Every summer my family spends a few weeks on a small island on a lake in Ontario, Canada. It’s pretty rustic–apparently my sister and I just missed the outhouse years–but it’s my favorite part of the summer. We spend our days reading on the porch, swimming before every meal, and canoeing around the bay, just soaking up the quiet. The inland bay used to be full of fish, too; my parents tell stories about the giant pike my uncle caught off Bongarde’s Rock, and about the prehistoric muskie that spent one summer under the island dock. When my sister and I were little, we could go down to the boathouse and fish off the side of the slip with our plastic Mickey Mouse fishing poles. We never caught anything special, just a few baby rockfish, but we loved to watch the fish swim up to our hooks and dare a nibble.
When we were older, our dad took us out to the better fishing spots in the bay (Bongarde’s Rock was a regular stop, what with its legendary history). For a few years we caught bass big enough to eat for dinner. My dad showed me how to clean and gut the fish, and we’d throw the innards to the gulls. Then my mom and my grandmother would fry the fillets to crisp perfection.
(Lest you think we adhered to traditional gender roles, my grandmother was the one who taught my dad how to clean a fish.)
I’ve been thinking about the island for the past few days, wishing I were still there, so Ma Ingalls’s fried fish seemed like the perfect way to end the summer. I’m not quite brave enough to clean fish on my own (and without gulls to take away the remains), so I just used tilapia fillets.
It’s quite simple. You start by frying up some salt pork until it’s golden, and you remove the salt pork to a platter but keep the drippings hot. (And you know it’s going to be good when it starts with fried salt pork.) Then you dredge the fish in cornmeal and a bit of pepper, maybe brushing the fish with a beaten egg beforehand so the cornmeal sticks. Fry the fish in the hot drippings until one side is golden brown, then turn the fillets over to finish cooking.
If you’d like, you can make a gravy to pour over the fish at the table. Once you’ve added the fillets to the platter, stir about a cup of milk into the drippings until it foams. Then sprinkle the fish with a bit of vinegar, and serve with the gravy.
I tell you, I am a salt pork convert. The fat added a new dimension to the fish, making it salty and rich.* I’m still not used to this pioneer way of pouring a milk-based gravy over a savory meat or fish, but it did taste better than the salt pork gravy. It was absolutely delicious, and the perfect way to end the summer.
*I later found out that my grandmother fried fish exactly the same way, with bacon fat instead of salt pork. That revelation made it all the better.