Why fish heads?
I ran into my friend Annie at a water polo tournament last weekend, because if you want to locate me at any given moment on a weekend, your first stop should be at a water polo tournament. Annie said, “I love your blog, but what’s with the fish head fetish?” She might not have called it a fetish, but that’s what I heard. So I said, “Hello, I have already explained the unique-yet-catchy fish head theme! It’s in the blog! You just cold-busted yourself, non-reader!” And then I made that screechy inhale sound, like the one you made when you saw Psycho for the first time and the scene where Grandma in the rocker happened, because OVERSIGHT ALARM! I HAVE NEVER NOT ONCE EXPLAINED THE NAME OF MY BLOG OR BOOK TO MY READERS. People must think I’m completely off my own Psycho rocker. How have I not explained this until now? I think it’s because this vital piece of info is in the book, which was supposed to be out for you to read, but no, it’s not yet. So now, no one has a clue why I talk so much about fish heads. Ugh!
Here is the exemplary reason why the book is called Fish Heads and Duck Skin and the blog is called Fishheadology: After we had lived in Shanghai for about a year and a half, my in-laws came for a visit. Our oldest and, at the time, only daughter, Mia, was four, and they badly needed to lay eyes on her. We spent a day together strolling around the heart of the old city, which meant seeing impressive sights while stepping over sidewalk excrement (cough the human kind cough), walking through wet markets where people were haggling over fly-infested meats, and almost getting mowed over by a man delivering a refrigerator, which was strapped to the side of his bicycle. Of course, in Shanghai, none of these sights were out of the ordinary.
Before we knew it, it was time for dinner and a well-deserved cold one. Ed and I decided to take his parents to a local place where we’d never eaten before, directly across the street from our apartment. We thought we should continue with the “go local” theme of the day for fear that if we took them someplace with a menu in English or that was even remotely touristy, their heads might explode from too much contrast in too short a time.
There was no sign outside of the restaurant. Red lanterns hung on either side of the door, which, to me, meant it was a brothel, but Ed said no, I’m pretty sure it means this is a restaurant. We walked in. He was right, for which I was simultaneously annoyed and grateful, the same sentiments I feel any time my husband is right.
The place was filled with cigarette smoke and every surface was covered with a thick layer of grease. We were definitely the only non-Chinese people there, maybe that had ever been there. It was perfect!
The place specialized in duck so we ordered a platter of this fine feathered friend for five. After delivering our cold ones, the waitress plunked down a mixing bowl-sized complimentary serving of peanuts. Mixed throughout the peanuts were teeny tiny dried fish, sort of like a Chex Mix except, hey, that’s no twisty pretzel! The tiny fish were silver and smelled of salt and general terribleness. I was going nowhere near that bowl myself, but the Salatkas? They are all about the salty fish. However, they were out of luck. Mia had grabbed the bowl and plopped it in her lap, growling at anyone who tried to reach in and grab a handful. Four year olds can be jerks like this, am I right?
A lot of the foul smelling fish in the bowl had lost their heads. Mia liked this, because four year olds can be strange like this, am I right? She scoured the bowl, locating all the fish heads and making a stack of them on her plate. If the fish heads she found had bodies still attached, she amputated the bodies and dropped them back in the bowl, adding the heads to her pile. When her plate was full, she began tossing the heads into her mouth like they were buttered popcorn, because four year olds can be nauseating like this, am I right?
Finally, the duck was served in the form of one huge platter of meat, organized in a way I can only describe as a brown rainbow. Plum sauce, only the green part of chopped green onions, and Asian tortillas, aka rice paper, appeared next.
The stack of crunchy sheets in a growing puddle of oil in the golden part of the rainbow was the skin of the duck. To understate, this did not look especially appetizing to me. If I weren’t at that place, at that moment, with those people, I don’t think I would have tried it. This might surprise you, but even with all the travel I’ve done to remote lands, I’m not that gal who tries any food put in front of her. My sister in law, Nora? She’s that gal. If it looks or smells terrifying and is fresh enough to still be quivering, pass it to Nora, she’ll take a bite. But when it comes to eating, unusual meats are not my thing. This holds especially true In Asia, because, 1)you aren’t always eating what you think you’re eating (click this link if you want to barf), and 2) Everyday we saw ducks and other creatures hanging out of people’s windows by a clothes hanger, right next to their big underwear. Because although I will now stereotype most mainland Chinese people as being slim, even waifish, from what I can see hanging in the alley, they all sport some whopping huge underwear. As in, cover the entire torso big underwear. Victoria’s Secret CEO, if you’re reading this, you might want to look East for a rather large market opportunity. You’re welcome.
On this particular day, I was feeling adventurous with my food choices. Perhaps it was because of the cold one, or perhaps I was channeling Nora. Whatever it was, I said yes to every stack of brown. And it was amazing! I couldn’t get enough of our duck feast. My chin was dripping with grease by the time I slowed down enough to look up. I glanced over at Mia, we were chin drip twins. She sat back in her booster and rested her head on her chair, hands on her belly. She took a deep breath and proclaimed, “My favorite foods are fish heads and duck skin!” No one asked what her favorite foods were, she just offered this. This gave me pause. Well, first, it gave me hysterical laughter and, “Say that again for Daddy!” and then, “Tell Grandpa what your favorite foods are!” and then, “One more time for Grandma!” And then I laughed the whole way home and fell asleep. And the next morning I called my twenty closest friends in Shanghai and shared her announcement. And then, I paused. I thought, if we lived at home, her favorite foods would be Mac-n-Cheese and grapes, or grilled cheese and tater tots, or pizza and strawberries. But we didn’t live at home, and thus, her favorite foods were the foods she had been exposed to in China, which was the only home she knew.
Which leads me to this: Fishheadology is a simple awareness that in other parts of the world, different things are delicious. And acceptable. And considered normal. And I’m not just talking about food. I’m saying the world is a big huge place and in it, people make choices about their work, their religion, their lifestyle, their everything, based on what they’ve been exposed to, because that is all they know. This means the choices people make that I don’t understand or agree with are not necessarily bad or wrong, they’re just different than my choices. Fishheadology is a big flashing neon reminder to myself to not get judgey. To be more tolerant. And I need this reminder because I go to the judgey place far too easily. So now, when I feel frustrated and annoyed by the opinions or choices of neighbors and friends (especially in this political season, bleh!), I try to think about fish heads and duck skin. To me, fish heads smell bad and why in the world would I eat something that is slimy and staring at me without blinking? However, in many parts of the world, fish heads are a delicacy. Even my own child loves to devour them. Fishheadology is meant to do to my perspective what that terrible orthodontic device that you twist with a key and ouch! does to too-small upper mandibles—to expand it. Expanding perspective increases tolerance. And tolerance is the best gift we can give back to our world.
Who knows, maybe if I can get out of my own judgey, fussy, anal retentive way long enough to try new things, explore fresh ideas, and visit exciting places, I will discover more things in this world that are as delicious and amazing as duck skin. Were that everything tasted like the skin of a duck. I think Shakespeare said that. Or if not, he should have.