Adventure #7–Drag Show

Originally written 11/30/14

7up

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/2239200286/in/photostream/

All photos from Flickr used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

I recently attended a business meeting in Tempe, Arizona. Meetings aren’t my favorite thing in the world, since I’m generally an action-oriented person rather than a discussion-oriented person, but this meeting went so quickly that we ended at lunchtime. Hooray!

boredom

Photo credit: Petr Dosek, “Boredom,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosek/9655654051

See the guy on the right? That’s how meetings make me feel.

Unfortunately, I still had to go to a reception later that night, and receptions are one of the few things lower than meetings on my List of Enjoyable Ways to Spend My Time. As a shy, introverted, action-oriented non-drinker, standing around for hours drinking and talking to people is pretty much my idea of hell.

 reception

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mdgovpics/13087109093

If I’m bad in this life, this is how I will have to spend eternity.

However, being a responsible adult means sometimes doing things you’re not excited about, and I started mentally gearing myself up for the evening’s reception when our group’s president began telling us about it at the end of the meeting.

“The reception will be up here, in this room, from eight to ten tonight,” she said. “There will be a cash bar, a DJ, and a dance floor.”

I laughed at that. Nobody ever dances at our receptions, which is kind of ironic, considering that we’re all dance teachers.

emptyfloor

Photo credit: Martyn Wright, https://www.flickr.com/photos/martyn404/5198020426

This is what the dance floor usually looks like.

But the president wasn’t finished. “We’ll then have entertainment at ten. Adult entertainment. If you don’t like that kind of thing, leave before ten.”

My ears perked up. Adult entertainment? What?? There is not usually entertainment of any kind at our receptions, let alone anything that could be classified as “adult” except drinking.

I waited for the president to explain, but she didn’t. She just went on briskly to the next order of business, in the same tone in which she’d told us about the reception.

The meeting was adjourned a few minutes later, and we all went to lunch. I sat down with my co-teacher Mary and some other teachers we knew, and while we were eating, one of the other teachers brought up what the president had said about the reception.

“She was joking, right?” the other teacher asked, and there were nods around the table. She had to be joking, because A) we never had entertainment, and B) we DEFINITELY never had “adult” entertainment.

But I’ve known the president for a long time, and she hadn’t sounded like she was kidding to me. She’d sounded serious. I said so, and the other teachers looked at me, frowning.

“But if she wasn’t joking,” the first teacher said, “what kind of entertainment could it be?”

Nobody had a good answer to that. “Stripper” is the first thing that popped into my mind as “adult entertainment,” but our group has both men and women in it, and watching a stripper didn’t seem like a fun co-ed activity. It also didn’t seem particularly appropriate for a Thursday night in Tempe, Arizona, especially since all of us would be coaching elementary-aged kids in a dance competition starting at 7 a.m. the next morning.

stripper

Photo credit: Raquel Baranow, https://www.flickr.com/photos/666_is_money/5533610454

This is the only kind of stripper I’d expect to see anywhere near our reception.

What else could it be?

I couldn’t think of anything, but my curiosity was definitely piqued. I had been tentatively planning on showing up to the reception right at eight, talking briefly to everybody I knew, and then bolting at nine, but the president’s announcement changed all that. Now I was going to arrive at nine-thirty and stay until the end. There was no way I was going to miss finding out what the entertainment was. Even if I hated it, I was betting I could get a blog post out of it.

So at nine-thirty that night, Mary and I headed over to the reception, where I picked up a mineral water at the bar and said hello to some of the people I knew. The party was loud, with the DJ playing music at ear-popping decibels next to a predictably empty dance floor and everybody shouting to be heard above the music.

The dance floor was made of slick, cream-colored ceramic tiles, and there were tiny tables with white tablecloths standing along the front of it like a cabaret. Nobody was sitting at the very front tables, but all of the judges for the weekend’s competition were at a table in the back corner, and one of the grand dames of our organization, a venerable, white-haired lady in her eighties, was sitting with some friends near the middle.

Mary and I snagged a front table so we could be sure to see…whatever was about to happen. When the president passed our table, I asked her, “So, what’s the entertainment?”

“A drag show,” she said.

drag1

Photo credit: David Van Horn, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dvanhorn/876933210

Surprise!

I don’t know what my face looked like, but whatever my expression was, it made her grin and ask, “Is this your first drag show?”

Actually, it wasn’t (probably to her surprise). I choreographed some routines for a group of drag queens many years ago, and I ended up performing with them a couple times. Talk about one of the most unusual experiences of my life. I’m saving that story for my memoirs.

Anyway, wild horses could not have pulled me from my seat. I had been trying to decide what to do for my next adventure, and here was an adventure dropped in my lap, so to speak. I hoped it wasn’t going to literally drop in my lap, since drag queens aren’t exactly shy and Mary and I were the only people in the front row. Everyone else was sitting or standing a prudent distance away. Well, maybe if anything embarrassing happened nobody would remember.

The music stopped, and in the silence the DJ announced the first performer. I think her name was Taylor, although since the DJ shouted her name in a dramatic way (kind of like at a professional wrestling match), it might have been something completely different.

