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A Fishy Foray

(Published in the SA Jewish Times - December 1996)

Part one: The search for perch

So there I was, bent over at the waist, peering confusedly into a frozen fish mortuary. The fish however, did not have identification tags hung around their big fins. That would have been too easy. If it's one thing I've learnt living in Israel, it's that there is no such thing as a simple task. Tasks that seem efficiently executed, always mean that you've made some horrible mistake. I sifted through the various types of foreign fish like a connoisseur shark on a reconnaisance mission in Egyptian waters, trying to recognise a fish known as "Nile perch". As I worked frenetically through the pile, I thought I heard my dear departed grandmother asking, "Voss veis meir van Nile perch?" *

Of course the fish I was really after exists only in the minds of South African Yiddishe Madams and their downtrodden domestic servants. Ever since Our Mighty Lord in Heaven decreed seafood a definite no-no, these poor women have been toiling together in their Poggenpool kitchens on a mission to create a viable substitute for crayfish.

Maisie Moskowitzky and her faithful servant Roselina (circa 1912, Graaf Reinet) are credited for creating the first sweet pinky concoction known affectionately as Mock Crawfish. From that day forth, across South Africa, a-top every groaning post Yom Kippur table, there has been at least one tray of mock-crayfish nestled comfortably in open avocado pears, waiting to be gorged by the ravenous guests.

I had taken it upon myself to spread this tradition, long practiced in my parental home, to my own abode in Jerusalem. I had enthusiastically invited a pack of famished, wandering South Africans to break their fast. Standing in the Supersol, my fingers all a-numb, I regretted it. Deeply. But I'd boastfully blabbed on already to my guests about the divine mock-crayfish I was going to make, so I was trapped. I had to find this particular fish for the recipe, or I was ruined. Bravely I marched up to a pale, waif of a woman hiding behind the salads counter to beg her assistance.

"Excuse me, I wonder if you could help me," I groveled to her in my best Hebrew, "could you tell me which of these fish are Nile perch?" Dramatically, I fanned out the different species on the counter in front of her. Slowly, deliberately she looked at each fish, like a spectator at a tennis match. She paused.
"Vot? I don't understand vot you vant," she replied in a thick Russian-accented Hebrew, with a desperate look on her face as if she'd just been questioned by the KGB.
"Weren't there any Nile perch in the ponds in Gorky Park?" I felt like screaming at her with frustration, but instead I just made wild gestures, gathered up my school of fish, spun around and in so doing, caught sight of a rotund Israeli woman heaping fish into her piled up shopping basket with gay abandon.

I raced over to her. Upon hearing my tragic story, Mrs Cohen, smiling broadly, reached deep into the frozen fish drawer and extricating a large silvery-white specimen, declared it to be Nile perch. At last, I thought, my search is over! Thanking Mrs Cohen profusely, and politely refusing her offers of cooking tuition, Friday night dinner, and introduction to her nephew, I paid and left the store with my nemesis tucked securely under my arm.

Part two: Fish meets pot

At least sixteen wild-eyed street cats, with matted coats and hungry mews, followed me home.
Once safely in my apartment, I flung my parcel down on the kitchen counter and removed my scrawled recipe from beneath a "Born to cook" fridge magnet. Finally, I put on an apron and a pair of large, pink rubber gloves that could quite easily have accommodated Mike Tyson's famous fists. Feeling somewhat like someone decked out for work in a nuclear reactor, I removed the fish from it's plastic wrap and took a good look at it. I had never cleaned a fish before, and frankly I was terrified. Memories of my mother boiling fish bones and heads to make gefilte fish around Pesach time and the awful stench that accompanied it, filled me with trepidation.

The recipe called for the rinsing of the fish and removal of its scales. Holding the Perch at arms length, I baptised it under the kitchen faucet. Then, placing it on a cutting board, I tried in vain to find scales. This was rather difficult since I didn't have the foggiest of clues what I was looking for. I had no choice but to phone Mother who was far away on another continent, blissfully unaware of my cooking tribulations.

"Hello Mom! It's me! Listen, what does a scale look like?" I bellowed all the way to Johannesburg.
"What do you mean a "scale"?" came back her confused reply. I had assumed that her motherly intuition would know exactly what I was talking about, just as she always knew when I was cold or tired.
"A fish scale! I'm trying to make mock crayfish and I don't know what a bloody scale looks like," I shrieked rather too hysterically.
"Contact lenses, they look just like contact lenses, you can't miss them," she explained patiently, as if to a five year old having a tantrum.

Back in the kitchen with my oversized gloves on, I began inspecting the fish, like an awkward ophthalmologist. Sure enough, embedded in its fleshy folds were circular, transparent scales bearing an exact likeness to soft contact lenses. I felt like I'd just discovered some secret biological phenomenon, and almost ran amok through the streets of Jerusalem to trumpet my delight.

After that it was easy. No longer intimidated by the kilogram of perch before me, I drowned it in a pot of boiling water along with a naked onion and some bay leaves. Instead of revolting me, the smell of boiling fish now intoxicated me and I gladly drank in its fishy fumes. Thereafter, it was placed in the fridge to cool off and I set to work concocting the creamy thousand island dressing. Finally, the perch was united with a chopped onion, flaked into small pieces, and smothered under a blanket of pink dressing. The dish complete, I removed my gloves and reflected on my colossal achievement.

After fasting all day, the moment of truth arrived when I placed the dish of mock crayfish on the table before my seven starving guests. They all tucked in with gusto, heaping the concoction onto their fresh raisin challah. I was basking in their compliments, feeling very proud of myself, when suddenly, to my horror, one of the guests cried out:
"Oh yuck! Has someone lost a contact lens? I just found one in my mock crayfish!"

* What do I know about Nile Perch?