When I moved I was full of new things I was going to do, and new ways I was going to be. I was going to wake up early, drink less coffee, have clear and reasoned and unique thoughts about things. I would run near water sources. This seems silly but my imagination was specific about this. Jamaica Pond, the Charles River, the Atlantic Ocean(!) , I would run near these things—forget that I hated running, that’s not important. I would rid myself of extra stuff, extra clutter, and live a spare but fulfilled existence. I would put aside (temporarily) my 19th century novels and enter the present. I would read contemporary fiction.
This is not what actually happened. I drink just as much coffee as always (at least four cups), my thoughts are muddled and sporadic and flighty as ever. I run now, yes, but that’s only been happening for roughly the last month, and my route does not include a single water source. I got rid of loads of stuff, true, but not enough, and of course accumulated more, so my rather spacious apartment remains an obstacle course of cat toys, kitchen implements and boots. Most of my art is still unframed, it graces no walls. And I’m reading Dostoevsky at the moment. So there you go.
That said! Self-improvement is measured in the smallest of steps, and while I am not Zen, no, not nearly, and I have not achieved all of my goals, I did learn how to make a cheese, right? And I DID start reading contemporary fiction, just not as much as I had originally planned.
Thankfully for me, I started that particular exercise with a particularly good book. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell is a delicious fractured fairy tale, an ever-reaching exploration of the dark side of human nature, offering not absolution, but greater understanding of the forces that prowl and pulse in all of us. Basically, the same ambitious issues that my favorite 19th century novels tackle. So you see, there was no better place to start.
To escape from the pressures and dangers of everyday life, our narrator and his wife, newly married, retreat to a forest by a lake, far away from the rest of society. They build their own house, make their own clothes, grow and catch their own food. The balance of this idyllic existence starts to teeter though, when the wife begins to show great aptitude in unexpected, and often unwelcome ways—through her songs she can build a far better home than the husband ever could—and a sad inability to fulfill her more traditional role, that of mother. Tensions build and are realized in skulking, maddening, malevolent ways. Children eventually come, but at a great sacrifice to the couple, and while the pressure rises, the house is circled ever more tightly by two primordial forces: squid and bear, lake and woods.
Now, I know typically I pair small press books with cocktails on this blog (Bell’s book was released by Soho Press) but I don’t like being told what to do, even by myself, and I don’t want to be a slave to my own categories. While I could make a pretty good cocktail for this book sure, something dark, something foggy and rummy, with earthy herbal notes, I knew I could make an even better fish.
Eating habits are one way Bell illustrates the ever-widening rift between his couple. Their appetites begin to divide, she preferring rare red meat, he: fish from the lake. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at a whole, freshwater fish for some time now, and this book (and some great looking trout) gave me the opportunity.
I wanted something fresh and light, something one could make easily in his/her handmade house far from civilization, as it were, and so adapted this recipe from Saveur, adding garlic and shallots, excluding the red onion, and sautéing the veggies briefly on the stove-top before making the court bullion to add some depth of flavor. This, I hope, accounts for the shorter cooking time my smaller trout required.
Poached Trout with Onions, Shallots and Fennel
adapted from Saveur
2 whole trout, about ½-lb each, cleaned
Salt and pepper
2 bay leaves
7 springs thyme
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, sliced into rings
2 large shallots, chopped
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
2 cups white wine
1 tbsp fennel seeds
Splash of lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350°. Salt and pepper the fish, inside and out, and place in a 9″ × 13″ in baking dish, along with the thyme and bay leaves.
To prepare the court bullion: heat the oil and sauté the onion, shallots, garlic and carrot over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the white wine and fennel seeds, bring to a boil and let simmer for five minutes. Pour the bullion over the fish and herbs, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the trout is just cooked through.
Sprinkle with lemon juice, serve over rice, couscous, or lentils.
Drink: Something light and soft, like a viognier