If you’ve never seen a drag queen before, you might imagine that it would be short, androgynous guys who went in for female impersonation–you know, guys who might be able to pass as women. Nope! It’s pretty much the opposite. Drag queens tend to be tall and strong, so once you add the big hair and the super high heels, you’ve got a woman that even the Amazons would be jealous of.

wonder woman

Photo credit: Eric Ward, “Wonder Woman,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/a4gpa/520957740

Disclaimer: I want to state for the record, in case the lady in the picture ever sees this blog post, that the above picture is a real woman, not a drag queen. I went looking for a picture of an Amazon to stick here and found this, and I loved it so much I had to use it. That is all.

Taylor was no exception. She was well over six feet in her black platform stilettos, and the feather-trimmed gauzy robe she was wearing must have come from a specialty store, because on anybody else it would have trailed along the ground behind her like a wedding dress. Her face was smooth and dark, with wide lips painted cherry red, and the false eyelashes she was wearing looked as long as my pinky finger.

She came out and lip synced to “Bang Bang” by Jessie J. Watching her dance in her extremely high heels on the slippery-looking tiles, I wondered if breaking ankles was an occupational hazard for drag queens. Taylor certainly didn’t seem worried about it. She strode around the floor with energy and attitude, taking off her gauzy robe to reveal fishnet stockings and shorts so short that it looked like she’d shoehorned herself into them.

When she took off her denim bustier to show us a bra decorated with gigantic sparkly rhinestones, I began to worry that we’d gotten a drag show PLUS a stripper, which was more adventure than I’d bargained for. But the sparkly bra and short shorts stayed on (thank goodness) while Taylor jumped into the splits for the big finale of her number. I can’t do splits at all, let alone jump into them on a slippery tile floor while wearing six-inch spike heels, so I’m pretty sure my mouth dropped open. Taylor rewarded me by taking off a fake-fur belt and rubbing my cheeks with it before dropping it on the table.

Oh, boy. I hoped I wasn’t going to regret sitting in the front row.

When Taylor had first walked out, she looked like a black woman. Now, with her arms and midriff bare, she was obviously a white man, which was kind of startling. Up close, it looked like she had had some plastic surgery done, too, especially on her poofy, Angelina Jolie-style lips.

drag2

Photo credit: S Pakhrin, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kathmandu/15568130458

This is not Taylor. I stupidly did not take any pictures until the very end, so you get this random picture instead.

She took the microphone from the DJ and introduced herself as the oldest drag queen in Arizona (forty-two—good grief), and began a between-number patter that was liberally peppered with cuss words (which I will leave out). “Holler if you’re from New York!” she shouted, and when nobody shouted, she said, “Holler if you’re from Ohio!” Receiving no response, she went through another dozen or so states, and, by bad luck, just happened to miss all the states our group was from.

Putting one hand on her hip, she looked around at all of us as though puzzled and said, “Where are y’all from, then? Mars?” Except, you know, with a lot of profanity thrown in.

Brushing her blond, ombre-style wig away from her face with dagger-like fake nails, she said, “I want to tell you a little secret about our next performer.” She paused for effect, glancing around the room. “He’s a man.” There were a couple laughs, since we’d already figured that out. “And really, really tall. And absolutely GORGEOUS. Here’s SIZZLE LAMOUR!”

Sizzle Lamour (who had the best name of the night) was very tall, topping Taylor by several inches. And she was gorgeous, unlike Taylor, who up close looked like a sixty-year-old trophy wife who’d visited the plastic surgeon one too many times. She lip-synced in a bright red negligee trimmed with feathers, after which Taylor came back and MC’d for a few minutes before introducing the next performer, Mechelle.

Mechelle lip-synced to “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift, wearing a long blond wig, a lacy turquoise leotard, and white go-go boots. From a distance, her makeup was amazing, but when she danced closer we could see that the makeup had been designed for cabaret-style stage lights rather than the fluorescent strip lighting of the room we were in. Up close under the fluorescents, the stage makeup made Mechelle look a little like zombie Taylor Swift. It kind of freaked Mary out.

dragzombies

Photo credit: S Pakhrin, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kathmandu/15755178162

Okay, maybe it wasn’t THIS scary.

The fourth and last performer was named Justice, and she was the most interesting of all. We found out later that she used to be our president’s dance student, which is how the show had come about. She was young, probably in her early twenties, and her hair and makeup were much more natural-looking than Taylor’s or Mechelle’s. Unlike the others, she actually sang live rather than lip-syncing, in a beautiful alto. In her gold sequined cocktail dress, she looked like a headliner at a nightclub–a very pretty, very tall headliner.

All four performers came back out for a second number each. Except for Justice, who stood at the front of the room to sing, they all interacted pretty wildly with the audience, and if you seemed embarrassed at all they would just be more outrageous. The only safe thing to do was play along. Taylor ended up having a dance competition with a guy at the back of the room, which ended when Taylor, high heels and all, did a cartwheel into the splits. Sizzle Lamour stopped to ask the eighty-year-old grand dame what her name was, and she replied (God bless her), “Depends who’s asking!”

(On her way back to the front of the room, Sizzle Lamour paused next to me and said, “Doesn’t she look just like Queen Elizabeth? I love her!”).

dragqueenbess

Photo credit: S Pakhrin, https://www.flickr.com/photos/kathmandu/15568737310

I think she meant the OTHER Queen Elizabeth.

Mary and I shimmied, clapped, hooted and hollered when the performers came near our table. We were having a great time. It was the best reception ever.

