You don’t know a grunion from a bunion but someone comes up with the wonderful idea of having you go out in total darkness to look for the little fish.
So at 10 p.m., instead of pouring a nice cup of warm milk, climbing into your jammies and slippers and cozying up for the night, you pry open your eyeballs, put on sweat pants and a Maui T-shirt (in hopes of somehow looking at home on the sand) and drive over to San Buenaventura State Beach.
You reach the pier area about 10:30. According to your tide tables the grunion shouldn’t be slapping themselves onto the sand for another hour or so, but you want to be there to welcome them. Well-meaning friends have told you all about grunion the past couple of days. They are supposed to come shooting out of the water, hundreds, thousands, maybe millions at a time, like a scene out of a Hitchcock film, there silver bodies reflecting the moonlight, as you stand among them. Oh, God. Your stomach hurts. As you sit on the sand clutching your bucket (a pink one with pictures of sand dabs and sea shells, borrowed from a neighbor’s 3-year-old) you contemplate the whole idea of catching fish with your bare hands as they try to lay their eggs. You feel the onset of guilt, as well as nausea.
It’s about 11 when you notice what turn out to be two intoxicated men hopping along the beach, bent over, trying to grab something off the sand. It’s shiny and is bouncing around at their feet. Gulp. Must be the beginning of the grunion onslaught.
You mutter a couple of expletives, having held out hope that the fish would be no-shows, and trudge into the water. You stand there and wait. And wait. The grunion seem to be arriving one at a time, maybe five minutes apart. The ocean is hardly spewing forth these things. You’re relieved, but realize how much more difficult it will be to catch them. After another half-hour you notice several people a little way down the beach seem to be accumulating grunion. The drunks are getting grunion too. All you are getting is seaweed around your ankles. A family of five comes up and asks where your rod and reel are. Ah, people who know less about catching grunion than you do. You explain how you think it works and within 10 minutes they’re grabbing the little pathetic creatures too. You, on the other hand, are getting wet. You’re frustrated. You figure your best chance of landing a grunion is if one, on a suicide mission, slams head first into your shin.
No such luck. In fact, no luck at all. That is, until the family of five gets ready to leave. Maybe out of gratitude for your instructions, but more likely out of pity for your pathetic performance, they ask if you would like their five grunion. Yuck. Are you kidding? Then you remember that part of your first grunion experience is supposed to include cooking them. You heard people spend a lot of time trying to catch grunion, but you had no idea they actually ate the slimy things. Why would they? You politely accept the gift. You ask a member of the family to dump the fish into your bucket (not wanting to actually touch them yourself). The family leaves, but you hang out for a while to see if you can grab a grunion on your own. At 12:30 you give up.
Now, what to do with your inherited grunion? Careful never to touch the fish, you transfer them from bucket to the freezer bags in the trunk of your car. You bring them home and put them in the freezer.
You wake up the next day and check to see if the fish are still there. They are. Now all you need to do is find someone to gut them. That someone turns out to be George White, owner of Moby Dick Seafood in Ventura.
White patiently tells you over the telephone how to clean the fish. “Looking at the fish from the belly side up,” he says, “take the tip of the knife and run it from the anal orifice to right between the gills. Clean it by splitting the skin. Don’t go through the organs, you don’t want the juices all over the cavity.” That’s true, you don’t.
After picking yourself off the floor you ask George if he’d mind performing this procedure. Fortunately, he says he’ll do it for you the next day. As it turns out, you have some free time in your schedule. How convenient.
Next morning you get the fish sticks out of the freezer and bring them over to White. He’s impressed with their size-- about 6 1/2 inches long, twice the size of some. He flips the fish onto the cutting board.
White does the job with scissors and then cleans out the insides with a white toothbrush. “I’m finished using it at home,” he says. You are glad. He then offers you some recipes.
Luckily for you, novice chef that you are, you have a good friend who offers to fry the grunion for you. As White suggested, you roll them in corn meal, season lightly and drop them in the frying pan for a couple of minutes on each side. To your amazement they taste quite good.
So good, in fact, that the next evening you think about going back for more. Then you think again and decide instead to curl up in front of the TV with a Swanson’s Seafood Platter heating in the microwave.
* THE PREMISE: There are plenty of things you have never tried. Fun things, dangerous things, character building things. The Reluctant Novice tries them for you and reports the results. After all, the Novice gets paid to do them--and has no choice in the matter. If you want to tell the Novice where to go, please call us at 658-5547. If we use your idea, we’ll send you a present. This week’s Reluctant Novice is Leo Smith.