Nicole Walker is, among other things, a better cook than I. In “Fish”, the essay that opens the just-out Quench Your Thirst With Salt, Walker tells us how to prepare dinner:
“Cooking filets of fish is not complicated. Salt and pepper the fish. Press the water out of the skin with a knife. Slide it across at a twenty-degree angle. In the pan, in some oil, two minutes on the skin side, one minute on the flesh.
It’s the sauce that’s difficult.
First you need an herb rarely paired with food like rue or lavender or chamomile.
Sometimes green tea. Or demi-glace.
Then you need an emulsion. One stick of butter per dinner party. OK, maybe two.”
Already, Walker is head and heels beyond my capabilities—what clues me off is that she is aware of the angle she makes when she slides her knife across the fish. And this is even before she instructs us to “puddle the emulsion in the middle of the plate.” I am not a bad cook, per se, but I am a less sophisticated and discerning one. I cook for one and so my rules are simple—that I like what I eat and I eat what I like. Which means lately I’ve been downing a lot of baloney sandwiches.
“Fish” is a short essay, its tripartite structure uncoiling over just three pages. It is about the changes a landscape has forced upon a creature, or rather the changes in a landscape that have changed a creature. The changes that have not necessarily led to its progress, but progressed it to a different physical state. In the way the essay entraps you, in the way it draws you in and entangles you, in the way you thrash in its three-layered intricacy, the essay is as elegant and captivating as a trammel net.
In each section, Walker focuses on a different fish, so that the essay is composed of three different animals that unite to form a single creature. In the first section, a salmon jumps her way up the dammed Columbia river, “her silver skin turning apple-skin—ripening. Dying.” The salmon is on her way to create new life, to lay the “eggs lined up in her tubes”, and also to end her own. In the second section, another fish jumps out of the water, this a “big fish…off Florida’s coast” that the 11-year-old Walker reels in and which a “stubbly man” will club on the head and toss in a cooler. But “no one eats forty-eight inch barracuda” Walker informs us, and this leads to the third section, where we read of her cooking chops, where a third dead fish, a fish that is no longer a fish but filets of fish, is transformed back into a work of art, back into a thing of beauty, back into something that can contain life, back into something that has a liquid home, even if that home is emulsified sauce in the middle of a plate. Finding that home, progressing and yet returning a fish to that space, both in the world and the world of the essay, is quietly stunning. After all, “it’s the sauce,” Walker reminds us, “that’s difficult.”
I’ve been thinking about “Fish” and about the essay in general in the context of my baloney sandwiches. I have decided that Nicole Walker’s essay is like baloney. Like “Fish,” the baloney I eat (Bar S Bologna) is composed of three different animals, or former animals—chicken, pork, and beef—which combine to form a single creature—baloney. And so like “Fish,” Bar S’s structure is tripartite. This baloney, this trinity of mechanically separated chicken, pork, and beef is unlike other baloneys: most are just made with two types of meat. Of course, there are other active ingredients in Bar S: corn syrup, salt, modified cornstarch, potassium lactate, sodium diacetate, flavorings, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite. I like to think of these as the sauce.
Like cooking filets of fish, making a good baloney sandwich is not too complicated. I take a slab of Bar S (they are thick-cut slices) and slap it down in a frying pan. While I’m browning that (no need to add any butter or oil to a circle of meat that already contains 25% of my daily saturated fat and 20% of my cholesterol intake), I toast two slices of 9-grain, spread some mayonnaise on these, squirt a little sriracha, and layer a bed of Amish bread-and-butter pickles on the toast. When the baloney’s grizzled enough, I close the sandwich up and slice down the middle (I recognize that slicing from the ends to form triangles is more elegant, but this, after all, is not an elegant sandwich). The sandwich is actually pretty good, if I ignore the fact my skin breaks out a day or two afterwards.
A funny thing happens, however, when I fry the slab of Bar S. When my spatula presses down on the baloney, the meat whistles, or it approximates whistling, something between a hiss and a squeak, a hybrid sound as if all three animals are expressing their anguish. Or are just expressing. In this moment, I wonder how the parts of these animals cohabitate, how they get along, whether they get along, which particle of the circle of meat belongs to which animal. The meat is so finely ground there is no way of telling, and probably I wouldn’t want to tell. But maybe the animals themselves want to tell, maybe they want their voices to seep out, maybe the stove’s fire is consuming their oxygen and this is their last desperate cry. Maybe all they want is what Walker’s essay would give them, what essays in general should and do give us: a voice for those that lack a voice.
Thomas Mira y Lopez is a first-year candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona.