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Off the Eaten Path

Eyeballs: They're what's for dinner

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When it comes to putting together our annual food and wine issue, we often look to the bounty of local farms, ranches and vineyards for inspiration. And they are inspiring. But this time around we decided to look off the beaten path for foods and food experiences that range from the esoteric to the straight-up bizarre. So instead of farm-to-table think far out–to-table.—Stett Holbrook

THE EYE OF THE FISH

I had to eat that fish eyeball. I just had to.

Let me explain. I came up with a recipe years ago that's proven to be a real hit, though it's a challenging recipe to do on California's beaches.

"Fish on a Rock" is the recipe, and it's simple: Catch a fish and gut it. Do not remove the skin, or the head. Start a fire on the beach and place a big, flat rock on top of the fire. Wait for the rock to heat up, put the fish on top of the rock, and cook the fish in the salty breeze as you do a sun dance or whatever.

Take a moment to enjoy your surroundings, and squeeze a lemon if one's handy. Eat the fish as you commune with your inner Survivorman. Eat the whole damn fish.

One time, I was out on the beach cooking up a big porgy on a rock. Porgies are a kind of sea perch, wicked popular in the African-American community on the East Coast ("Fry it hard!"). These little scrappers are hella fun to catch—they're in the same fish family as seabreams.

Problem is, California beaches just don't have the variety of rocks you find in Montauk, N.Y., the mother country out on Long Island's East End.

That's a land carved out of departing glaciers, and as such, there's wild variety of stones of various shapes and sizes that were left behind. So says Walt Whitman: "Even to my unscientific eyes there were innumerable wonders and beauties all along the shore, and edges of the cliffs. There were earths of all colors, and stones of every conceivable shape, hue, and destiny . . ."

Alas, Fish on a Rock may not work here—we've got crumbly sandstone, volcanic rocks, not much else on our beaches, at least insofar as I've experienced them. Fish on a Surfboard won't work, and anyway, for the most part, you're not supposed to be lighting a fire on the beach. I suggest you tote an iron skillet to the beach to compensate for the lack of stones.

Picture this. It was a fine late-summer afternoon, the porgy was roasting on a rock, and the porgy eyeballs started to bulge as the white fish-flesh sizzled.

The eyeballs started to speak to me, like that freaky mounted fish from The Sopranos.

They demanded that I eat them! It was a craving such as one might have for a pint of Ben & Jerry's, but this wasn't no Phish Food.

I fashioned some chopsticks from beach reeds and kept staring at that eyeball, flipped the fish over and stared at the other.

It was eyeballing me!

I ate the fish fillets, carved out the cheeks—and then moved on to the eyeballs.

They weren't bad; in fact they were quite tasty: salty, squishy, heavy with a fish-fat fishiness—and the trick, I've learned, is to let the eyeball linger on the tongue before it slithers down yon gullet.

The idea is that you want to extract the micro-burst of fish-fat flavor. If that triggers your inner ewww, I suggest you think happy thoughts about oysters and other enjoyably slippery things. Activate your inner Anthony Bourdain, close your eyes, and go for it.—Tom Gogola

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