published Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Shavin: Travel the same path, see the same scenery

By Dana Shavin

Two weeks ago, I ate a catfish. If you are Jewish, catfish is just one mysterious-and-presumed-delicious food in a long list of foods that includes pork roast, shrimp scampi, fried country ham and cheeseburgers, that you are, by religious law, forbidden to eat. Catfish don't have scales, so they're off limits.

The birthday-catfish dalliance was premeditated. A year ago my husband and I took an out-of-town friend to Canyon Grill. We uncorked a bottle of wine, chatted about the past and ordered dinner. Twenty minutes later in front of our friend, the waitress set down a platter on which the heftiest catfish I have ever seen was form-fitted like a giant comma. The fish, according to the menu, weighed 2 1/2 pounds and cost $24. To date, the restaurant had served 19,670 of them. Its proper name on the menu was Slash N Burn.

I stared longingly at the fish until our friend offered me a bite.

"I can't," I said. "I'm Jewish."

It's a phrase I've invoked time and again to explain a lifetime of self-denial and guilt, not to mention satisfying righteous indignation.

But here's the thing. That fish was black as tar and reeked of wood smoke and sin and, as I sat across the table feigning interest in my own flat lump of caper-encrusted tilapia (it has scales), I swore that one day I was going to step over the line of taboo, superstition, kosher law and my father's quietly disapproving grave and eat one.

That day was two weeks ago.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I'm no stranger to the unkosher. I don't eat pork or combine meat and dairy, but I've been a fan of shrimp, scallops and squid for decades. Last fall my husband and I took a drive up the East Coast, and it was in surprisingly hip White Plains, N.Y., that I discovered fat-armed, flash-grilled calamari with roasted red pepper coulis. To say it was a life-changing feast is to understate the impact it had on the way I would think about food forever. It was the kind of meal that spoils, retroactively, every climactic repast you ever thought you had, and that, concurrently, opens your eyes to the sad fact that you will never, ever, be as thrilled or as deeply completed by any other food for as long as you live. Think of your first boyfriend (or girlfriend) and how it felt at the moment you knew he or she had moved on from you. That's how I felt, even before I devoured the last rubbery tentacle.

So I confess that I, like most Jews I know, bend the kosher rules to suit my appetite. My brother would never eat shellfish. But inside the fat tacos he ordered in Cancun, Mexico, spicy ground beef snuggled unapologetically with creamy, shredded queso, and we both looked the other way. Years ago, at my parents' favorite deli in Atlanta, a sign on the wall read "Ham is a no-no." But for most Jews I know, pork ribs are a definite yes-yes.

And so it was that two weeks ago I came to catfish already a sinner. And yet, the decision to actually order and eat it was surprisingly difficult. There was a fight in my head between the inanity of superstition and something dressed as respect for religious injunction but that was, in reality, probably fear of cholesterol. And it made me waver.

"Suppose I just have a bite of your catfish?" I asked one of my dining companions, which prompted another to proclaim (indignantly) that this was an unfair bending of the "rules." It was like stepping outside a bar to smash someone's teeth in and being admonished for not following proper protocol.

I looked again at the menu. The catfish still weighed in at a gluttonous 2 1/2 pounds. It still went by the name Slash N Burn. Its price had jumped to $26.95. And I saw that, in the months following my flirtation with our out-of-town friend's leviathan fish, approximately 2,000 more of them had been served. Some, I was certain, to Jews.

In the end, I ordered the fish. And as unkosher fare goes, it was pretty good. I don't need to tell you that no lightning bolts rained down on me, and no angry rabbis came to call. If there was a takeaway, it had something to do with my resistance to diverge even slightly from my own well-worn path. With a new year around the corner, this is good information. Catfish, I'm thinking, is just my opening salvo.

Contact Dana Shavin at danalise@juno.com

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