When I was growing up, my family would spend a week every summer renting a cottage in Door County, Wisconsin. It's a mixture of New England meets the Midwest. The place my mother was born and where many of my relatives still live. Weather worn cedar shake homes line the roads and sailboats with names like "Betty Lou" and "Dorothy Mae" dot the water. I loved my summers on Lake Michigan. Life was simple there - or it was, for us kids, at least. The most difficult part of the day was deciding whether to go swimming at the beach steps away from our front door or accompany my father on one of his epic fishing expeditions. A fan of adventure, I usually chose the latter. Snoopy fishing pole in hand and SPF 75 slathered onto my shoulders (Thanks, Mom!), I would follow Dad out to the dock. We would climb into his red Lund fishing boat and take off for the morning.
Our fishing trips were very one-sided when it came to work: Dad would bait the hook and I would practice the art of being patient. Ha! This was difficult when I had my little sister and baby brother to compete with. We would usually go out in groups, so that Dad's stress level would stay low. One of us would have to sit on the floor of the boat with the scratchy carpet digging into our mosquito-bitten legs. I always voted my brother, since he was the littlest and most likely to fall out. My preferred seat was in the bow, where I could attempt to put my feet on the edge - always trying to get my hot pink and neon blue watershoes to reach (I finally found success during the summer of 1996). After securing our seats, we would spend time catching perch - sharing Snoopy and fishing only one at a time. As soon as one of us would catch a fish, Dad would let us pet the frightened creature as it attempted to escape Dad's strong, tanned hands. Next he would pass us the fish and take the obligatory "You caught a fish!" picture with his Minolta 35-mm camera. We would, for a moment, pretend like we loved holding the fish - or I would, I actually think my sister may have enjoyed this. Dad would hold the camera to his face, say "1, 2, 3...That's just great!" and press the shutter button. Then he would help us guide it into the bucket - or release it if it was a non-perch - and re-bait the hook for the next future-professional fisherman. A few hours of fishing and a couple of arguments later (My fish really was the biggest...EVERY TIME), we would return to the dock with dinner. Dad would filet each perch and grill them - careful to make sure every last bone and scale was removed from the fish and that they were covered in a yummy crispy crust. I was adamant that my fish be only white meat - no bones or weird coloring. If this was the case, I would just not eat it, pushing it onto my Dad's plate. Let's just say that I may have been a little high maintenance.
Fast forward 16 years. Last night, Una Lahi called me over to her store. Tiani was extremely excited because he had been gifted some fish - a neighbor across the way had spent the entire afternoon fishing - and Tiani was now cooking the fish on a Tongan grill - a piece of corrugated metal bent in a u-shape over a small fire. Una Lahi sat at the picnic table cutting up hopa (which is a cousin of the banana, but is cooked like a potato) and offered me some. I sprinkled some salt on it and held it like a popsicle, biting off the end.
"'Amenita! Ha'u! Kai lahi! Ifo ika!" (Amanda! Come! Eat a lot! Delicious fish!)
Tiani placed 3 whole fish (each about the size of my hand) on a piece of aluminum foil in front of me. I looked down at the makeshift plate - the fish's lifeless eyes staring up at me and its silvery scales charred black. It was at this moment that I thought about the Perch dinners with my family. I watched as Tiani ate his fish, unsure of where I should start. I finally got the nerve to just ask him how to do it. Who eats fish without a fork and a knife? Unless it's a fish stick, of course. He smiled and gave me step-by-step instructions and 10-minutes later - with bits of roasted fish scales stuck under my fingernails - I walked over to the grill, picked up my fourth fish and with a big grin ripped out it's spine, split the entire thing in half, put the meat and scales into my mouth, did the same to the other side and then dropped the head of the fish in the grass so that the dogs would have something to eat too. No fork. Just fingers. Pure deliciousness.
It's amazing how much has changed in the last 16 years - or how much has changed in the last 2 months. Slowly - one fish at a time - this experience is altering me. Change is occurring in small ways (like my eating habits) and in larger, deeper ones, too.