After the show was over, the performers came back out to take a bow, and they said they were available for pictures if anybody wanted one. Well, of course we wanted a picture, so we asked Sizzle Lamour if she would pose with us. Mechelle took the pictures with Mary’s phone, and she was one of the funniest phone photographers I’ve ever met. She was extremely serious, frowning with concentration as she hit the button, and after each picture she would stop, look at the picture, and then shake her head with slow sadness, like the picture was a huge disappointment in her life.

Finally, after the fifth one, she nodded slowly instead. Success!

Then Mechelle, Sizzle Lamour, Taylor, and Justice all stepped forward to pose with us, handing Mary’s phone to someone else to take the picture.

drag5

Okay–here are the real performers. Finally.

“Thank you very much!” I said, looking up at them and feeling very short.

“Thank YOU for enjoying our show so much!” said Mechelle.

And that made me feel good. I’m a performer myself, and I know what a great feeling it is when someone obviously appreciates your show.

Mechelle and her friends apparently weren’t the only ones who noticed that Mary and I were having a good time. The next morning, my mom texted me to let me know that the president had told her that I’d really enjoyed the entertainment at the reception, wink wink—which puzzled my mom, since she hadn’t been there and didn’t know what the entertainment had been.

But my favorite moment was at the very end, when Mary and I were getting ready to go. One of the other teachers who follows me on Facebook came over and put her arm around my neck.

“I know what you’re going to do!” she said, laughing. “You’re going to blog about this!”

Yep, that’s right! Wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Fancy vs Lazy Recipe: Ratatouille

Fancy Ratatouille

Eggplant Family

1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped

3 medium Japanese eggplants, cut into ½-inch-thick rounds

4 small zucchini or other summer squash, scrubbed and cut into very thin slices

3 small, sweet red peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into ½-inch-thick chunks

1 ½ cups very ripe tomatoes*, peeled, seeded, and diced

2 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped

10 fresh basil leaves, cut into chiffonade

¼ cup finely-chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley

6 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil**

Fine sea salt

 

*The tomatoes are the foundation of the dish. You need to get full, red tomatoes that have been grown in rich soil and sun-ripened. Tomatoes grown in your own backyard garden are best.

 

**Low-quality olive oil will ruin your dish! Be sure to buy a variety that is cold-pressed in Italy and tells you the harvest and sell-by dates on the label.

 

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pan over medium heat. Lay one layer of eggplant slices into the bottom of the pot and sprinkle with salt. Cook for 7 minutes, then turn the slices over and cook for another 6 minutes, until the eggplant is tender.

 

  1. Place the finished eggplant slices in a colander to drain while you repeat with the remaining eggplant.

 

  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy pan over medium heat. Lay one layer of zucchini slices into the bottom of the pot and sprinkle with salt. Cook for 4 minutes, then turn the slices and cook for another 3 minutes, until the zucchini is tender.

 

  1. Place the finished zucchini slices in the colander with the eggplant while you repeat with the remaining zucchini.

 

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a third pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for 6-7 minutes, until the garlic is fragrant and golden brown, and the onion is translucent.

 

  1. Add the peppers and a pinch of salt. Cook for 4 minutes, until softened.

 

  1. Add the tomatoes and cook on low heat for 4-5 minutes, until the tomatoes have released their liquid into the pot. Then raise the heat to medium high and boil for 2-3 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated.

 

  1. Put a layer of the pepper/tomato/onion/garlic mixture into the bottom of a 2 1/2-quart casserole. Add a layer of eggplant and a layer of zucchini, and then sprinkle with basil and parsley. Repeat with the rest of the vegetables. Pour the remaining olive oil on top.

 

  1. Cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 9 minutes. Then uncover the casserole, raise the heat to medium-low, and cook until the stew has properly thickened. True Provencal ratatouille should not be watery.

 

  1. Serve in ceramic bowls with crusty French bread that you have purchased from a family-owned French bakery.

 

Servings: 4

 

Prep time: 20 minutes in advance chopping all the vegetables, then 60 minutes dealing with the cooking vegetables, then another hour afterward washing all the frickin’ pots.

 

Cook time: 60 minutes, during which you will be slaving over pans the whole time, layering vegetables, turning them over, and sticking them in collanders.

 

Overall appropriateness for Lazy Chefs: You Have Got To Be Kidding. Did I mention how many dishes you would have to wash afterward? This is the kind of recipe that makes lazy people hate cooking.

 

 

 

 

Lazy Rattatooey

Ratatouille

 

1 onion, diced

1 large eggplant, cut into cubes

4 small zucchini, sliced into rounds

1 bell pepper, cut into strips

2 pints cherry tomatoes

1 garlic clove, minced

A dozen fresh basil leaves, chopped

½ teaspoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Salt and pepper

1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

½ cup dry rice

 

  1. Plop all the ingredients except for the rice and parmesan in a slow cooker. Sprinkle in 1 teaspoon of salt and a little pepper. Cook on LOW for 8 hours.

 

  1. After 8 hours, turn the cooker to WARM, and leave it until you’re ready to eat.

 

  1. When you’re ready to eat, prepare the rice according to package directions in a separate pot.

 

  1. Divide the rice into 4 bowls and then top with rattatooey and ¼ cup parmesan per bowl. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.

 

  1. There’s not enough protein or calories in rattatooey for a meal, so you will also need to prepare a protein. I like grilling chicken on my George Foreman and then just tossing the cubed chicken in with everything else.

 

Servings: 4

 

Nutritional information per serving (without an extra protein):

 

Calories: 260

Protein: 14g

Carbs: 38g

Fiber: 8g

Fat: 6g

 

Prep time: about 20 minutes to chop all the vegetables. A couple minutes sticking rice in a pot and boiling water.

