In our family it seemed normal, so I didn’t think much about it growing up. Oh yes, I thought it was something special, because we didn’t often have it, but it was normal just the same. Didn’t every family in our small town enjoy this delicacy?
On those particular evenings, Rickey, Dana, and I would draw in close around our gray-flecked, red-Formica-topped kitchen table, its naive, gently curving, chrome-plated legs holding our weight as our elbows bore down, giving each of us the added leverage we pursued. We needed to be closer to Mom and to the steaming platter she placed before us. Under the creamy glow of the kitchen light, six accepting eyes took in the uncomplicated joy and radiance emanating from Mom as she sought the simple, albeit little-known and usually wasted, prize this creature offered. Our eager young faces beamed, hearts alight with happiness, senses fully alert, mimicking Mom’s contagious aura. This was a moment frozen in time—the anticipation of what was soon to be savored. Without question, we would like this stuff, if by no other means than through osmosis. That’s the way it was; we were caught up and swept along in a euphoric stream of family emotion.
As I recall, it was a sort of serrated, grapefruit-type carving spoon that Mom used to ease both delicate morsels, now baked to perfection, off the concave structure they occupied. As my mother served each piece, she looked radiant, hazel eyes dancing under brunette bangs softly sweeping her brow on the left. She knew this taste, fragrant with a hint of rosemary and lemon, was exquisite.
Her lips rounding, a moist and velvety flow of air breaking into an impassioned murmur, “Oooh, uummm,” as the air resonating from her throat rolled over her tongue, buoyed by the juice of a thousand taste buds tingling in anticipation. This image is indelibly etched in my mind as Mom prepared to partake and share with us this simple pleasure of life. I can only believe this was the sound of an enraptured soul. If a soul can be heard, I imagine it would speak to me in just such a way as my mother’s unconscious response on those occasions.
Mom didn’t stand on formality on an everyday basis. That’s why elbows on the table and pork chop bones sucked clean could easily figure into casual mealtime in our house. So in her easy way, after she had retrieved the first morsel, she’d hold it gently between her fingers and sit there a moment, completely mesmerized, basking in the beauty of the moment. Then she’d say in a gleeful whisper as she carefully split the sumptuous bit apart, “You’re just not going to believe it, my darlings. How good this is. It’s a delicacy. The tenderloin!”
And to our delight she tenderly placed a piece between the waiting lips of two of us, then quickly secured the second and last piece between her fingers to divide for the third one of us kids and herself. Softly chuckling, she’d slowly, reverently eat her melt-in-your-mouth morsel. We three would giggle in agreement, licking our lips.
I luxuriate in the memory of how Mom taught us the art of honoring and eating fish cheeks. She held in high esteem those scrumptious delicacies making up the cheeks of fish, just as I hold dear this particular memory of her. I’ve come to appreciate the fact that the fish needs some size or, believe me, you won’t find much cheek. I know that the largeness of those special moments with Mom added enormous spiritual weight to each cheek.
It didn’t dawn on me before her spirit left her body to find out who had taught her to eat fish cheeks, so that bit of knowledge is lost and will forever remain a mystery to me. But the ritual has been passed on to my children.
It’s funny how folks pick up ideas, use them for awhile, and then innocently claim them as their own. Years later, after my husband had long been enmeshed in our fish cheek feasting, I heard him mention to our youngest that the gift of eating fish cheeks had been passed down from his mother. I was speechless, but in honor of my mother, I had to set the record straight. Words found their way, and in the end he sheepishly conceded that it was my mother who was our fish cheek guru.
Photo contributed by Lynn: Mom and Dad before he left.
The world’s mine oyster. ~William Shakespeare
Lynn Henriksen: “As a daughter, niece, sister, friend, wife, mother, and grandmother, and through many wonderful years guiding people of all ages to write memoir, I find the greatest truth and beauty lie in the extraordinary ordinary.”
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Lynn unfolds her memory with deliciously honed physical and emotional detail, allowing her readers to be present in a moment of joy, anticipation, love and connection...just what we all need. Thank you Lynn!