Breakfast with Grampa

A privilege of living on a lake is having four-season access to fresh-caught fish. The flip side is that you feel compelled to catch-and-release so as to preserve the various species’ populations. But when grandsons are coming to town, you have to surrender a little bit to catch-and-keep. On their first morning at our house, Tucker and Perrin don’t just want but expect fried fish for breakfast, with a side of potato pancakes. That’s my job, and they’ll be up the stairs to the kitchen by seven o’clock, ready to watch me put the feast together.

At first I served up bluegills fried grampa style, with bones in, but in time their dad got them spoiled on filets. The last time I cooked fish my way, I deboned them on their plates and offered the boys a dime for each bone they found. They meticulously picked out every tiny, insignificant bone; in the end that little gambit cost me three dollars. Ever since, they have insisted on filets. And so earlier this week, anticipating their visit, I caught ten bluegills through the ice and turned them into twenty filets. Making the breakfast means being part cook and part athlete. Many steps are involved. I mix up the dry coating of equal parts Shore Lunch, corn meal and flour, dunk the filets in milk, put them in a plastic bag with the coating and shake it all together.

Setting the fish aside, I turn to the pancakes. I peel three large baking-size russet potatoes, shred them on a cheese grater, and mix in three eggs, a little salt, a dash or two of minced onion, a teaspoon of baking powder and a couple of tablespoons of flour. By this time I’ve also put the griddle on the stove and melted some shortening.  Once I have the first four pancakes frying, I stir up tartar sauce from mayonnaise and pickle relish. Then I pour a quarter-inch of oil into a fry pan and turn the gas burner under it up to high. About this time the athleticism kicks in. I referee the boys’ dispute over who gets the one stool at the kitchen island and who sits at the table with me. I also have to decide who gets first dibs on the orange juicer – store-bought OJ isn’t good enough for them. I help them extract the last of the juice from the halves of oranges.

When the oil in the fry pan is suitably hot, I lay in the first batch of filets, and then it’s time for the table-setting ballet. Plates, glasses, forks, back and forth, cupboard to table, drawer to table, now and then separating Tucker and Perrin as they tussle over that island stool. To the stove to flip the pancakes. Distribute napkins. Deploy salt shaker and Log Cabin syrup (the boys haven’t learned yet that potato pancakes call for applesauce). Back at the stove I turn the filets, once, twice. The finished pancakes, suitably golden, I stack on a plate. The fish I arrange in a shallow bowl lined with paper towel. Four more pancakes, a second batch of fish, and breakfast is served. The boys feast happily. Between bites of my own I serve them seconds. They empty their plates, which soon are a mess of left-over syrup and tartar. The kitchen, meanwhile, is a mess of its own, one that fortunately Noelle doesn’t mind, in fact insists on, cleaning up.

Eventually the boys’ patents, duaghter Sonya and Chad, emerge from the downstairs bedroom and make themselves, and Noelle, a breakfast of fried egg, bacon and cheese sandwiches, on buttered and grilled slices of Chad’s home-baked bread. Enough fish and pancakes remain to reheat for the boys’ breakfast tomorrow. There’s an undeniable pride in being Chef Grampa.