Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fish fries, food and folk

Janet Gilmore reads food as folklore

Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in Brava Magazine
April 2008


In the spirit of the alternative storylines of folk tale, Janet provides a parallel telling of three ways to stuff and bake a big fish. One comes from her fieldwork among the commercial fishing families of Green Bay -- from a woman there named Eileen Behrend -- and one comes from the recipe on p. 230 of the 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking. The third is Janet’s own method, which is, turn, influenced by her childhood. “When I was growing up, a family friend regularly went charter fishing off the Oregon Coast,” Janet remembers. “He sometimes offered us a nice, big, whole salmon -- a cause for celebration.”

However you choose to follow the narrative below, start with Janet's recommendation of “a fresh, whole, big-bodied fish like Lake Michigan whitefish, Lake Superior lake trout or a wild-caught salmon from the Pacific Northwest,” and don’t stop till you get to the happy ending: a splendid main dish that’s brown and crispy outside, and delicately flaky within.

Baked and stuffed whole fish

One whole 3- to 5-pound fish, cleaned (Janet keeps the head and tail on; Eileen doesn’t)
A few strips of bacon (Eileen only)
1 1/2 cups bread stuffing cubes (Janet uses sourdough or rye crumbs)
At least 2 tablespoons chopped onion (Janet uses more; Eileen uses “a lot”)
1/2 cup chopped celery (Joy, and Eileen)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (only if it’s on hand, says Eileen)
1 or 2 eggs, beaten (Joy, and Janet)
Salt, black pepper and sage to taste (Eileen)
1/8 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (Joy, and Janet)

Combine stuffing ingredients. “Stuff the fish loosely and mass any extra along the opening to the cavity,” Janet says. Eileen sews the sides together with a coarse needle and thread. Place fish on a generous length of heavy-duty foil laid over a shallow baking pan. If head and tail is on (they can extend past the pan’s corners), loosely wrap foil around them. If you’re using bacon, lay it over the body of the fish.

Bake at 400° F for 1 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on fish size, until, as Eileen described, “nice and brown and crispy on the outside” and “white opaque all the way through.” Joy says 350°, but “I suspect [400°] will more effectively dry out the fish,” says Janet. “I look for a flaky, dry texture.“ Transfer to serving plater, foil and all.


What is folklore? If you just thought of embroidered vests, flowing skirts and circle dances, or tales of talking trees and fairy princesses, forget it.

Folklore is everything that you and your folk know and do and make that nobody else quite gets.

Janet Gilmore, who teaches courses at the UW-Madison that explore food as folklore, explains: “It’s traditional artistic expression in small groups. Every group you can think of – a school group, work group, church group. A family. In every one of those environments there’s esoteric information, insider knowledge, that you learn in order to navigate. You usually learn this informally – across generations or from peers – and you use it in artistic expression of who you are.” And how we deal with food, she says, both in daily life and on special occasions, “is definitely folk knowledge.”

Originally from the state of Oregon, Janet earned a master’s and a Ph.D. in folklore from Indiana University. There she met her husband, Wisconsin native and fellow folklorist Jim Leary. For decades, the pair travelled through the Upper Midwest on contracts with organizations like the Michigan State Museum, Manitowoc’s Maritime Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, gathering information about customs and culture, working with museum collections and exhibits and presenting their findings at folklife festivals and academic conferences.

Today both are faculty members at the UW-Madison, where Jim, now the director of the Folklore Program there, helped create the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. Janet, who’s published a string of papers in peer-reviewed journals based on her fieldwork among commercial fishing families of Wisconsin and Michigan, is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and folklore. She’s also been featured on radio and in print as an expert on the history and social meaning of Wisconsin’s Friday night fish fry traditions.

VVK: How is food a form of folklore?

JG: Food is expressed through a bounty of expression, through stories, words, sayings, songs. There are the religious rituals that use food symbolically, whether it’s Holy Communion or the Passover, where you deal with a series of symbolic foods as you reenact the story of Exodus in your home. The bitter herb for slavery, the ground nut mixture for the mortar of the pyramids -- these things transport you to a different time and place.

Then there are the material traditions involving food. Food is something that we need. But how do we make decisions about what’s going to be acceptable as a foodstuff? How do we extract it from nature? How is it presented on a table? What’s the fast and feast cycle?

