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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Kitchen Epiphany. By John von Daler

                    Do the paths of Art and Life ever cross? I asked myself. Thank God, no! Hardly ever! (Except for now...)

                In the back of my head I was humming the old Scotch folksong, Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road, while the fish stared doubly at me from the sink. Actually, not from the sink, but on top of it. The whole mouth filled out the space over the basin from side to side, the head could not come any farther down and the eyes glowered menacingly and unflinchingly directly at me.
                And that's just the head, I was thinking. The rest of the fish reached my partner's chest vertically while they were weighing it down at the market. It weighed 145 kilos.
                The fisherman from Greenland had said, "Got a fish for you. Come by and pick it up at the wharf."
                "But how big is it?" asked my partner. Then he heard fourteen point five. This turned out, like so many other things from Greenland, to be a devaluation of the actual dimensions. One hundred and forty-five kilos. Enough to fill the back end of a Volvo stationwagon so that the eyes could peep out at the traffic in Copenhagen.
                Now that head spanned my kitchen sink. I stood wrapped in an apron, a sharpened knife in hand and facing the piscine equivalent of Picasso's portraits of Dora Maar. But this was no work of art. It had teeth big enough to bite off my ankle and both eyes placed on one side of the flat head and large enough to see into my very soul.
                Never mind that its body had been cut up into filets as large as the breasts of a huge turkey and that the tail had been thrown out and carried off by Copenhagen Garbage Removal. The head carried enough weight to scare the living daylights out of me.
                The head could not just be lowered into a large pot, because no pot in this tiny kitchen had the necessary dimensions. It had to be cut up.
                This is the point in my story where Art and Life enter the ring from two opposite corners. I had read too many fairytales. This Atlantic Halibut could have coughed up a royal ring, or granted three wishes, or advised a desperate fisherman on how to control his wife. And now I was supposed to take a knife to it, cut it into eight or ten pieces and then simmer it in wine and water and pernaud and saffron. But when I approached the broad mouth, I could hear a deep voice admonishing me, even as the lopsided eyes glared at me with the look of an angry Lora Maar telling her Picasso to bug off. Ya get near me and I'll bite off yer hand!
                To make a short story long, I did in fact eat a bouillabaise made from the Halibut head with my wife and some friends. But my wife never got over the sight of me, knife in hand, sawing at the jawbones of the beast, my hair dishevelled, my eyes as unfocussed and wild as those of Orpheus looking back into the Inferno. And when the fish finally had been carved and simmered and gourmeted, every bite of the soup became an extreme effort for me because every morsel of fish I swallowed carried with it a fable or a moral or an admonition.
                What's all the fuss about? you are thinking. I can only tell you that I can be no other than me, that Lora Maar met the Flounder in my kitchen and that Art and Life crossed swords at the same time. Without a doubt Art lost to Life, though it was a splendid fight. As the great bones from that jowl hit the garbage pail after our guests had left, I knew that some day I would have to tell the tale to somehow rehabilitate its strength and significance. It has taken me these twenty years to dare that feat.
                And still I hear, Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road in my head when I see Halibut on a menu. Then my wife's hand takes mine under the table even as mythical fists reach upward from the sagaed sea waving rings or swords, while the two-eyed monster lurks flatly on the bottom, waiting patiently for some storyteller to veer off the chosen path and wander across the uncharted and untold floor of the obscure and unending ocean. And I mumble under my breath my futile and belated mantra, Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!

My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces at the top of the blog. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!

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