Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fried Herring

In days of yore, when I lived in west Los Angeles, a friend came to visit. I resided in what was known as the Fairfax district and in fact only two streets over from Fairfax Avenue where there were to be found, a number of ethnically Jewish restaurants. He suggested we indulge in a meal and so we decided to walk the very short distance to Fairfax Avenue.

The day was one of those that define Los Angeles; simply put, the sun was vertiginous. The neighborhood was a mix of ethnicities known as salt-and-pepper but very much upscale as attested by the informal cognomen of "Beverly Hills Adjacent." The short walk was blessed with a variety of yard-scapes of whimsically pruned shrubs, carpet-like lawns, and architectural beauties that varied from Tudor to Spanish Mission.

As we approached Fairfax Avenue, the ubiquitous traffic parted and we crossed in safety to the east side, and into an abundance of restaurants. Their fa├žades were worn, and sun-burnt, and very much plain-Jane in appearance. We briefly searched up and down the street for a home for our hungry stomachs. In the end, the clincher, was a well-worn entrance and in particular the polished stones of the concrete at the very point at which one-hundred-thousand persons, most likely times ten, had voted with the balls of the feet as they had made their turn here.

We declared this restaurant as “the best.” It was simple; it was plain; it had booths, it had a snubbed out cigarette on the floor. Neither too clean nor too dirty, it was just a restaurant, with a few patrons, a menu, a waitress, and a cook.

We scanned the menu and I knew I had to have something exotic but not so that I could not recognize it when delivered. I puzzled over the menu, uncertain as to what to order when my eyes fell upon something familiar: fried herring. I knew herring. It was a fish and my encounters with pickled herring were very positive and so I settled upon a meal of fried herring with all the trimmings. I announced my selection to my friend who gave me a questioning look and asked anxiously, “Are you sure you want fried herring?” I didn’t take the hint from his worried tone. “Yes”, I answered, “fried herring please.”

Our dowdy waitress arrived and failed to announce that she "would be our waitress for the afternoon." She requested our orders and I without concern for the well being of others asked for the, “Fried herring plate, please.” She paused and gave me a very direct look through her horn rim, rhinestone-studded spectacles and asked very clearly but with a worried undertone, “Are you sure you want fried herring?” Oblivious to the obviously dark undertones in her voice, I answered, “Yes, please." The patrons in the neighboring booths had apparently overheard this, a number whom gave me double takes.

At the time it never occurred to me that anything was amiss. The waitress departed but soon returned from the kitchen. She marched straight up to me and asked in a very direct and pointed fashion, “The cook wants to know, ‘Are you sure you want fried herring?’ ” At this point one might think I would have picked up on some hint of alarm, concern, or trace of an objection to my order. But hints do not work well with me. I will frankly admit to being a bit obtuse. Do not waste your time dropping hints unless they have the substantial weight of a bowling ball and are applied directly to my skull. Some might say I am thick, I like to say I am not always very perceptive or concerned about the welfare of the people about me. And so I replied to the cook’s interrogative, “Yes, fried herring please.”

My companion, a professor of mathematics a UCLA, a man steeped in logic and rational thought, appeared puzzled and completely unable to parse my thinking. The behavior he observed before him must have seemed totally irrational, as was attested to by his gap-jawed, alarmed stare. The other patrons began to change to booths far away from ours.

The waitress left with the order and soon there began to fill the very air, a very putrid odor akin to that of flaming tires, salted with burning flesh of a fishy sort that rasped at the olfactory canals in an painful way. Though I was much alarmed by the stench I had no clue as to what could be the cause, until the dead fried thing was presented to me, by the waitress on a very hot plate, still sizzling, and with an ironic look from her that said "Enjoy."

Sooooo…this was fried herring, most interesting! It took me all of about two seconds to come to the conclusion that I did not want fried herring. And although I am sure, the tasting of such a thing probably would not have killed me had I eaten it, I declined the opportunity to test whether it might have rendered me stronger.

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