Life is just one damn thing after another.
This was the sentiment on the birthday card I gave my wonderful husband last week. The quote is attributed to Elbert Hubbard, an American writer, publisher, artist, businessman, anarchist, and libertarian socialist philosopher. I’ve got to hand it to Elbert: despite (because of?) his avocational promiscuity, he had a pernicious grasp on the obvious.
Jay’s birthday always reminds me that summer will soon end, and, yep, I didn’t make the most of this one. Again.
Still, his birthday also gives me a good excuse to get in the kitchen and have some fun. Each year, I make the perfunctory ask: “What would you like for your birthday dinner?” And, having been married to me for a quarter of a century, he has the good sense to respond: “Why don’t you just choose what looks good at the market.” So smart, that one.
This year he made a tiny mention of fish that I latched upon. What kind of fish? Prepared in what way? Were shellfish out of the question? “You choose,” he said.
At the farmer’s market, I spied a healthy-sized tautog. Its dark grey skin glistened and its eyes shone. We kind of had a moment, so I invited him home. I also snagged a handful of Matunuck’s finest oysters, a robust snarl of basil, and some other stuff to complement last week’s CSA bounty of squash, tomatoes, onions, beets, and cucumbers.
The scene when I arrived home went something like this:
Him: What the hell is that?
Me: It’s a fish! A black fish! For your birthday dinner.
Me: Um, yeah. I need to clean it, and I’m not really sure how. Can you show me when you’ve got a minute?
Him: You’ve got to CLEAN it? That’s gonna be a huge mess.
Me: OK. You don’t have to help. I’ll just find a YouTube video or something.
Him: Give me that fish right now. Give me some paper grocery bags. And a knife. And go away. I don’t want you hovering over my shoulder.
Me: Leave the head on, OK? Walt says the cheeks are the best part.
Him: How do you even remember that? That was 25 years ago!
So, I went away as much as I could, which was hard because I really wanted to see the procedure. He muttered several things under his breath, but I could only make out “YouTube video, my ass” and “un-f*%#-ing-believable.” Five minutes later, he was done. Lightning speed! Those Arkansas boys can clean some damn fish, let me tell you.
As I set about to prepare dinner, we received a call from one of our dearest friends, Walt—he who made the fish cheek proclamation 25 years ago—and who with his son Conor was driving through Providence on their way home to Richmond, Virginia, where they now live with their gorgeous and brilliant wife and mother, Anna Kim. They agreed to help us devour this monstrous fish.
I stuffed the fish with lemon and basil, wrapped it in more basil, and encrusted it in salt (5 pounds!). I roasted it at a high heat until the internal temperature read 135 (but actually I missed the mark, because I let it get to 150, and it was ever so slightly overcooked). When one looks at the unattractive mess I made removing the salt crust and getting the fish on a platter, one will be surprised to learn that I do have opposable thumbs. It wasn’t pretty, but by that time, we had drunk bracing martinis out of super cute tiny glasses (from Stock, of course), and had thrown down on a few oysters, so cosmetic issues seemed less important.
I served the fish with a roasted tomatillo* and avocado salsa, corn and scallion fritters* with sour cream, a deconstructed ratatouille*, a big salad*, and a mess of homemade pickles—beets*, carrots*, and radishes*. We drank a zippy Grüner Veltliner, which was delicious, but I think a Sauvignon Blanc, especially the MacLeod, would have been even better.
*All stuff from the CSA box!
After dinner, we ate chocolate sent from Switzerland by my delightful friend Cynthia and drank port and whiskey. Then Jay ate his birthday pie* (we don’t go so much for cake around here), filled with juicy blackberries from our backyard.
*Walt and Conor both eschew wheat, so Jay had the pie all to himself. This makes them even more valuable as friends. BTW: super cute pie pan, from Stock, of course.
So, life: just one damn thing after another. But sometimes those damn things are surprise visits from well-loved friends and gorgeous New England food, which means there are infinite damn reasons to be grateful.