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Fish fry surprise


Benders Fishing Camp, epilogue:
What’s left to do after a week of near-perfect fishing?
Fry, baby, fry!
The key to good cooking, I long ago decided, is to start with really wholesome ingredients and then don’t mess it up.
At no time is this philosophy more important. There simply is nothing better than fillets from plate-sized blue gill caught in the still cool waters of North Minnesota in late spring. The meat is just so fresh, firm and sweet.
The first step is to thaw the fish slowly by taking the packages out of the freezer and putting them into the refrigerator two days ahead of the actual fry.
Besides the bucolic setting, great fishing, good food and fun companionship, one of the great plusses of the camp is that for a few extra bucks your fish is filleted, wrapped and frozen. You simply put your fish in a tub, and the tub into a refrigerator. From there the Benders take over, and you collect your meat, neatly packaged and frozen, just before heading home.
On the other end, you can speed up the thawing process by putting the meat into water or, worse, in a microwave, but that would be messing with perfection.
Patriarch Richard typically does the filleting, a job he’s been doing some eight decades without complaint. Three times a day, he makes his way down to a metal barn near the lake, sharpens a knife and gets to work. It’s a job that I’d find onerous, but the best I can tell Richard does it with the stoicism often found in this part of the country. Life’s a lot of work here, no point making it worse by complaining about it.
It’s a treat to watch; the fish give up their flesh to Richard like opera-goers at the coat check window. He’s especially skilled at cleaning the pikes, which require a tricky cut to get done correctly.
“Don’t you ever get tired of cleaning fish?” I asked him once, and got a long blank stare in response. Eventually, he answered my question with another, “What good would that do?”
The morning we caught the blue gill, all 42 of them plus a couple odd small perch, the fish were biting on the lake and all the tubs were taken. Bob had to ask Richard if there were any spares, at which point the old man may have exhibited grumpiness for the first time in his entire life.
“Jiminy Cricket!” he said coming as close to swearing as possible without actually being blasphemous, “What’s your limit?”
It was a good question because technically, we were over. We thought it was 25 each but in reality it was 20, making us two tugs over the line. And to be perfectly honest, I knew the limit: it was just too much fun catching them to stop. Nevertheless, he dumped out the tub of fish he was working on and tossed the empty container to Bob.
And that brings up one of the things that I love about Benders: in a camp that has been serving fishermen for nearly a century, there is not a single sign posted anywhere telling you to do this or not to do that. I mentioned it to Joey, and he said it was because they hated rules in these parts.
“Signs make people stop thinking about what the right thing to do is.”
But I digress, this column was meant to be about the joy of a good fish fry.
After the fish is thawed, I like to give it a light dusting of plain flour. This is to get the flesh dry so it takes the batter and breading better.
Next, dredge it through beaten egg and then sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
You can add a little seasoning, but remember the rule of not messing a good thing up. Go easy.
Lay the breaded filets out on wax paper and heat the oil. You can pay extra for peanut oil but I find any vegetable oil works about the same: the key is to keep your oil at about 350 degrees for a crisp clean finish. Give the fish a quick fry, two to three minutes in the oil, and serve up the hunks of heaven with a choice of lemon, vinegar, tartar and/or cocktail sauce.
Oh, and I forgot one step that you don’t usually have to do: when unwrapping the fish toss out the one lone, skinny perch that somehow made it’s way into your package.