Posted on September 16, 2021 in John's Current Blog

Phnom Penh; September 16, 2021:

I caught my first fish in Key West when I was three years old, and I have the picture to prove it. We were getting ready to move from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Orangeburg, South Carolina, where the Ethyl Corporation, for whom my father did research and development, had purchased a chemical plant where he could expand and manage their experiments. Both of my parents were intellectuals, and it was a difficult move for my mother, who had been living in college towns and Washington, DC, since she had married 10 years earlier. She had a nine-year-old, a six-year-old, and a three-year-old. She would be leaving easy access to the decadent, sophisticated city of New Orleans, whose population was nearly half that of the state of South Carolina at the time. Where would they buy wine?

Orangeburg lies just south of the Sand Hills which can be viewed simplistically as former dunes on the ocean shore. It’s the outermost limit of the fabled Lowcountry – the coastal plain. It’s about the same distance from Orangeburg to Charleston as it is from Baton Rouge to NOLA. Mother was fond of Grand Isle, a wisp of a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico that has recently (once again) been battered by hurricanes. Its population is half what it was in 1953, when we moved. Much to my parents’ surprise, my first memory is from Grand Isle: I am lying down, but I am falling. I see turquoise walls and louvred doors moving past me as I fall. I told my parents about this profound memory – mostly visual, the way I think – and they couldn’t believe me. “There’s no way you can remember that,” they both said, “You were an infant.” I repeated what I remembered with a few more details. “What you probably remember was me being mad,” my mother sheepishly admitted from her bed, where she was dying of leukemia at the time. “We had rented a house there and your father had put you in your bassinet on the kitchen counter.” I could all but see a light bulb flash in my father’s mind. “Your mother had been out of the room and just as she walked in, the bassinet fell off the counter. She was furious. What you probably remember is her yelling at me. I don’t think she’s yelled at me since. But I don’t see how you could possibly remember that. You were about 9 months old.”

I think they believed me, but they were all but in a state of shock. “Wasn’t I already talking by then,” I prodded. “A few words,” Daddy said. “Complete sentences,” Mother corrected. “’Sue gone’ was one of the first things you said.” Sue was my six-year-old sister whom I’ve always been close to.

Charleston had better shops and restaurants than Orangeburg, but it was no New Orleans. The state capital, Columbia, was only 40 miles away, but it offered even less. What drew my parents in was Edisto Island on the coast. Among their best friends were the McGees, who had a big pink beachfront house, and the Robinsons. Page Robinson was the plant’s accountant. His wife Margaret was the daughter of Cap’n Mac Holmes, who was the first person to live permanently on the front beach at Edisto. We spent countless weekends at the beach, where I learned inshore, offshore, and deep-sea fishing. Of course it was fishing that had lured my father to Grand Isle in the first place.

Back home in Orangeburg, we fished most often in Wannamaker’s ponds. Mr. Wannamaker had owned the chemical plant and he and Daddy became close friends. The pond was well stocked with bass and bream. (Several freshwater panfish are called “bream” in the South. It’s pronounced “brim.”) My older sister Nancy and I loved to fish. We would beg Daddy to take us. For several years, I was content to stand on the banks of the first iteration of Wannamaker’s– a small, circular pond I imagine having been not much more than an acre, if that. I would use worms on hooks on lines at the end of cane poles to catch bream. I remember once landing my line atop a bream bed and pulling in dozens of them, one right after the other. My father told me to stop, knowing that we had more than we would eat that night and more than he knew that I would clean myself. At our house, we had a small porch off the back of the house that was about counter height – just the right height for cleaning fish, though I had to stand on a crate. Daddy taught me how to tie fishermen’s knots and how to scale and gut the fish. What we didn’t eat that night went into milk cartons filled with water and placed in the “deep freeze” for later use. We had milk delivered in glass bottles, but Mother gradually began buying milk in cardboard cartons from the grocery store.

Orangeburg had been settled in the early 18th century by Swiss and Germans from the Palatinate who were escaping religious persecution. William, Prince of Orange, had offered them land if they would provide the Lowcountry gentry with dairy products, wheat, and cabbage. To this day it’s the center of dairy production in the state, and while wheat has been mostly replaced by soybeans and corn, there are myriad farmers of greens, if only in back yards.

Mother would fry the sweet bream – to this day, my favorite fish prepared my favorite way – and make hushpuppies. If the bream were females full of roe sacs, she would place the sacs down in water and refrigerate them, then scramble them in with eggs the next morning. As her palate became more sophisticated, she branched out, cooking French, Middle Eastern, and Viennese specialties. She was known by many as the best (white) home cook in town. Many families had Black cooks. I had several friends whose mothers couldn’t boil the proverbial pot of water. I don’t remember when Mother stopped frying, but she was making fanciful desserts and elaborate dinners long before Julia Child entered the American living room on television. By then, we were spending more time on the barrier islands off the coast. By the time I was in high school, we were on our sailboat every weekend down off the coast of Hilton Head. A bridge to the island had been built in 1959. Mother said at the time that it was “the end of paradise.”

