Of Fish Heads and First Dates

The romantic dinner Leslie Pariseau really wants

Saveur 100 2016
Rick Poon
Fish Head Illustration
Fish HeadTram Nguyen

I fell in love with fish heads because I fell in love with a guy I watched eat one.

After a year of friendship built mostly upon arguing, he (a bull-in-a-china-shop type) and I (more a quiet-killer sort) set aside our abuses and went on a date. The restaurant, a small, hip place in New York's West Village, was steamy, condensation rolling down the windows, the open kitchen radiating a wave of pork-scented heat.

We ordered a bottle of wine and a salmon head. When the fish arrived, one crispy, miso-glazed eye peering straight at us, he rolled up his sleeves and, without hesitation, began ripping the thing apart.

He barreled through like a hunter-gatherer deprived...for decades.

He (all hands and teeth) and the fish (all pink skin and oily juice) were intertwined in a mess of flesh and bones. He had bits of salmon in his beard and on his sweater. His wine glass was quickly coated and smudged with fish-oil fingerprints. He didn't stop to talk, just barreled through like a hunter-gatherer deprived of the annual salmon run for decades. It was truly horrifying.

And then, after digging for a time, flipping the head back and forth like a bear in a stream, he handed me a small coin of flaky flesh—the fish's cheek. I took it between my fingertips, popped it into my mouth, and was aware of him watching me savor the bite. He pushed the plate toward me. I folded back the sleeves of my silk shirt and began helping him clean out the salmon's collar, which spilled forth with more sweet meat stippled with fat.

The way he eats says a lot about him. Determined, fierce, slightly gross, but, ultimately, generous and protective. We eat salmon heads a couple times a week now. Honestly.

Though they look a bit gruesome, fish heads are not so very strange outside of American cooking. The Cornish make sardine heads poke out of the pastry in stargazy pies, the Chinese boil them into stews and casseroles, and all across southern Asia, they're folded into curries and rice dishes. After actually eating a fish head, it's crazy to think that, in America, most of them get tossed into the trash bin. So full of sweet, rich meat, they are the aquatic equivalent of bone marrow. And like swabbing the marrow clean from a shank bone, the best part of eating a fish head is how primordially real it can get.

At home, we eat them straight from the pan, picking bones clean from collar to cheek. It's an incredibly cheap meal—our fishmonger gives them to us for free since he would be throwing them out otherwise—and, despite its aesthetic challenges, it is a pretty great first-date move.