My favorite place to go for seafood was a box of Mrs. Paul’s. Fish sticks were my favorite. Throughout my life I thought I loved seafood. It turns out what I love is tartar sauce and wine vinegar.
Tartar sauce is just pickle relish in mayonnaise. It makes everything you put it on taste like a French hot dog. I slathered it on my little bricks of fish like mortar.
At the tender age of thirteen (if there is anything tender about thirteen) I discovered that fish doesn’t always come in golden rectangles. This came to me when I took a job as a busboy. In the traditional demonstration of freshness (it was frozen) trout was served with head and tail intact, an arching display like a canoe. Clearing tables, I didn’t see much of the original fish — just the bones and leftover head, eyes looking up at me in wonder.
Occasionally my dad would bring home a can of sardines, and my mother would ban him to the back porch. He’d invite me to be his fellow expatriate, gingerly lifting each greasy slug onto a cracker. Spill any sardine oil and you’d stink for a week. Sardines in a can are usually even more intact than trout and are eaten whole—bones, guts, and head. For a boy watching his dad, that’s pretty cool.
My mother once brought home an oily sack of dinner from Long John Silvers. Everything in it was brown. She fetched a bottle of wine vinegar, which must have been in our house the whole time but I had never seen it. Always practical, she probably bought the fish as an excuse to use up the vinegar.
Vinegar on breaded fish is delicious. With added tartar sauce, lovelier still. With enough tartar sauce and vinegar I could enjoy deep-fat-fried shoelaces. I can even like an oyster, which otherwise is as appetizing as a spoonful of snot.
There are sushi people and hot dog people, but it’s a needless division. Neither food tastes good by itself. With enough hot mustard or wasabi, you can hardly tell them apart.
The wasabi that local sushi restaurants serve isn’t real wasabi. Real wasabi is very expensive and used sparingly, mostly in Japan. We get a green-dyed horseradish paste. I’m fine with that. When stirred with soy sauce, it creates the perfect condiment for sushi, to keep it from tasting like sushi.
You mix the two. They give you a tiny dish for the job. Sushi chefs don’t pre-mix soy sauce and wasabi for you because it turns a taupish grey, the consistency of corpse drippings. Chefs prefer this result to be your fault.
Take away the soy sauce, the wasabi, the wine vinegar and the tartar, and you’re left with a super-healthy, high-protein, omega-3-fatty-acid mother-lode of low-fat power food to feed your heart, brain and body. Sushi lowers the risk of depression, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. This is the primary difference between sushi and hot dogs, which are basically a blend of ground cow lips, gristle and sphincters, increasing the risk of self-loathing. Hot dogs spring from a fine German tradition of not wasting the things that by all rights you ought to.
The Japanese are the opposite. They invented “Krab” sticks, imitation crab meat formed from surimi, which is to say they made fish out of fish. That’s like making cookies out of Oreos.
As an experiment, I ate sushi without the usual slathering of sauces. Naked sushi tastes buttery, floral and light, with a delicate, fragile flavor. Boooorrring. Plain sushi is anti-climactic once you’ve discovered the joy of wasabi burning off the tip of your nose.
While researching this story I made a discovery: if you deep-fat-fry it, drizzle enough wine vinegar on it and smear it with tartar sauce, Wonder Bread tastes just like fish.