I have never much liked fish.
Shellfish? That’s another matter. Except for crab. I seem to have developed an insidious allergy to that crustacean, as I suddenly suffered a great deal after diving into a platter of crab legs in Hawaii.
But when I first moved to Milwaukee for graduate school in library science, Fridays in that very very Roman Catholic town meant fish fry at Turner Hall. Delicious fish fry, as a matter of fact.
Turner Hall was a historic athletic club facility in Milwaukee, named for the German word “Turnen“, meaning gymnastics or physical fitness. Associated with the American Turners, a German-American athletic, cultural, and political association, for me it symbolized “Friday fish fry.”
Most Fridays, I drove downtown to eat at Turner Hall, intent on chugging some serious German lager, dipping my fork into hot bacon-studded potato salad, and grasping scalding fried cod fillets, an “all-you-can-eat” delight.
Friday fish fry, I soon realized, recalled other fried fish I’d encountered in a couple of very English places: London and Gibraltar.
Charing Cross, familiar to me because of a book – of course – written by Helene Hanff: 84, Charing Cross. A book dealer and a client and a series of letters and what could be more delicious? Hanff, a freelance writer, turned to a book shop in London in 1949 to send her books she couldn’t find on the other side of the pond.
Naturally, on very brief trip to London in December, shivering in a thin coat best suited for a warm spring day in Atlanta, I insisted on searching for the bookshop, Marks & Co. But there was no book shop any more.
What there was, surrounding the Charing Cross tube station, endless cheap eateries.
The aroma of frying fish filled the cold moist air. Like a cartoon character, I followed the scent with my nose until I stood in front of a steamed-up window, advertising Fish & Chips in bold black letters across the smudged glass.
I walked through the flimsy door, tripping on the raised step, a stray patch of yellowed linoleum, originally white, coming undone from the aluminum door stop. All but one table was empty. An older English couple, probably pensioners, sat at that lemon-yellow Formica table, she wearing a light green bandana over her greying hair, he bald and clutching a glowing cigarette in his left hand, a fork in his right. Both illuminated by the garish fluorescent lights above. For some reason, the scene reminded me of Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks.”
What appeared on the plate in front of me didn’t match the aroma I’d chased in the street. The fish, soggy, the chips overcooked.
A few years went by. I forgot about Charing Cross and the dismal meal I’d eaten there.
But on a trip back to Morocco, I made detour to Gibraltar. Climbing from the port area to the hotel I’d booked for the night, I noticed a sign advertising Fish & Chips. I ducked in. Seeing that it was nearly no larger than a modern-day food truck, I nearly walked out. But the owner enticed me with a bit of fried fish, like making friends with a stray dog or cat.
Oh my, sheer heaven burst in my mouth.
“I’ll be back, I’ll be back,” I babbled.
That night, I led my family to my find. What delicate crisp batter, light melt-in-your-mouth fish, squirted with malt vinegar, crisp chips dipped in mayonnaise.
All those years later, as walked up the gleaming wooden stairs to the Turner Hall dining room and bar, I remembered. The fried fish, hash browns, coleslaw, horseradish sauce, and applesauce were nothing like the English way with fried fish, which actually began thanks to Jewish immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Memory seemed to be bringing me full circle, to a sense of home. All it takes is a whiff, then the memories flood in.