 

Cook time: 8 hours for the rattatooey, but you don’t have to be there!

20 minutes for white rice or 45 for brown.

 

Overall appropriateness for Lazy Chefs: Very Good! You hardly have to do anything, especially if you can find someone else to help you chop the vegetables.

Fancy vs Lazy Cooking: An Introduction

Chef

Clip art by Belthsazar_Liem, https://openclipart.org/user-detail/belthsazar_liem

I’ve never taken a cooking class, unless you count my year of home ec in middle school, where we did a semester of cooking and a semester of sewing. That was actually a lot of fun.

 

I’d learned the basics of cooking (and sewing) already from my parents, since when I was a kid we cooked at home every night, only going out to eat when we were on road trips. My parents were not what you would call foodies, however; they preferred home-cooked meals mostly because they were cheaper. We ate good, basic meals with plenty of vegetables and protein and not a lot of fancy prep. I always enjoyed them—eating has always been one of my favorite activities.

 

Then, when I was in college, I started cooking with my roommate Abbey in our dorm kitchen. Abbey and her mom were foodies, and Abbey had grown up cooking and baking all sorts of interesting things that I had only barely heard of. For a couple years, I served a sort of apprenticeship as Abbey’s sous-chef: she would buy cookbooks (this was before the internet) and pick out new recipes to try, and we would cook them together.

 

My parents had both been scarred as children by the southern style of cooking vegetables, which was basically boiling them until they were unidentifiable lumps of mush. It left them with an understandable distrust of turnip greens and Brussels sprouts. So, when we cooked together as a family, they tended to stick to a few tried-and-true favorites, like broccoli and green beans. With Abbey, I learned to cook and enjoy asparagus, spinach, stuffed green peppers, and all sorts of other veggies. It was like opening up a whole new, leafy green world.

 

Not that I was an instant convert to fancy cooking. Far from it! I discovered that I liked most vegetables if cooked properly, which was great. However, I was still, at base, a lazy person, and a lot of fancy cooking requires a ton of effort, including washing dishes, which I HATE. It wasn’t hard at all when I was cooking with someone else, especially someone who loved cooking, but it was a lot harder when I graduated college and was living on my own.

 

So my life as an adult has been a constant struggle between two opposing forces:

 

On the one hand, my desire to eat food that is not only tasty but healthy.

 

On the other hand, my complete hatred of anything resembling hard work.

 

I realized recently that there were other people like me out there, people who want to eat better and learn to love vegetables and balanced meals, but who hate labor-intensive recipes and, moreover, just don’t know where to start.

 

So I decided to post some of the recipes I use on my blog.

 

I think one of the things that turn people off from cooking is the fancy recipes that they print in newspapers and on cooking sites. A lot of those recipes are designed for people who love the intricate, involved crafting of a new medley of flavors and textures—people who are like artists where food is concerned, and who don’t mind hard work if it gets good results.

 

If you are one of those people, whom I will call Real Chefs, I just want to say I have nothing but the utmost respect for you. I love going to restaurants or your houses and tasting the amazing creations you put together. I love that YOU love the art you create in your kitchen. I wish I was more like you.

 

Unfortunately, I am a Lazy Chef, and I am perfectly willing to compromise (somewhat) on flavor, texture, and authenticity if it means that I can cook my whole meal in one pot in twenty minutes.

 

If that philosophy bothers you, then you probably shouldn’t read my posts.

 

If, on the other hand, you are a lazy person like me who is looking for ways to eat better while not spending all of your free time chained to the stove, read on!

 

Some of the recipes will stand alone, with just one recipe in the post.

 

Others will feature two versions of the recipe in a “Fancy vs Lazy” face-off, so that you can see how I convert the labor-intensive recipes of Real Chefs into better meals for Lazy Chefs. And I might poke fun at how seriously some people talk about cooking. Just a little.

 

Enjoy!

 

Lazy Chef Recipes: Stuffed Pattypan Squash

Pattypan 1

My mom often brings me recipes and ingredients out of the blue, and recently she brought me these strange white squash from a friend’s garden. They were round, hard, and shaped kind of like flying saucers. She said they were called pattypan squash.

 

I’ve never seen them at a grocery store (but, then again, my neighborhood King Soopers is so unfancy that there are 7-11s with a bigger produce section).

 

In case you ever see pattypan squash at a grocery or farmer’s market and want to try your hand at cooking them, here’s a recipe you can try. Tested for you by yours truly!

 

Stuffed Pattypan Squash

 

Pattypan Squash Bowl

 

4 adorably strange pattypan squash

1 lb ground chicken or ground turkey

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 T olive oil

½ cup rice (dry)

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

 

  1. Fill a big pot about a quarter of the way with water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add the squash to the boiling water and cover the pot, but don’t turn the heat down.

 

Cook the squash for 10 minutes. Then uncover the pot and poke the top of a squash with a fork. If the fork goes in easily, the squash is done, and you can take it out of the pot and put it on a cutting board.

 

If the fork bounces off the top of the squash, or it feels like you’re trying to dig the fork through a rubber tire, the squash is not done. Recover the pot and cook for another 5 minutes.

 

Repeat as necessary until the squash is finally done.

 

  1. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a different pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook until softened, about a minute. Then add the garlic and the ground chicken and cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken is browned. If the chicken starts sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a little more oil or a tablespoon of water.

