John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 8-19-13 |

John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 8-19-13

My father was fond of saying, “You can’t put too much salt on fish.”

He was referring to the five gallon buckets of sunfish, crappie and blue gill my brother and I caught during the summers of the 1950s from the various reservoirs of North Poudre Irrigation Company north of Fort Collins. My father worked as a welder at Heath Engineering at the time (the quonset hut of Heath Engineering became the Sundance Saloon east of Fort Collins) and when my father couldn’t take us, one of his working buddies, Harry, took us, along with his girlfriend, Bonnie.

We didn’t pay much attention to what Harry and Bonnie did in Harry’s 1950 International pickup because we were far too interested in catching fish to help feed the family. One day we were walking along the shore of Reservoir No. 2 when we stumbled on a piece of bamboo rod laying right next to a ping pong ball. The bamboo rod was about 2-feet-long and a quarter-inch in diameter. This gave us an idea that was not exactly sporting to the poor fish. We drilled a quarter-inch hole in the ping pong ball and slid it half way down on the bamboo rod, sealing it in place with glue. We also glued an eye-hook to one end of the bamboo rod and a sinker to the other end. By tying our leader line to the eye-hook and then adding five or six hooked grasshoppers to the next several feet of the leader line, we could cast the bamboo rod out into the lake, and, by wiggling the end of our fishing pole, cause the grasshoppers to dance on the surface (because half of the bamboo rod was held upright by the ping pong ball. I once caught four sunfish and a huge crappie at the same time, and we always came home with buckets of fish.

Though my mother was grateful and appreciative of both our skill and our contribution to the family’s food supply, she asked us to decapitate, gut and scale our considerable catch in the far corner of the back yard, which made us very popular with the neighborhood cats, but not so popular with my mother’s fridge, which was clearly her domain.

That’s when my father taught us to salt down our catch. He put about a quarter cup of fine salt in two gallon buckets, stirred it about, and then we put the gutted and scaled fish into the brine and kept the buckets in the garage. When we wanted fish, we pulled out several dozen and rolled them in corn meal and egg batter and fried them in deep grease, eating them with corn on the cob, tomatoes and bib lettuce from the garden, and potato salad, washed down with father’s special cucumber lemonade.

The fish were already salty from the brine, but my father always added a dash of salt to the sunfish, crappie and blue gill after he pulled out the dorsal fin, and then split the fish in two to take out the spines (we had a big “bone plate” in the middle of the kitchen table, heaped with fins and spines). Thus the origin of father’s saying about not being able to put too much salt on fish. My youngest brother, who was too small to join us fishing, was asked: “What is your favorite food?” to which he responded (no surprise): “Salt.”

Even though salt is not a food, it is essential to all of life, and has been important to the preservation of food for humans. The history and oddities of salt will be the subject of my next series. ❖