Remember this song from the early, early days of music videos? (If you want to skip the long, but mood-creating intro, the song begins at 2:10). When I first saw it in the 80’s, I never imagined that I would actually meet a fish head myself. My parents were not seafood fans. We were brought up on stories of how my mom was forced to eat squid cooked in its own ink on her L.D.S. mission to Spain. And shellfish were supposed to make us queasy. The closest we ever came to taking our part in depleting the world’s oceans were the occasional small rainbow trouts caught on camping trips, or the meal or two we convinced them to have at Long John Silver’s. So I was surprised when, on a trip to Morocco during college, my professor made us go to a seafood restaurant. We started out with a soup that had all sorts of questionables, like various mollusk shells, scaly bits of skin, and unidentified tentacles. It was delicious! In that moment, I realized that I liked seafood.
So when Tony and I went to the Philippines, I expected four months of culinary oceanic bliss. On one of our first excursions, we got hungry while exploring one of the ubiquitous malls. We decided to try out the food court, which looked fairly clean, and very interesting. I had never seen such an assortment of strange food. I couldn’t even tell which things were food and which were desserts. Recalling my first experience with the delights of seafood, I settled on something that I could both pronounce and picture (or so I thought): fish soup. However, when the bored Filipino on the other side of the counter handed me my bowl, it didn’t look quite how I had imagined it. My soup was a clear, watery liquid with a dark green plant floating in it. But most of the bowl was taken up with, yes, a large bobbing fish head. It looked almost like it could be a picturesque underwater scene, if the fish head hadn’t been staring at me in such a macabre way. I didn’t eat much soup that day, but at least I made the acquaintance of an actual fish head, that could easily have come straight off the video.
But my best fish story happened on my mission in Santiago, Chile. Because of several accidental food poisonings of missionaries by church members (occasioned in part by the Chilean idea of “cooking” raw shellfish in cold lemon juice), our mission president had engaged the services of a catering company. Every day they would knock on the door shortly before lunch time with a plastic sack for each of us, filled with styrofoam food containers. Unfortunately, the meals were notoriously bad. They typically consisted of a bed of plain, overcooked rice or pasta with a hunk of dry meat lying unhappily on top.
Missionary work is a serious business, but if you put a group of high-spirited 19-23 year-olds to work on a project together for any length of time, a practical joke or two is not, shall we say, unheard of. My companion and I were out again one morning, trying to talk to random strangers in the street about religion, when we had a wonderful idea. A transient fishmonger happened to have set up shop in our area. We persuaded him to generously part with a pair of gorgeously disgusting fish heads. Then we took them home and got to work. We cooked up some minute rice, laid it out in the bottom of two of our used styrofoam lunch containers, and then carefully placed a staring fish head on top of each bed of rice. Then we packaged up the whole thing in plastic sacks as usual, and put them in the fridge. Hiding in the spare bedroom, we waited for the other missionaries to come home for lunch. It was all we could do when we heard them turn the key, open the door, and set down their bags, to keep quiet and wait. Then we heard the refrigerator door, the sound of cutlery clinking, and the fateful bags being opened. We listened in stifled silence as they bowed their heads and gave thanks for their midday meal. A few minutes later we were richly rewarded by bloodcurdling screams and the sound of running feet. We burst out of our hiding place, greeted first by outrage, which dissipated after the first shock to general merriment. As you can imagine, the practical joke was all the better (and even may have precipitated a small avalanche of counter-attacks) when perpetrated anew on the Elders (our male counterparts), who lived down the street.
So next time you feel like slamming the door on a Mormon missionary, watch out; it might be a case of trick-or-treat!