In the summer of 1958, we had gone to Panama to visit my parents’ friends the Baileys. Dr. Bailey had been my father’s lab mate at Purdue, where Daddy had gone to grad school after serving on the Manhattan Project. Dr. Bailey was a specialist in radioisotopes at the Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone, but he was perhaps best known as a marlin fisherman. His wife Jean was the Time-Life correspondent in Latin America and the author of children’s books that she would read to us. Dr Bailey had been fishing in Piñas Bay the day before we arrived and had landed a 700-pound black marlin. Their Panamanian cook fried big cubes of the fish in butter, a technique that lends itself well to other firm-fleshed pelagic species such as cobia.

Boating off Edisto, c. 1960. That’s me on the left.

The summer after our trip to Panama, my grandparents were visiting from western Tennessee. My paternal grandfather had died when my father was a small child, and Grandpa Martin and he became best buddies. They bonded hunting and fishing. We had been out to Wannamaker’s pond, hugging the red banks, casting with artificial lures, hoping to get one of the whopper bass that lurks in the shadows under the overhanging bushes. I can hear my grandfather calling out softly, “Come on, Red Bank! Give it up for Grandpa!” I don’t remember if we caught fish that day (I have to rely on photos to jar my memory and I lost most of the family photos in Hurricane Hugo), but it didn’t matter because we were headed to Edisto to go cobia fishing that weekend. I think we fished at the Number 10 “can” (buoy) off the South Edisto, but that was over 50 years ago, so don’t quote me. Back in Orangeburg after fishing I was feeding the dog Gravy Train, pouring the hot broth Mama had made over the food. I poured it all over my stomach and had a second degree burn that covered my entire belly. That happened on a Wednesday and Daddy let me skip school and go with him and Grandpa down to fish with his cigar-smoking buddies. Mama came later in the station wagon with my siblings and cooked big chunks of cobia just the way we had had it in Panama.

By then, I had a younger brother. When we moved to Orangeburg, our two family cars were an Austin Healey and an MG-TD. Having grown up dirt poor, my father never held back when he wanted something, but with four kids, they sold the MG and got a station wagon. He kept the cherry red Healey for several years. When he and I would go fishing alone together, we’d leave the house as the sun rose and head first downtown to Mutch’s bakery. The Mutches lived across the street from us and ran an exceptional German-American bakery. They weren’t open yet, but Daddy would call them and tell them we were coming and we’d go to the back door and get doughnuts before they were glazed.

We didn’t fish much on Hilton Head. Our first sailboat was all wood and brass, which meant 5 weekends of brightwork (imagine putting a varnished piece of furniture in a bath of saltwater and leaving it there) and then one of sailing. But there was plenty of fish to be had on the island. Charles Claussen’s charter boat captain was always bringing in fresh tuna and dolphin (the fish, not the mammal), and we’d catch eel and flounder in our crab trap. I learned to throw both a mullet net and a shrimp net. Back then, the nets were hand-tied by old-timers on the island. They were made of cotton and weighed a ton. The weights on the mullet nets are heavier than on the shrimp nets and I could manage, even as a wiry and strong teenager, perhaps two throws before I would be exhausted. But mullet are easy to catch. There was a culvert near the marina that filled a brackish impoundment twice each day with the 8-foot tide. I would stand on the large pipe and look for the telltale swirling motion of a school of mullet. They tend to whirl around like menhaden when they’re in shallow water. One toss of the net would usually bring in the entire school – certainly enough for breakfast. Mullet are bottom feeders, and they must be cleaned immediately or the flesh takes on a muddy appearance and taste. We usually smoked them.

Me casting a shrimp net for a Vogue magazine feature, November 1993.

Creek shrimp are the young shrimp that appear in the spring in the estuaries. You catch them by casting the circular net at low tide at the entrance to small creeks in the saltmarsh. My mother often sent me out in the dinghy to catch our lunch. If it were during one of the “r” months at low tide, I would simply go gather oysters or clams from the exposed mudbanks. In the spring and fall, more than likely I would cast the shrimp net. If the weather were foul, I might simply check the crab trap where there might be the aforementioned eels and flounders as well as both blue and stone crabs. We smoked the eels as well. By the mid-60s, monofilament nets were available. They weighed a lot less than the old cotton ones. I have been known to cast a net all night long when the creeks are full of shrimp, never tiring.

Going away to college was a shock, if only for leaving my mother’s superb cooking. She made three meals every day (except Tuesday lunch, when my father went to Rotary Club and Sunday evenings, when we kids were free to do as we pleased as long as we cleaned up), with a meat, a salad, vegetables, and a homemade dessert every night. From scratch. We had wine with meals.

