kid, the scene reminded me of those moments in cartoons where the cat holds the fish bythe tail, shoves the fish in its mouth, and pulls it back out with nothing but the skeletonremaining.Watching my dad and I shove catfish into our mouths, my mother’s side of thefamily gasped and thought we would certainly get a bone caught in our throat, but in our eyes that’s what the hushpuppies were for. Besides being the perfect side at a fish fry, thedoughy wads of hushpuppies made sure that anything caught in the throat eventuallywent down. Topped off with hand-churned ice cream (a hint of rock salt sneaking intoeach bite from the churn), there was no better meal.I was taught the fried fins and tails were the best part of the fish, and it didn’t takemuch convincing for me to realize they were right. Uncle Don, my father’s uncle(nicknamed “Cruiser” from late nights in pool halls), always called fried bream “potatochips.” When Dad was a kid he’d walk home from Burr’s Pond and as he passed Don’shouse, Ol’ Cruiser would yell out from his porch, “Got any tater chips?”Crunching into the crispy tail of a bluegill, I understood why. There’s no other way to describe the flavor to anyone who hasn’t eaten them, but that’s exactly the taste:crispy, salty, greasy, delicious. If my family knew anything at all, it was how to fish andhow to eat.We spent so many hours casting to bream and eating their fried bodies that we allstarted resembling the fish we caught. This may have made it hard to find suitors, butnone of us minded. We were all ugly as hell, but were tied close to the fish we soughtafter. Like Vardaman’s famous chapter in Faulkner’s
As I Lay Dying
(“My mother is afish”), everyone on my dad’s side of the family might as well have fins.I was born into a school of cannibalistic fish. We eat our piscine brethren andalways have: deep fried, grilled, smoked, baked, poached, stewed, but mostly deep fried.The general rule of thumb has always been, and will always be, if you can stand, you canfish. Fishing was not only a pastime for my ancestors, but fish in a bucket meant one lessmeal that had to be bought. So, everybody in my family learned the ways of the past andthe traditions continued: if you can fish, you can clean a fish, and if you can clean a fish,you can eat a fish. Early on, I learned the reality of life and death by partaking in scalingthe catch.><(((((*>III. The MatriarchI can’t remember how old I was, but my family was at a Carolina beach withGranny, my father’s aunt who raised him. I stood on the shore next to her as she peeledtransparent shells off a couple of shrimp and ran the curled flesh onto the two long-shank hooks of her saltwater rig. My feet and legs were gritty with sand, the smell of bait wasstuck in her fingernails, and her straw hat was secured to her head with a white sash. Wewalked to the waterline together, the long saltwater rod held firmly in the grip of Granny’s age-spotted hands. I stood on the wet sand where periwinkles dug down andwatched as she waded, knee deep, into the ocean and cast the line, the pyramid sinker landing just beyond the breakers.With the bail still open, line coming out, Granny back-stepped toward me, lockedthe bail, reeled in the slack, and handed the rod to me. That fiberglass rod was at leastthree times as tall as me, but I held tight to the worn cork grips, the butt of the rodextending to the sand behind me.