Delicate sauces, well-planned side dishes—even handsomely laid tables—these components of a good meal go ignored the instant some large, primal piece of protein is introduced. Is respect for the unbutchered beast hardwired into our species? Does the felled mastodon stir our appetites still? I think it does; Thanksgiving is a celebration of bounty, the centerpiece of which is a large, unadulterated bird. Consider too the modern pig roast; the ones I’ve been too are as much about status and chest beating as good taste. And then there is fish. The true mark of a good haul isn’t the gentle fillet or the raw morsel. Only the whole fish, cooked and plated, proclaims mastery of the sea.
Cooking anything whole requires an unexpected restraint, but none more than fish. I say unexpected because the assumption is usually the opposite—that hauling and preparing something large and intact requires elaborate procedure. While a pig can be heavy and unwieldy, even a large fish is a one-man operation. It begins like this: “One cleaned fish please.” Cleaning fish—removing the guts, scales and fins—is nasty business and there is no advantage to doing it yourself. Once home, season the cavity with salt, herbs, lemon and onion, tying it off in a few places with butcher’s twine. Drizzle the outside with olive oil and lemon juice and season with salt. Roast in a hot oven or grill over medium-high heat until skin is crisp and flesh opaque. Over- or under-doneness is not much of a concern—when it looks finished, it is.
Good results begin with selecting the right fish. If a grill or oven is large enough, a whole salmon is a very dramatic thing to put on a table for six or more. Red snapper (typically from the Gulf or Caribbean) seems exotic but is widely available. Its red skin turns mahogany when roasted and its flesh is mild. Serves two to three. For one reason or another, branzino from the Mediterranean is a bit of a status fish. Its flesh is sweet and mild and crisps well in a hot pan or grill. One per person as an entree. Oily fish, like mackerel and sardines, are pungent and do best over real charcoal or roasted in a wood-oven, where the smoke and char are good foils to any fishiness.
There are bones in whole fish. Announce this four or five times before service, and then twice more during. Even then, some boob will no doubt point out: “there are bones in this!” Unless you are a connoisseur of invertebrates, there are bones in all creatures we eat. We don’t throw down our silver at Thanksgiving and announce that there are bones in our turkey legs, do we? So why does the presence of bones in fish consistently alarm? I suspect some combination of squeamishness and fear of choking is to blame. The solution is very simple though: anticipate bones, chew slowly and don’t panic if one is encountered.
The very presence of those inedible parts—the bones, heads, tails etc—is what makes whole fish a pleasure. They force a slower, leisurely pace—not methodical, just unhurried. This is food that requires interaction from its audience—conscious, attentive eating full of knife and fork work and sips of wine. The appearance of a whole fish might be primal, but eating it is rather more civilized.