The first thing I remember eating and really liking is a Butter Sandwich. Yep, Butter Sandwich. White bread. Butter. More white bread. It was, as I can remember quite vividly, very delicious. I had my first, and probably only Butter Sandwich at my grandmother’s mountain house. Sugar Mountain, to be specific…the only mountain I was allowed to know as a child.
“Daddy, I want to ski at Beech Mountain!” “No, I broke my leg at Beech, we’re not going back there.”
I loved that house. It was where I had my first birthday party, swam in my first Jacuzzi, and climbed my first mountain. My brother and I remember that Jacuzzi being as big as a house. In recent trips back I was saddened to discover that it is simply normal sized. And that big mountain I climbed? Just a really, really big hill. OK, a normal sized hill.
We took lots of family vacations to Sugar Mountain, but always one in the winter to ski and the other in the fall to go trout fishing and blueberry picking. I’d love to say that my family would put on our fly fishing gear and set out to the river, casting and praying we would catch a couple of fish. But the reality of it is that we went to a trout farm that charged you per pound to fish in their pond and then charged you extra to scale and filet your trout. Not quite as rustic, but it was fishing to us. We would get our little cans of corn and worms for bait, pick out our fishing rods, and take them down to the pond. There was no drama, no suspense, you just knew you would go and pay the stinky man with no shirt some money, and get to take home some clean fish. No one ever left without a fish. There were, like, a million fish in that tiny pond. All you had to do was dangle your line in the water and five little fish mouths would cling to your bait.
If you’ve never cooked a fish whole, fresh out of the water, you don’t know what you’re missing. The flesh becomes sweet and juicy if you cook it right and you find yourself sucking on fish bones to get every last morsel. Incidentally, this mountain house was also where I almost choked on my first fish bone. I can still remember my mother shoving a hunk of bread in my mouth and getting me to swallow a glass of milk. My grandmother always said that when you serve fish with bones in it, always have bread and milk close by for bone catching. Now I understand why.
We ate a lot of whole fish when I was a child, whether it was grilled whole at Sugar Mountain or roasted whole at Wrightsville Beach. When my mom roasted it whole, it was usually fresh Red Snapper and she’d wrap it in foil then serve it with the same Snapper Dipping Sauce…
Dukes Mayonnaise, a little yellow mustard, and some yellow curry powder. (This is also the same dipping sauce we use for steamed artichokes.)
You can ask my mother her recipe for Grilled Whole Fish and it would probably go something like this…
Get a handful of fresh rosemary, and any other herbs that look good in the garden, slice up a lemon and shove it all into the pocket of the cleaned, whole fish. Leave the head on for extra flavor. Put some salt and freshly ground pepper in there too, and slick it all down with some really good olive oil. Stick it in one of those grilling frames and plop it on the grill until it’s done. But not too done. Our family likes our fish ‘creamy’, not flaky.
It really is the best way to eat a freshly caught fish, even if the stinky man with no shirt on could take most of the credit.