Sunday, 15 April 2012

Dear Toni Morrison (1931 - ),

I realise that it is a cliché for a 90s-educated leftist intellectual to claim The Bluest Eye as one of her favourite novels. Yes, we all read it in high school, and yes, it made our English teachers gooey-eyed, and yes, it taught us valuable lessons about why we shouldn’t want to be what we aren’t. The thought of little Pecola wanting her doll’s blue eyes still breaks my heart. And yes, it has renewed relevance these days. The idea of female beauty being the opposite of whatever one looks like (whiteness for a black girl, in the novel’s case) is played out all over billboards. I think of your book every time I see tanning creams marketed in Western countries, or skin lightening creams marketed in India & Asia. 

Wrong, wrong, WRONG.
But Ms. Morrison, social relevance is not the main reason why I love your book. As an indirect argument for racial and gender equality, it is affecting and important. But, as shameful as it may be, I tend to get distracted from the significance of your themes. Because – here goes – I just think your style is cool! Sorry. This is very much like respecting Nelson Mandela mainly for the cut of his suit, or Germaine Greer for her panache on the dance floor.* I love the way you subvert the stuff of suburban niceness and show its repressive side. The book’s opening, in which the typical “Dick and Jane” story is crushed and cramped into a tight wad of fist-like words, is one of my all-time favourite moments in literary style. 

And it is only a bonus (the icing on the cake, one might aptly say) that your descriptions of food are so luscious. While your female characters might be tied to the stove with a sense of oppressive gendering, what they produce is pure nostalgia. The drinks are always served in jam jars, and the chicken is always crispy, and the children buy sweets at the corner shop with small coins, just like I did back in the day. (Stop. Having the term “back in the day” pop into your head at age 28 is quite startling. Noted. Moving on.)

Now the passage I’m cooking from is remarkably Kiwi. It involves fried fish, and fish ‘n’ chips is our long-standing beach tradition. It’s passed for Christmas dinner at times. There is no evidence, archaeological, anthropological, anecdotal, or otherwise, of distant ties between New Zealand and Southern United States cuisine, so I’m just going to assume that fried fish is universal:

“…every Saturday we’d get a case of beer and fry up some fish. We’d fry it in meal and egg batter, you know, and when it was all brown and crisp — not hard, though — we’d break open that cold beer…” Marie’s eyes went soft as the memory of just such a meal sometime, somewhere transfixed her.
Given that I don’t like beer, and I snagged the only man in the country who shares that view, we’ll just have to incorporate the beer into the fish batter – a technique long known to produce delicate and crispy results. And given that we really don’t like beer, we’ll use lemon lime & bitters instead. Should work, right? (I’m actually quite wrong about that. The good folks at SciAm, who look at food from the perspective of physics, rather than the perspective of gluttony, have written on the specific properties of beer which aid the crisping process. Summary: carbonation is only one of them, and it requires foaming to actually work. Oh well. Experimentation!) Let’s also add some vegetables, because I want to minimise tomorrow morning’s fried food hangover. So here we go. The Bluest Fish (ew, hopefully not):

Lemon lime & bitters: for fizz; also because lemon and fish are a classic combination; also because I like saying “lemon lime & bitters-battered”.

Snapper: a classic Kiwi fish.

Corn and tomato: for summery nutrition and colour.

Parsley: super healthy, and super bright in a puree.

Lemon, lime & bitters-battered fish with parsley puree and corn salsa

Serves 2

Lemon, lime & bitters-battered fish: 

·         2 fillets fresh fish (I used snapper)
·         Canola or other cheap oil, for frying

·         8 tbsp flour
·         1 egg
·         ½ tsp baking powder
·         ½ tsp salt
·         150ml lemon, lime & bitters

Corn salsa with roasties:

·         3 tomatoes
·         1 ear of corn (or frozen kernels)
·         3 small red roasting potatoes

Parsley puree:

·         1 tbsp oil
·         ½ head parsley (about 1 cup), stalks removed
·         ¼ avocado
·         1 tsp lime zest
·         2 tbsp sour cream


Combine all the parsley puree ingredients in a processor and blend until smooth. Add more oil if it’s not moving; you’re looking for the consistency of yoghurt. Combine all the fish batter ingredients (except the lemon, lime & bitters) in a bowl and stir until paste-like. Add the lemon, lime & bitters very slowly, stirring until you get something which looks like pancake batter. Store both mixtures in the fridge. (The batter needs to cool for half an hour or so.)

Cook the corn however you like (10 minutes in simmering water is my method of choice) and shuck off the kernels. Chop the tomatoes into small pieces and combine with the corn. Chop the potatoes into similar-sized pieces. 

Heat the cheap frying oil in a saucepan. Meanwhile, cut the fish into manageable sizes and salt generously. When the oil is hot, lower in the potato pieces (slowly and carefully, wearing protective gloves if you’re worried about splatter injuries). Cook for about 8 minutes or until they go golden and crispy. Drain on paper towels, then add to the tomatoes & corn. 

Dredge the fish pieces in a little dusting flour, and then in the lemon, lime & bitters batter. Shake off any excess and lower the fish pieces carefully into the oil. Cook on each side for about 1-2 minutes or until golden, then remove and drain on paper towels.

Stack up the cooked fish on top of the salsa, sprinkle around any spare potato pieces, and spoon on the parsley puree. 


*I have no idea if Germaine Greer can dance, and I don’t know enough about men’s fashion to make any sartorial judgments on Nelson Mandela. And now the combination of dancing and suits has made me picture them both in full Saturday Night Fever mode. Curse you, childish imagination!

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