 

  1. When the chicken is all brown, add the rice, chicken broth, and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Bring the broth to a boil, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 20 minutes (unless you’re using brown rice, in which case set the timer for 45 minutes and go watch some TV or something).

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

 

  1. Now it’s time to cut the tops off the squash. Grab the squash with one hand and a sharp knife with the other. If you burn your hand, the squash is too hot and you need to let it cool off for a few minutes before cutting it.

 

Once the squash is cool enough to handle, cut a circle into the top of the squash, just like when you’re carving a pumpkin. Pry off the top and set it aside.

 

Now scoop out all the goopy insides of the squash with a spoon. The goop is all edible, so put it into a bowl to add it to the rice mixture later (unless the goop looks gross to you, in which case you can just throw it away).

 

Be careful while you’re scooping not to pierce the bottom or the sides of the soft squash. Also remember that any liquid inside is still really hot, so don’t touch it and accidentally burn your hand again.

 

Put the scooped-out squash bowls in a lightly greased baking pan and sprinkle the insides with salt.

 

  1. When the rice mixture is done, stir in the goop from the squash and cook for about 1 minute. Then stir in the parmesan cheese. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as needed.

 

  1. Put the rice mixture into the squash bowls. Cover the baking pan loosely with tin foil, then bake for 15 minutes until hot and bubbly.

 

Or, if all this has taken a really long time and your burned fingers hurt and you’re so hungry you don’t care whether the dish is bubbly or not, you could just pile the mixture into the squash bowls and eat as is. Everything is cooked all the way through, and it’s perfectly tasty as is.

 

Servings: 4

 

Nutrition information (per serving):

Calories: 434

Protein: 39g

Carbs: 36g

Fiber: 7g

Fat: 16g

 

Prep time: 10 minutes in advance, plus a ton of work in the middle checking squash, burning hands, cutting squash, etc

 

Cooking time: supposedly 35 minutes. Mine (what with my squash and brown rice refusing to cook) took more like 45 minutes, and that was without me putting the squash bowls in the oven at the end.

 

Overall appropriateness for Lazy Chefs: Meh. The squash bowls were tasty, but there was definitely work involved.

Pattypan 2

Adventure #6–Fishing

Originally written 9/29/14

6

Photo credit: David Goehring, https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/76463757

All photos from Flicker used in accordance with the Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

Trout Haven Fishing: http://www.trouthavenfishing.com/

Estes Park, Colorado is a town in the mountains ninety minutes northwest of Denver. The setting is gorgeous: Estes is nestled in a bowl-like valley with a lake in the middle, surrounded on all sides by the evergreen-clad slopes of the Rockies. The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is only three miles away, and since there aren’t any hotels or amenities within the park itself, Estes thoughtfully caters to all the tourists coming to take in the wildlife and majestic views, providing grocery stores, gas stations, and a multitude of accommodations ranging from motels to deluxe cabins. There is a one-street “downtown” lined with restaurants, ice-cream parlors, and souvenir shops that definitely qualifies as a tourist trap, although a charming one; and along the many winding side roads there are businesses that offer every kind of Colorado outdoor adventure, from Jeep tours to horseback rides to rock climbing.

 estessign

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/x_/4905308457

Estes Park also hosts one of America’s biggest Scottish/Irish festivals every September, at the fairgrounds right by the lake. There’s an Irish dance competition at the festival that I attend with my students, so my husband and I always rent a cabin for the weekend. We then stay an extra day and do something fun after the competition, like go hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.

This year, my husband suggested that we do something for one of my 40 adventures. After looking at different options online (Estes has a great website to help tourists find fun things to do), we decided to go fishing. Ray used to go fishing with his dad when he was a kid, but I had never even seen a fishing pole close up.

 Trout 1

We arrived at Trout Haven early Monday morning, so early that the employees were still unloading supplies from their truck. Trout Haven appealed to us because all the equipment and bait were free, and you only paid for whatever you caught. Just the kind of place to appeal to a raw beginner like me. The business was housed in a small, shack-like building sitting between two stocked trout ponds, which were also appealing—stocked ponds meant that we were virtually guaranteed to catch something, Ray said. That was especially important to him, since he said that he had never actually caught anything when he went fishing with his dad in Cherry Creek Reservoir.

The two employees were twenty-something men wearing waders, plaid shirts, and baseball caps, their expressions bored. They were obviously over the excitement of working at the fishin’ hole. We signed waivers that said we understood that the risks of fishing included eye gauging from the hooks, drowning in the pond, and other forms of maiming and death (!), and then the older of the two guys handed us two rods, a bucket, and a net on a pole.

“When you get a fish close to shore,” he said, “scoop it up in this net. Then fill the bucket with water and put the fish in it.”

That was the extent of our instructions.

Meanwhile, his buddy was preparing bait for us. He reached casually into a plastic box on the counter and pulled out a handful of wriggling mealworms, which he dumped into a Tupperware bowl. My mouth dropped open in horror. I don’t like touching insects particularly, and I especially don’t like touching worm-shaped insects. Dead ones aren’t so bad, but live ones give me the creeps (literally, I guess). I didn’t think I could handle a job where I had to handle live worms every day.

 fishbait

Photo credit: Mike Licht, https://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/7609245024

He then reached into another container and pulled out a faintly curling earthworm, which he proceeded to hold over the bait bowl and cut into pieces with a pair of scissors. I felt sick. The poor earthworm! I was perfectly willing to believe that mealworms were evil and deserved to die, but earthworms were harmless, even beneficial. Theoretically, I knew that earthworms could survive being cut in half, and that each half would grow into a new worm, but watching the nice young man hack the worm into pieces made me feel like an accessory to murder.

