Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
There can be no kitchen more active than the kitchen that transcends the house. Ask Andreas Viestad and Tina Nordstrom, the hardy souls who assemble outdoor kitchens before they even get to flex their knives on a cooking show called "New Scandinavian Cooking.”
Viestad has used a blowtorch to make a melted cheese sandwich, mere feet from an angler pulling perch through the ice. The budget for these cooking shows is the best money the Norwegian Tourism Board ever spent, for the very sight of a fjord now makes me drool.
Though I have never cooked a dish featured on this show, I have participated in field kitchen projects large and small. Large is overseeing my husband’s maple-syrup evaporator. Small is a host of wobbly woodland improvisations: slicing vegetables while balancing a flimsy cutting board on one’s knees or stirring sauce in a tin cup, to name a couple.
Sometime after the fishing-season opener (the first week of May in Wisconsin) Devin and I usually fish brook trout in the backwoods. If we’re feeling expansive, this excursion spurs another field kitchen improv technique called “shore lunch.”
Brook trout are actually a species of char, distinct from many inland fish because they are pink-fleshed, like their cousins the salmon, rather than white. The brook trout’s silver skin is dappled with rose moles (small target shapes, pink inside light blue) and yellow squigglies. Okay, here’s a picture.
I learned to fish with a spinning rod, stumbling along the creek behind my husband in search of these famously shy fish. Brook trout prefer cold, relatively deep water; they lurk near log and twig jams, or what my husband sometimes refers to as “good-looking structure.”
They don’t bio-accumulate mercury as badly as other species because of their habitat preferences. This means, though, that they are victims of our North American climate regime change: Brook trout numbers have been falling as Wisconsin’s spring-fed streams have been warming and evaporating.
This reality raises a moral question: Should I eat brook trout if I know their numbers are falling?
My answer, for now, is yes. In the past three years, my diet has become much more plant-based. I no longer buy factory-farmed meat, and I rarely eat in restaurants. Given the fact that I forgo many types of meat, I have decided to eat fish that I have caught. When I hook a fish and make a decision to kill and eat it, I am confronting eating as an ethics-testing practice.
Phew. A little defensive, huh? I guess that’s the kind of eater I am.
On this month’s trip, Devin and I found a broad shoal on which to build a cooking fire near enough to the stream for beer-cooling purposes. In four hours, we caught five fish (Devin four and Joan one, in case anyone’s keeping track). The fact that I can worry the problem of eating a declining species in one paragraph and enthuse about the pleasure of fishing in another probably sums up my vexed character as well as anything. I have to say it: The fishing was fun.
Returning to our “kitchen” and “dining room,” we reviewed the evidence of other fine-dining experiences that had taken place there (shells and fish skeletons most likely left by otters), Devin cleaned the fish and built a fire, and, with a tall flat rock serving as a campfire burner, got our peanut oil hot. I popped open our beers.
Notice the fantastic division of labor. No wonder I like fishing.
Devin shook the trout in a plastic bag filled with salt-and-pepper-seasoned flour. After testing the oil’s readiness by flicking a little creek water in the pan and waiting for the sizzle, he placed the trout in the pan.
Within six minutes, the trout skins were crispy, the flesh tender yet fully cooked. I plated our shore lunch and, though I always intend to savor my wild-caught fare slowly, was rubbing my shiny chin and pulling the last flesh from the bone before I knew what hit me.
As we sat sipping the last of our beer and eating apples, we remembered Devin’s maternal grandfather, Tommy Mattis, whom Devin followed along the trout streams once upon a time. Much like his Grandpa Mattis, Devin dashes through the underbrush and traipses along the edges of beaver dams with an ease I can never hope to replicate.
But I can catch a fish, dang it. And I can also appreciate a fine outdoor cooking experience when I have one. Eat your heart out, Andreas Viestad.
An otter feed?
Cooking the brook trout.
Six minutes goes fast.
Dinner is served.
Good food makes you happy.
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