"Unwrapping the unlucky but delicious trout feels something like Christmas."
My grandmother is my own Edith Piaf.
Mémé has a voice that trembles on the air, buoyed up by soprano aspirations. It is a beautiful but homemade voice--like a quilt. There is no better kind of voice for lullabies.
She is the kind of lady who sings "La Vie en Rose" to herself in the swimming pool, cartooning the twisting belle époque ironworks of Métropolitain signs and Parisian street lamps about her in thin air amid the cruel, deep, empty blues of a Florida pool and a Florida sky. It is "La Vie en Rose" now, but when I was very young, she would spin a roulette wheel of dainty little French lullabies in her head, and wherever the ball landed, she would begin with her dancing-ballerina-in-a-jewel-box voice.
One that was our favorite had two simple verses. "Les petits poissons qui nagent dans l'eau. Nagent, nagent, nagent. Et les grands aussis. Nagent, nagent, nagent aussi." In other words: The little fish who swim in the water. Swim, swim, swim. And the big ones, too. Swim, swim, swim, too."
Verse two was no great surprise: "Les petits ouiseaux qui volent dans l'air. Volent, volent, volent. Et les grands aussi. Volent, volent, volent aussi"--birds flying instead of fish swimming. A simple little tale of truth that lullaby was, but I loved it because I adored animals, and I would always croak along.
Whoever wrote this lullaby hadn't met Rusty. But neither had Mémé nor I.
When I was a junior in college, I decided that though I had a cat and a dog down in Florida, I needed a pet of my own, right here, right now, to be happy. I got in my old VW and drove to the nearest PetSmart. The week before I had noticed a large and beautiful goldfish, and I had plans to buy him. But when I got there, he was gone. Instead was a tank of these darling little fan-finned white and gold and black pinto goldfish called Shubunkins. And at the front of the tank lingered one with a black patch over his eye. He shimmered at me, and I was hooked.
I took him back to my dorm and called him Rusty. For the first few days he cowered in the farthest corner of water, and I would hum to him "Les Petits Poissons." Soon he came to the surface when I crumbled in his fish flakes. After a while, he would recognize me, swim to the front of his tank, and do a little dance.
I was shocked when he was still alive at the end of the year. My boyfriend at the time had, after all, threatened to have fraternity pledges break, enter, and turn poor Rusty into fish fry. But there he was, dancing expectantly at the front of the tank, watching me pack, blowing water bubbles that seemed to ask the question, "Where are we going?"
So, I got back in the VW and drove to PetSmart to buy Rusty what came to be known infamously on the Princeton campus as "the travel tank." I put Rusty in, and parked him in the front seat, pulling the seatbelt across to keep him secure. I piled the rest of our worldly possessions in the brimming backseat, and off we went on the two-day, 22-hour drive from where we went to college to my mother's house.
We did this drive together many times. Sometimes we would take the train from Washington to Northern Florida, but more often, we just went it alone. Alone, at night, in random hotels in South Carolina, I found great comfort and companionship in his chipper little copper demeanor. One time, I decided to veer off the course and visit Savannah because I'd never seen it. The trolley operator nearly jumped out of his skin as he exclaimed, "Why! Is that a little shubunkin I see there?" Rusty got a free trolley tour of Savannah, Georgia, and was happily greeted by many locals. And when we had to leave early one summer before Hurricane Wilma, we hit the road back north with thousands of other Florida license plates.
Rusty gained great notoriety as the traveling fish. After college, when the two of us moved into our first New York apartment together, we began to fly back to Maman's house in Florida. He would sit happily unaffected in his little travel tank. All the men at the airport knew Rusty. They would affably conduct painless tests to be sure he wasn't a bomb, try to shake his fins through the plastic, and then admonish me for not having fed him orange slices yet. Apparently, those are a terrific snack for goldfish.
But it was up in the air, with Rusty on my airplane tray table, that I realized Mémé's lullaby was inadequate. Sometimes little fish fly through the air, instead of just swimming in the water, with all the other fish.
When we arrived at Maman's house, Rusty would stay sometimes in my room, and sometimes in the kitchen, both of which overlook the ocean. I used to wonder if Rusty ever dreamed of swimming with all the other little fish and big fish from the lullaby, but I think he knew he was special. That he could fly. He didn't even seem too upset by the fact that our kitchen is most often used to cook filets of fish. I would often try to throw a kitchen towel over his tank to preserve his innocence.
Rusty was with me for four long goldfish years. Friends from college would call me and inquire as to his health. It never failed. And one day, just before I moved to Europe, when I had enlisted my mother to take care of him as he looked out onto that vast blue sea, fretting over how I could ever fly without him, the little brave spirit behind his dancing fins and fighter-pilot persona was stilled. I buried him in a flower pot, beneath a blooming tree that I planted for him on the roof of our shared New York apartment. And though he is now forever firmly in the earth, I still like to remember him as my little flying fish. And I remind myself what Rusty taught me--that sometimes, les petits poissons volent dans l'air.
This week's dish is a personal favorite that unfortunately my poor Rusty had to witness many times. It is a whole trout (not a flying fish!) perfumed with the woody herbs of Provence, situated on a bed of fennel, and roasted en papillotte. It is so easy, so quick, and so elegant for a weeknight dinner or a dinner party because unwrapping the unlucky but delicious trout feels something like Christmas.
- 2 butterflied whole trout
- 1 teaspoon olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons butter
- 6 sprigs thyme
- 6 sprigs rosemary
- 4 slices lemon, plus extra lemon juice for drizzling
- A handful of watercress or pea shoots
- Salt and pepper
- Two large rectangles of parchment paper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Rub the trout outside and in with olive oil to coat. The more thoroughly you do this, the less likely the fish will be to stick to the parchment. Season them each inside and out with salt and pepper.
Open the trout up like a book, and stick 3 thyme and 3 rosemary bookmarks in the center. Add in 1 teaspoon of butter for good measure. Close the book--your place is saved for later. Place two slices of lemon on top of each trout.
Prepare the packages by tossing the fennel with 1 teaspoon of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Divide in half, and place a small mound in the middle of each sheet of parchment. Lay a trout on top of each fennel mountain. Then seal the package. Bring the edges of parchment parallel to the length of the fish up, and fold and fold and fold again until the fold rests sealed against the fish. Then folds the ends up like a Christmas gift, and fold under. All the folds will seal in the steam and the flavor.
Bake the trout for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, toss the watercress or pea shoots with a touch of olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. When the packages come out of the oven, cut them open at the table, and top with a bit of greenery.