There was a last box on the counter which held tiny salad shrimp—dead, cooked salad shrimp. The guy put a handful of the shrimp into the bait bowl, and I could have sobbed in relief. THANK GOODNESS. I was not going to have to touch the live, mutilated worms. I could use the safe, lifeless shrimp instead.

Bait assembled, Ray and I picked up our gear and walked outside. Concrete walkways led both ways around the pond, with wooden benches here and there in the grass. We parked our bucket, net, and bait bowl on one of the wooden benches, and Ray showed me how to use my fishing pole. The first step was to disengage the hook, which had been attached to a ring on the top of the pole for safety.

“The hook is sharp,” Ray warned me, “so be really careful.”

The pole was lightweight and maybe five feet long, with rings all along the top side of the rod. The extremely fine fishing line fed from the reel to the tip through these rings, then down to the white ball of the bobber, and finally to the hook. The reel was a round metal container near the handle where the line was stored, apparently wrapped around a spindle inside. There was a little handle sticking out of the reel that you turned to wind the line back in, and there was a big black button on the back that you pushed to get the line to play out.

 fishpole1

Photo credit: Jessica Fiess-Hill, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gesika22/5851704626

“The first step is to bait your hook,” Ray explained, grabbing a wriggling piece of earthworm and sticking it on the sharp piece of metal. I couldn’t look. I picked up a pink piece of shrimp and speared it on the hook instead–carefully. The hook WAS very sharp, and slightly barbed at the very end to make sure that fish couldn’t wiggle off of it.

“Now hold the end of the pole like this,” Ray said, standing next to me and showing me, “and then press the button and flick your wrist, and the hook flies out into the pond.” He demonstrated with his own pole. The line flew out over the water in a graceful arc, the white bobber landing with a soft plop and floating serenely on the surface. Wow. I guess he really had gone fishing with his dad a lot when he was a kid.

 fishcast1

Photo credit: Marc Aubin, “Last Cast,” https://www.flickr.com/photos/43931600@N06/14537631472

This is what Ray looked like when he was casting.

OK. I could do this. Concentrating fiercely, I stood sideways to the pond, pressed the button down, and swung my whole arm toward the water. My line extended maybe two feet, and the hook came splashing down into the rocks at the very edge of the shore.

“Use your arm more,” Ray said, reeling his hook back in and recasting to demonstrate. I turned my handle, and the hook came back up out of the water, the shrimp still firmly attached to the hook. At least I wouldn’t have to go back and look in the bait bowl again. Taking a nervous grip on the handle, I pushed the button and hurled the tip of the pole as hard as I could toward the pond. The hook once again plopped into the shallows at my feet, and I looked at it in despair. What was I doing wrong?

 fishcast2

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/skippy/193031964

This is what I looked like when I was trying to cast.

“Here,” said Ray, laughing a little in the way you do when you are good at something and your spouse is totally botching it. He put his rod down against the bench and took my rod out of my hands. “Let me show you. Watch carefully. You press the button and then flick your wrist”—he did so—“and then the hook flies out like this. See?”

He smiled, handed the rod back to me, and then walked back to the bench. I took the pole, feeling incompetent, and watched as the bobber jerked under the water for a split second. A shudder went through the pole, and a weight pulled against my hands.

“Um, Ray?” I said. “Uh…”

He ran back over. “Do you have a bite?”

“I…think so?” There was definitely something making the rod bend in my hands.

“Well, reel it in! Reel it in!”

I took the handle and slowly turned it, not sure exactly what I was supposed to be doing. So I just kept winding the line in, and all of a sudden a small, silvery fish rose out of the water, bucking and twisting against the line.

“You got it!” Ray shouted, running to get the net.

 

fishinnet

Photo credit: Tony Warelius, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fishking1

We wrestled the trout into the net, and then I grabbed the bucket and scooped up some water with trembling hands. I’d done it! I’d actually caught a fish!

By the time I got back to Ray with the bucket, he was trying to get the hook out of the fish’s mouth, but the hook wouldn’t come.

The older of the two employees came over, carrying something in his hand. I don’t know how he knew we needed help, since we had only pulled the trout out of the water seconds before, but maybe he had a well-developed sense for the struggles of beginners. Also, we were the only customers there at that point, and I’d told him it was my first time fishing, so maybe he’d been keeping an eye on me.

He took the fish out of the net and held it over the bucket. The thing in his hand turned out to be a pair of needle-nosed pliers, and he peered into the trout’s mouth, found the hook, and grabbed it with the pliers. Then, to my horror, he shook the hand with the pliers violently up and down several times until the hook ripped out and the fish fell into the bucket. The fish sank to the bottom, not moving, and the water all around it slowly turned red.

I didn’t think Mr. Fish was OK.

 

 hookout

Photo credit: Mark Ittleman, https://www.flickr.com/photos/markittleman/15025637926

 

My feeling of success at landing it warred with guilt at having killed a living thing. I’d known, of course, when I chose fishing as an adventure that I would be hooking, killing, and eventually eating the trout; I just hadn’t realized how I would feel as I stood there, looking down at my first catch. I had a short, silent philosophical struggle with myself, during which I wondered if I would be happier if I became a vegan.