Drinking was legal for 18-year-olds in South Carolina, but I went to school in Georgia just as I was turning 18, where the legal age was 21. No one I knew drank wine. No one I knew had parents who had a wine cellar or whose mother cooked “gourmet” meals. I had a rich girlfriend, Keith, whose father owned a house and three of the other five boats on Hilton Head at the time. She had traveled to Europe and knew good food, but she, too, had grown up with a Black cook and didn’t venture far beyond Italian style sandwiches. Perhaps the biggest shock to me was that people actually paid for watermelons, squash, corn, and butterbeans. Or fish.

Most folks had kitchen gardens back in Orangeburg and there was always a plethora of crooknecks and corn. Of course, I knew of the fishmonger in “Colored Town,” where we might go for bait or to buy fish for the weekend if stormy weather were predicted and we didn’t go to Hilton Head. And there was the Farmers Market and the local vendors who used to come by the house selling their produce. But both were on Saturday mornings when we were seldom in town. When we first moved to Orangeburg, one Black farmer came by in a mule-driven cart. His son, my age, would come to the door and ask if we wanted corn or bu’beans or squash. We would peer at each other through the screen door, worlds apart. Segregation was profound. One Saturday they appeared in a big bulbous black sedan from the 40s, but I don’t remember seeing them after that.

I didn’t fish for years, but I did live in Charleston for a year in the mid-70s and tried to make up for it then. I mostly surf-cast for spottail bass. In the 80s I was living in Italy where the closest I came to fishing was trying to catch the common octopus that lives among the rocky shore of the Cinque Terre. We would buy long thin cane poles and tie three-pronged treble hooks to the tips of the poles. A piece of white fabric would be loosely woven through the hooks. We plunged the poles down in between the rocks, close to the sandy floor of the bay. And wait. That’s the real beauty of fishing. Waiting. It may sound boring but it’s relaxing. You’re on the water, which is always changing. The slightest ripple can throw you off guard. A series of ripples (known as capillary waves) can be mesmerizing. I can get lost in a sort of non-thinking bliss. But you wait, paying attention, and looking for an arm to come reaching out from under a rock to explore the white fabric. And then, like crabbing, you let the creature pull the fabric, and with it the tip of the pole, under the rock. The octopus at this point is surrounding the fabric, the pole, and the hook. You jerk the pole upwards, hoping to find purchase. If you’re lucky (and, yes, ALL fishing requires a certain amount of luck), you will have hooked an octopus. You then quickly pull the rod up and slam the tip on the rock, killing the creature. You continue to pound it to tenderize it. If they’re small, you cook them quickly. If they’re large, you let them stew.

Mikel with bass at his mom’s pond

Back in Charleston, I ran my store by myself for the first seven years and didn’t fish much, but in the 90s I met my future husband and his mother put a pond in her back yard and had it stocked with bream and bass. I was back to my childhood fishing, using cane poles off her dock for bream and casting artificial lures for bass from her jon boat. I have since caught and fried dozens of fish and served them with slaw and hushpuppies over the years. In the 2000s we moved to Washington DC where I was thrilled to find that bream were being farm-raised in Maryland and were for sale at the Wharf. I continued frying. I never fished when we lived in Bulgaria or China, but I had a Greek fishmonger in Sofia who would get me anything I wanted and in China they eat everything from the sea. I had fish fries for Mikel’s Peace Corps staffs in both countries.

We bought a house in Georgia in 2014, where bream are also farm raised and for sale. In South Carolina it has been illegal to sell anything from the wild for centuries. There have been some exceptions – nuisance alligators can be killed and marketed by a handful of licensed hunters, and a few mushroom foragers are now allowed to sell certain edible species. Mikel worked in Washington and we would meet at his mom’s. It’s in the middle of nowhere in the PeeDee region of South Carolina. The pond rarely gets fished so I am reminded of that time as a child when my cane pole line landed on the bream bed. Except I needn’t be on a bed because the pond is full of fish. The last time I went I took a bunch of cleaned fish (frozen in water in a milk carton) to my sister Nancy. She was beside herself.

Coming full circle: fried cobia and hushpuppies here in Phnom Penh

85% of the protein eaten by the Khmer here in Cambodia is from dozens of species of freshwater fish. I’m trying to learn the ones I’ve liked. They’re raising cobia, my all-time favorite saltwater fish, in the ocean off Vietnam, so I can now have a fish fry and know what it is going to taste like. Plus, I have a Khmer friend who has a fish restaurant where I can go and have snapper or seabass any time I want. Or I can have her order fish for me: she gets shipments from down on the coast several times each week. But it’s not the same as the thrill of the pull on your line. Setting the hook. Reeling it in. I’ve battled big ones offshore for 2 hours and I’ve lost far more than I have caught. But fishing is in my blood, even if I almost never do it. Several of Mikel’s colleagues go fishing every chance they get. I should ask them if I can tag along.