I called my girl the other day to ask her about the redfish courtboullion someone had given me, and I had lots left over.
"How long is this stuff good?" I asked. Redfish courtboullion is worth its weight in gold, you know.
"Three days, four tops," she said.
"Hmm," I pondered. "What about potato salad?"
"Four days, five tops," she advised. "It’s got vinegar that gives it a little more longevity. You can freeze the courtboullion, you know."
I didn’t know that. So I decided to freeze the courtboullion. I had never liked courtboullion before, but that’s probably because the only kind I ever had before was gaspergou courtboullion. Gaspergoo, or just "goo" as we call it down here, is an oily fish, and to me, a goo courtboullion is oily fish floating in red fish-oil.
But a redfish courtboullion is pretty good stuff, odd as that may be since the redfish and the goo are first cousins once removed, so I decided to freeze it. I put it in a Ziploc bag and grabbed by Sharpie to label it. I stood there staring at the Ziploc bag for a good while then called Susan back.
"How do you spell it?" I asked.
"C-O-O…wait," she ventured.
"It’s pronounced ‘koo’ so you’re on the right track," I said. "How about C-O-O-B-E-E-Y-O-N?"
"Naw," she said, "it’s a French word."
True, my spelling sounded sort of Appalachian. We bandied it about for a time and I finally looked it up: C-O-U-R-T-B-O-U-L-L-I-O-N. Ye olde coo-bee-yahn. Seafood in tomato sauce. Makes some people ill just to think about it. Admittedly, I can’t eat more than ten, twelve plates of it before I get a little tuckered out myself.
So I put my courtboullion up in the freezer section of the fridge. When I was a kid, my mom bought milk in half-gallon cartons. She saved all the cartons to freeze fish in. Knowing that my dad was a far, far better fisherman than I could ever hope to be in my wildest dreams, my mom probably mooched a few cartons off her kin, too. When you opened the big chest freezer in the utility room (which I did often in search of fudgecicles, Nutty Buddy cones or chocolate swirl ice cream) you found two-thirds of it packed with milk cartons, filled with ice to a quarter-inch exactly from the top. If you looked closely enough, you could see bream tails (we called ‘em perch tails) and fins and shoulders and flanks…in short, pure delicacies frozen in a milk carton.
I don’t recall us having more than fried fish and shrimp. or crawfish stews, other than the obligatory crab or mudbug boils, no courtboullions or etouffes in our house. Mom would batter up "perch" in corn meal and egg and drop them in a sizzling hot black iron skillet of grease. These "perch" you understand, were of the "stumpknocker" variety, also known as "barn doors" and "preacher perch" because they were thick as a King James version of the Bible with concordance. We always had homemade French-fried potatoes, too, and for some reason, Ritz crackers with our fried fish. To this day, I can scarcely eat a perch without Ritz crackers. And catsup. Never tartar sauce. I don’t know why. I was a teenager before I discovered tartar sauce and thought I had died and gone to seafood dining heaven.
There’s a specific method of eating a bluegill (or perch or bream, whatever you call them.) My father was specific about it. First, you get three slices of bread and put them on a saucer in the middle of the table.
Begin by nibbling off the crunchy but not overly-hard sections of tail and top and bottom fins. If you’ve never tried this, please don’t do it anywhere near your momma, because you will want to slap her, I promise. The best fillet mignon in the world can’t be compared to fried perch fins and tail. A buddy of mine and I considered putting them in bags and marketing them as "Perch Chips" but because bream are a gamefish we weren’t able to follow through on it.
Then you carefully pull the top and bottom fins of the perch from the body, along with the tail. With a fork, you can gently separate the flaky, scrumptious fillets from the bone, though it’s difficult around the rib cage, just do your best.
If you happen to miss a tiny bone and get it in your throat, don’t panic! Remember those three pieces of bread on the saucer? Grab ahold of one and eat if fast. The bread will 99.9 percent of the time take the bone out of your craw on the way down.
We had lots of boils, too. Crab or crawdad. Every boil started with the distribution of Jax to those eligible. Uncles, cousins, aunts, whomever. Not a single instrument of cookware was removed from storage until the Jax, or occasionally a Falstaff, was uncapped.
Then the cooking would start, and a steady flow of Jax would follow. My Shetland pony, Nancy, had a particular fondness for Jax, and Dad would always pour some into his hand and let her lap it up through the fence.
We had an outside table where we usually dined on newspaper table cloth. It was under a couple of cedar trees. Some of my happiest moments were spent there, peeling crawfish or crabs with the old folks.
Fish fries, though, were far more common. Dad and I would fish all day and, if we had the energy left, clean the fish and fry ‘em up that same evening. We’d call over the kinfolks and Mom would start the fare. If there were goggle-eye in the mix (that particular variety of bream that is more elongated like a bass and feisty as a Tasmanian devil on amphetamines) Mom got those by default because they were her favorite. Nobody argued. My mom would, family legend had it, get in a fight with a circular saw for a fried goggle-eye.
Even today, when I have a few perch in the fridge (they’ll always be perch to me, despite their fancier names) and fry them up, I wish they still made Jax. I never shared a Jax with my dad, it was gone by the time I was legal.
But when the breaded perch drop into a crackling, spitting black iron skillet of hot grease, and that familiar scent drifts through the kitchen, I make sure there’s Ritz crackers and a couple slices of bread on the table. And catsup. I use tartar sauce for fried catfish and shrimp now, but for perch, it’s catsup or nothing.
My mom and my girl are usually there, but I can almost close my eyes when I take the first nibble off the crunchy end of a perch tail and imagine the whole family clamoring around the table, serving themselves fish and French fries and maybe some potato salad if one of the aunts happened to bring some.
I can almost hear the old man take his first bite and declare, as always, "Best-eating fish in the water," regarding the oft-maligned and surely misunderstood perch.
For such a small little fellow in comparison to his piscatorial peers, the bream, bluegill, perch, whatever you choose to call him, sure carries a lot of memories on his scaled but formidable back.