Sometimes, I swear, all my dad wants is for me to like fish.
The man is a fishing maniac. He subscribes to New Jersey Fisherman magazine and keeps the pages dog-eared. His station wagon always carries his rod and tackle box just in case a spare moment arrives; because of this his vehicle always emulates a strong fishy smell. He loves everything about fish: watching them, catching them, gutting them, cooking them, eating them, trying to get inside their tiny fishy brains. As an professional artist, he even loves drawing them, and fish play a central role in many of his stained-glass window designs. Each Thanksgiving, Dad goes out to cast in the morning, hoping to catch a fresh spread for our table. Even if nothing bites, he’ll pick up some fish from the store to make his annual bouillabaisse. We can always tell though, the years when the additions to the stew are his own. He doles out bowls of thick red stew with special care, encouraging us all to marvel with him at the freshness, and regaling us with the details of exactly how he reeled it in. His pride is palpable.
When I became a vegetarian, my dad was confused. I explained to him what it means, but he still had questions. “You can still eat fish, right?” he implored, and I shook my head, reminding him that I’ve never liked the stuff to begin with. To this he replied, “You never really gave it a chance. Now you can’t even try it.” I’ve been meat-free for almost three years, and a vegan now for almost a year, and still my dad asks. He always asks if I want a piece of fish.
The fact that I’ve never liked fish, even before my transition to vegetarianism, has been source of sadness to him. When I was a kid I tried hard to like fish, but the only way I could choke it down was with a thick coating of rice krispies. That’s the way my dad used to get me to eat his freshly caught flounder: he would take a piece, coat in first in egg, then in crushed, unsweetened Rice Krispies cereal, and then pan fry it until it was dark brown. Any other preparation, and I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot fishing rod.
After a few years however, the Rice Krispie treatment stopped. Maybe my mom stopped buying the cereal, or my dad couldn’t bear to ruin another piece of fish with puffed rice. Whatever the reason, my dad began encouraging me to eat fish sans cereal.
“Just try a little piece,” he would urge. “It won’t kill you.”
At his words, I would take the tiniest sliver imaginable, put it in my mouth; chew once, and immediately spit it into my napkin, as he shook his head at me from across the table. Dramatic perhaps, but there’s only so many times you can try something that you hate.
Despite my rejection of fish’s flavor and texture, I still tried to bond with my dad over his obsession. I would accompany him on long fishing outings, sometimes aboard the Lady Chris, a party boat docked in Cape May that my brother spent a few teen summers on as second mate. My dad was so proud to see my brother rigging lines for tipsy tourists, giving advice on how to tie a proper knot, and gutting baby squid for bait. I wanted that same recognition, and tried to learn everything I could, despite feeling seasick on almost every trip. On one memorable trip I managed to snag a big striper and, in a haze of glory, announced that I would love to take over my brother’s job as second mate aboard the Lady Chris once I was old enough. Well, my dad has never let me forget that little moment of mistaken ambition. It seems at least once a month that he says wistfully, “Remember that one summer, Lil? When you wanted to be second mate on the party boat?” Yes Dad, I remember.
I know that he would scoff, frown, or maybe even laugh if I told him that I could make a vegan version of fish that he would find palatable. Though I’ve never enjoyed it, I know objectively that fish is often mild, and when flavored with lemon and garlic, breaded, and pan-fried, pretty good. Tofu, when given the same treatment, can make a decent substitute.
Though I did not inherit my father’s love for all things fish, we still reminisce fondly over memories of frying up Rice-Krispied flounder especially for me, and sitting down to eat it just the two of us.
Rice Krispie-Fried “Fish” Sandwich with Lemon Dill Sauce
For the Tofu:
- 3 ounces extra firm tofu, cut into 6 thin square pieces
- 1/2 tablespoon ground flaxseeds plus 1 1/2 tablespoons of water
- 1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup unsweetened puffed rice cereal
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- olive oil, for frying
For the Lemon Dill Sauce:
- 1/2 tablespoon tahini
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
- 1 leaf red lettuce
- 1 8-inch hoagie roll, toasted
Pulse puffed rice in a blender or food processor until a crumb consistency is reached. Transfer to a shallow dish and combine with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Mix ground flax and water and allow to sit for one minute, then add lemon juice. Coat tofu slices first with the flax mixture, then with puffed rice. Drop into a greased frying pan over low heat and fry on each side until dark brown.
Combine tahini, lemon juice, and dill. Place fried tofu on roll with red leaf lettuce; drizzle with tahini dill dressing.