I hope you won’t think less of me when I tell you that I decided I would not be happier as a vegan, and that I was in fact going to go try to catch another fish.

My existential crisis having passed, my biggest concern was now repeating the performance. Sure, I’d reeled in the fish, but Ray had done the actual casting. I wouldn’t feel like I’d done all the work until I could cast AND reel the fish in.

 fish1

Photo credit: Dylan Otto Krider, https://www.flickr.com/photos/memekiller/3818208519

I went back to the bait bowl, grabbed another piece of shrimp, and baited my hook. Taking a deep breath, I planted my feet, pressed the button on the back of the reel, and hurled my line toward the pond.

The shrimpy hook swung dangerously through the air, whistled past my ear, and wrapped itself, line and all, around my pole. Sadly, I untangled the mess that I’d made, wondering AGAIN what I was doing wrong. Ray made it look so easy.

Maybe it was time for a little bit of experimentation. I turned away from the water, letting the hook hang over the grass, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. The line didn’t play out. Huh. That was odd. I let go of the button, meaning to ask Ray if maybe something was the matter with my pole, when all of a sudden the line spurted out and my hook fell to the ground.

AHA!! The line didn’t play out until AFTER YOU’D LET GO OF THE BUTTON! That’s what I’d somehow missed when Ray was showing me how to cast.

 fishcast3

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/skippy/193032623

This is what my face looked like when I finally figured out how to cast!

Excitedly, I turned my side back to the pond, pressed the button, and then flicked the tip of the pole toward the water, this time letting go of the button as I flicked. It worked like a charm. My shrimp-laden hook flew out over the pond, landing with a splash somewhere near the fountain in the middle.

“I did it!” I shouted. I can’t even tell you how happy it made me.

The morning was cloudy and windy, and the wind pushed the bobber on my line quickly toward the shore. I wound the line up and recast, feeling smug. The bobber came back and I wound the line up again. Time to show off my newfound casting skills a third time! I sent the hook flying back through the air.

 Trout 2

When it landed, the line jerked and the bobber danced crazily on the surface of the pond. I held my breath. Had I hooked another fish? I felt a weight pull against the pole. I had!

Trying not to make any sudden movements, I turned the handle, pulling the fish toward where I was standing on the shore. It came out of the water struggling against the hook, and Ray, hearing the splash, came running over with the net.

“You got another one!” he said, his voice equal parts admiration and annoyance, since he hadn’t caught any fish yet.

We got the fish into the net, but the hook once again had disappeared mysteriously into the fish and we couldn’t get it out. I went into the shack and asked the employee if he could help me again.

“Two for two!” he said cheerfully, grabbing the hook with his pliers and shaking it out of the fish, which plopped into the bucket next to its unfortunate predecessor. “Since you’re bobber fishing, let me give you a piece of advice: when you see the bobber dip down and feel like you’ve got a bite, give the pole a quick tug upward. That sets the hook in the fish’s lip so you can get it out easier. When it swallows the hook like this it makes it a lot harder.”

 fishplaque

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mrbologna/2349490984

Swallowed the hook? Oh, geez. I glanced in the bucket and saw that Fish #2 was looking (in the paraphrased words of Monty Python) like an ex-fish. The Butcher of Trout Haven, that’s what the fish would start calling me.

And maybe word of my infamy was getting around the pond, because I cast another dozen times or so without a catch. The bobber dipped down a couple times, but when I jerked the tip of the pole up to try to set the hook, I must have done it too abruptly, because the line went slack again. Even worse, when I reeled the line back in, my hook was empty of bait and I had to go back to the bowl for more shrimp.

 bobber

Photo credit: Arnob Alam, https://www.flickr.com/photos/arnoblalam/3418717701

Meanwhile, Ray was grimly fishing a little further around the shore, trying to get a catch of his own. I definitely got the feeling that we weren’t leaving until he got a fish, which was fine with me; I wanted to prove that my two fish weren’t flukes.

After reeling my line back in and finding the hook once again empty, I began to feel an admiration for the trout. Their brains might not be very big, but, man, they were wily. I couldn’t figure out how they were getting the shrimp off the hook without spearing themselves.

 fish2

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14596396939

I went over to the bowl and found that I’d run out of shrimp. All that was left in the bowl were mealworms and pieces of earthworm. My stomach turned over. I didn’t want to touch the worms, let alone stick them on the hook.

I thought about going to the shack and asking for some more shrimp, but my pride revolted. I did not want to admit to the two young guys that I was squeamish about touching the bait. They would probably smile knowingly and think it was because I was a woman. I couldn’t do it. Besides, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if I didn’t at least try, right? I gritted my teeth and reached into the bowl.

I grabbed an earthworm, feeling like if I had to touch some live bait, an earthworm was better than a mealworm. The inch-long piece of worm wiggled in my fingers, and I nearly dropped it back into the bowl. Eww, eww, eww, eww. I somehow managed to raise the piece of worm to the hook, all the while trying not to wonder if it would feel pain when I pierced its body with the metal point.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Earthworm,” I whispered, close to tears. I pushed it onto the hook and stood up quickly to do my cast. Ray was standing there, having come back over to get more bait himself. He’d overheard my sad little speech to the worm and was trying really hard not to laugh. Great.

 gummiworms

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nomadic_lass/

These I could have handled.

