melt in my mouth. My tongue worked like a mine detector, and I virtually never choked on a fishbone. As if it were a treasure, any fishbone my tongue isolated I carefully pushed to the front of my mouth and removed with my index finger and thumb, placing it onto the edge of my plate until I had a neat, curved row of white little fishbones.
Paradoxically, Mother, who taught me how to eat carefully, often found herself choking on a fishbone. The guttural rasp that arose from her throat at those moments frightened me in a way nothing else ever did for I was certain she was seconds from dying. At the same time, I felt empowered and vindicated, for the fish bones on the edge of my plate were proof that I could be patient, thorough, and successful.
Lately, I find myself drawn to this memory of eating whitefish and I realize it's because there is something about doing things the "hard" way that I value. It reminds me of my late husband Dave's rebuilding the outhouse on our land in Tuscarora. At one point where the outhouse was practically keeling over, Dave said it'd be easier to just buy new lumber and start from scratch.
"So," I said to him, "why don't you do that?" He looked at me and said, "Because it wouldn't be as satisfying as doing it the hard way."
We live in difficult times (and haven't we always?) If we embrace hardship as a given, hardship can become art, or invention, or a solution. It can teach us who we are and who we can be.
Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.