VVK: Isn’t that pretty much uniform across the country?

JG: If you interview people you’ll find out pretty quickly they don’t all follow the same routine. For instance, there’s a perception that everyone celebrates Thanksgiving about the same way. In my Festivals and Celebrations class last semester, we talked about three or four main ways just of dealing with the turkey. Some families have the big table-side carving ritual. Who carves the bird says something about the family hierarchy. Some will focus on how the turkey is cooked – they’ll try all sorts of techniques for making it more juicy and flavorful, brining, deep-frying. Immigrant families will get a turkey, as part of becoming American, but they might not know quite what to do with it, and it can end up a little strange. It’ll be over on the side, a symbol, and the real feast will be their own ethnic celebration foods. Then there are families where they have a turkey because they feel they have to, but it’s not featured. They might cook it the night before, to free up the oven. They might even slice it up and serve it on a platter.

VVK: What! They won’t have a whole bird on the table? I find that disturbing, somehow.

JG: Yes, and that’s what happens in my class. Students are so emotionally involved with their family food traditions, that it becomes difficult to separate out their feelings and approach this subject objectively. That’s what attracts people to food – it’s emotional. Students look at their family and their food experiences, and they start to see all the expressions of loving relationships. But also, food has this fundamental purpose. So I say to them, OK, if all you’re doing is expressing love, can you take the food out of the equation and still express the love? And that really bugs them.

But that’s what I like about studying food. When you start talking about food in an academic way, it doesn’t distance you from the food. It just engages you more. What feeds me is that my students are interested in all this, too.

VVK: I’ve heard you say that we’re unaware of a lot of our folk food knowledge. Like when someone gives us a handwritten recipe card with basically just a list of ingredients, a temperature and a time. My friend shared with me her mother’s carrot cake recipe, and it occurred to me that people from a different culture might have a hard time ending up with carrot cake from just that card.

JG: Exactly. Most cookbooks leave a lot out, but you don’t notice that. You bring your own knowledge to it, your esoteric knowledge of what the food is supposed to become. People think a recipe is all you need, but it really isn’t. The more experience you have, the more you can figure out. When a cookbook tries to fully explain everything, there’s so much writing. Yet it never has quite enough information.

VVK: Do you ever get tired of giving talks about Wisconsin fish fries?

JG: Never. I love it. Except that people expect me to be able to tell them what’s the best fish fry in Wisconsin. I tell them, it’s your favorite fish fry. Because it’s not really about the fish. It’s about seeing the people you know, socializing while you stand in line. Your tavern, your church, your VFW hall. Find one where you feel comfortable, and keep going. It will become yours. I know people who go to a different fish fry each week, looking for the ultimate. They’re missing it.

VVK: What draws you to working with the commercial fishing families of Wisconsin and the U.P.?

JG: The joy they have in that life, like nowhere else. Pacific coast fishing families would tell me, “My kids hate fish,” or “Fish is the last thing I want to eat after a day on the boat,” or that they won’t eat fish for days before an event, so they don’t smell. Here, everyone eats fish, everyone cooks, everyone fishes. They figure out how to cook fish out on the boat, using the heat of the engine. They go ice fishing. Children know when the streams will run with different types of fish. It’s a reason for a party, to have a fish boil, or to get the smokehouse going and smoke a hundred pounds of fish, share it with everyone, and wind up with just ten pounds for themselves. They can it, they pickle it. They’ll set out a jar when company comes. It’s wonderful. Families stay in that region, even though times are hard, economically, because they love the life. It’s an inland maritime culture.

My goal is to write some books about these fish foodways, as much for the people I’ve interviewed as anything. It’s their lives. And so many European immigrant traditions that haven’t been researched, and the fish foodways of the indigenous peoples. I’m probably not going to be able to do all of this in my lifetime. I hope I can inspire my students.

VVK: What’s the state of folklore today?

JG: It’s accepted as an academic subject more and more. Folklore is about looking at artistic expressions that aren’t endorsed by the official culture. At what’s expressed by people who aren’t powerful. Everybody participates in folk culture. As long as there’s a group, there’s folklore, because it’s how people interact and how they express themselves.