My next several casts came up empty again, and soon I was having to return to get another worm. It was easier the second time, although I tried as hard as I could not to think about what I was doing. Seriously, maybe I was too soft-hearted for fishing.

While I was casting with this second worm, Ray caught his first fish. I put my pole down and hurried over with the net, helping carry the trout back over to the bucket. Ray had jerked his pole up perfectly when the fish took the bait, and the hook was right in the fish’s lip. We pulled the hook out and let the fish free in the bucket, where it swam around, probably wondering what had happened to the two previous occupants. No Butcher of Trout Haven for Ray.

 goldfish

Photo credit: Bharath Kishore, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bharathkishore/5527920783

You really don’t want to see a picture of the inside of our bucket. So here’s a picture of a nice goldfish in a bucket instead.

When I got back to my pole, the bait was gone. And I’d used up all the pieces of earthworm. I was now going to have to either use a mealworm or go back into the shack and admit my cowardice.

I used a mealworm. It wriggled much more vigorously in my fingers when I picked it up than the earthworm had (ugh!), and there was kind of a crunchy sound when it went onto the hook that made me want to throw up. Somewhere, my Scottish and pilgrim ancestors were looking down at me and shaking their heads at my wussiness.

Since the universe has a sense of humor, I lost a mealworm every three casts or so and had to go back for more. Well, facing your fears is supposed to be healthy for you, right? And it got a little less disgusting each time. A little.

 birdnworm

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fsphil/2981792457

I am so glad I’m not a bird.

For my perseverance, I was rewarded at last with my third fish, which I landed right after Ray got his second. Pride satisfied for both of us, we packed it in, carrying the bucket and our other gear back to the shack.

While we were fishing, a third employee had shown up to work, a skinny older man with a white beard and a grumpy expression. He was wearing the same plaid shirt and waders as the younger guys. If I drew a cartoon fisherman, my picture would look exactly like him. He took my bucket without comment while Ray went to the bathroom to wash his hands, and I watched with interest to see what would happen next.

The guy took my bucket behind the counter and set it down on the floor next to a stainless steel sink. Then he picked up a stick—one that was maybe a foot long and half an inch in diameter, like a wooden police baton. He held the stick in his right hand, reached into the bucket with his left, and came out with one of the fish. Then he set the fish on the edge of the sink and whacked it in the head with the stick.

I jumped in shock, my eyes nearly bugging out of my head. If I’d thought about it at all, I’d vaguely thought that fish died after you caught them because they asphyxiated in the air. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that you hit them over the head with a stick.

 fishstick

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/heipei/2509090982

When I said I wanted a fish stick…

I stood there, frozen, as the man unemotionally pulled the other fish out of the bucket one at a time and repeated his head-whacking performance. And I thought I was the Butcher of Trout Haven! Little had I known. I felt like I was watching a Monty Python skit, or a live-action Swedish Chef.

 swedishchef

Photo credit: Kenneth Lu, https://www.flickr.com/photos/toasty/3026605827

The man then lined up the five fish head-to-tail along the counter where something like a yardstick was set into the edge. I figured that was so he could see how many inches of fish we’d caught, as customers were charged $1 per inch. We’d caught 50 inches of fish, which I was pretty excited about. 10 inches per trout sounded respectable, like I was a real fisherman.

I paid for our catch, and the man asked if I wanted to pay him to clean the trout for an extra $1 per head. Sure, I said. So we added that on, and then he went back to where my fish were laid out on the counter.

The man picked up the first fish in his left hand and a short, sharp knife in his right. He slit the fish’s belly open with a brisk, efficient movement, reached into the cavity with his fingers, and pulled out a handful of guts, which he tossed into a trashcan. I’d been wrong–I wasn’t watching the Swedish Chef. I was watching Chef Louis from The Little Mermaid.

 cheflouis

Photo credit: Steven Brewer, https://www.flickr.com/photos/limako/8745075088

First I cut off their heads, then I pull out their bones…

The whole time the man was working on the first fish, he was muttering to himself, mostly about how the two young guys had deserted him. I started to wonder if he was maybe a little nuts (although it was true that the other two employees were nowhere to be seen right then). I wondered even more about his sanity when one of the fish, apparently not quite dead, began to thrash around on the counter, knocking one of its trout friends into the sink.

“That’s quite enough out of you!” the old man shouted, picking up his stick and cracking the trout another blow on the head.

I started edging toward the door.

The youngest employee came back about then, and when the older man had finished gutting and decapitating our fish, the younger guy packed the trout into a plastic bag filled with ice and handed it to me to take home. We drove back to Denver with our catch, and that night we grilled the fish on the George Foreman and ate it with rice and a side of roasted asparagus (after first watching a YouTube video on how to prepare the trout to grill, since it turned out that there were still a couple steps to do). The fresh trout was definitely a labor-intensive meal to eat, since you had to stop pretty frequently to pick out the bones, but it was one of the best fish I’ve ever had.

 Trout 3

And I’d caught it myself.

I don’t think I’ll be taking up hunting anytime soon, and I don’t think I’ll be going fishing every weekend–I’m far, far too soft-hearted. But as an occasional adventure that ends with the freshest fish dinner possible? Definitely worth the trip.

fishing

Photo credit: Jim Pennucci, https://www.flickr.com/photos/pennuja/4515908091

PS–As I was writing this, Ray said, “You’re going to put in the part where you were apologizing to the earthworm, right? Because that was my favorite part of the whole day.”