The fish market had a sack filled with unwanted fish heads, and my mother got all those fish heads for free

Tracey Folly

*this is a work of nonfiction as told to me by my mother based on actual events that she experienced personally

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They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade; but what do you do when life gives you a plastic sack filled with fish heads?

My grandmother always bought fish that was frozen in blocks, and sometimes she ended up with a lot of disembodied fish heads.

When my mother was a young girl, she often accompanied my grandmother to the fish market. My grandmother always ordered the same thing, a dozen mackerel.

The employee of the store always had the same response. He sighed heavily and went into the backroom to fetch the hammer and chisel.

The mackerel were always frozen into a solid block of ice. To sell the frozen fish to the customer entailed chipping away the ice to reveal the requested number of fish — more or less.

As my mother tells it, sometimes the customer would get whole fish, but sometimes the customer would get fish that was chiseled into bits. Sometimes, there would be extra fishtails. Other times, there would be a lot of fish heads.

My mother laughs every time she talks about getting home to discover a disproportionate ratio of fish heads to bodies in their purchase.

“It gave a whole new meaning to ‘catch of the day,’” she said.

On those occasions when they got more than one piece of fish, my mother would cut them all up equally. She didn’t want any part of an uneven mix. After all, you couldn’t eat a fishtail without eating the head. And vice versa.

She never saw what happened to the extra pieces of fish. The shopkeeper might have thrown them out. Or maybe he put them on top of the pile for another customer.

I don’t know if I believe her story or not. But it’s the only explanation I can think of as to why we are so used to buying fish from markets where the product is delivered in a variety of forms.

At least now I understand why some people will pay a premium price for fish that has been filleted. They’re paying for something special.

But it seems like every once in a while, someone buys a fish at the market and just tosses the head in. What a waste! Why throw away perfectly good meat?

Maybe because it’s easier than cooking it. Maybe because they’ve already eaten. Maybe because they’re tired of eating fish heads. Whatever the reason, this practice is simply inexcusable.

And yet … it happens all too frequently.

Several years ago, my mother and I went to the local fish market. No, it wasn’t the same fish market she frequented with her mother in her youth.

My mother ordered several fish that were larger than the mackerel her mother used to buy, and the clerk asked whether she would like them beheaded and gutted.

“You can gut them,” my mother replied, “but I’ll take the heads.”

When the clerk emerged from the back room with my mother’s eviscerated fish, he was holding a large plastic bag in his other hand. “Thank goodness,” he said. “Finally, someone who likes fish heads. These are the fish heads all the customers didn’t want all day. You can have them for free.”

It was a large number of fish heads. Indeed, it was far more extra fish heads than my grandmother had ever received in the past.

My mother accepted the sack of free fish heads gratefully and apprehensively. There were just so many of them.

Back at home, she laughed and fried up those fish heads, and yes, some got eaten for dinner, but some went to waste. Nobody needs that many fish heads.

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Writing about relationships online since 2009.

Massachusetts State
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