Once upon a time this Value Guru was a small tyke, but even then I had a hungry mind and curious appetite. My father fed both. He didn't cook all that often, but when he did, it was always exciting because it was something special. Like many a dad he was the steak cooker and knew the power of a marinade to tenderize an affordable cut, and the power of slicing against the grain to avoid too-chewy bites. The slicing also stretched a modest-sized steak to feed four.My father's other specialty was seafood. We lived in a small island community on the Texas coast where his brain power, writing ability and knowledge of the mysterious workings of local government-official and otherwise-were valuable enough amongst the fishermen and shrimpers that they would barter fresh catch. Another local owned a popular chicken and soft-serve shack, Custard's Last Stand (where I worked my first job at age 11 for a silver dollar an hour, incidentally). This guy also worked for Westinghouse so my father gave Custard's ad space in his newspaper in exchange for a full-size Westinghouse freezer that soon filled with the rewards from his bartering for seafood along with his own hunting and foraging efforts.
We were fortunate to live in a time and place where nature provided my father with a lot of opportunity and reward. In the winter he would barter for fresh oysters, go duck hunting, net seining or midnight flounder gigging, which, in the simplest terms, is spearing flounder against the sandy bottom of the bay. In the warmer months our family would go fishing or crabbing. We would tie chicken necks onto a string to dangle off the rocks of the jetty and then quickly pull them up to slip a net under the blue crabs that had latched on. At the time it all seemed like simple family fun, but now I know that fresh redfish and crabs were also a dinner solution for a young family on a tight budget. Sometimes my father would help out on deep-sea fishing yachts and bring home dolphin (not the Flipper kind, but what most people call mahi mahi), tuna, amberjack and other delicious Gulf fishes. The best was when he'd barter for fresh shrimp. The taste of that shrimp just a few hours out of the water was so incredible that once when we had a visitor from Japan he ate his share raw before my father could get them onto the hibachi-my first knowledge of sashimi!Other than fresh shrimp, one of my favorite dishes from my father's repertoire was stuffed flounder, no doubt due to the entire process, not just the amazing flavor.
He would leave the house in the middle of a cold winter night with chest-high waders on, a Coleman lantern and a gig (something like a broom handle with a spike on the end). About the time my brother and I were waking up to go to school, my father would return with a cooler full of flounder. He'd fillet and freeze most of it, but save a large one whole to bake stuffed with bartered shrimp and buttery breadcrumbs.For a scraping-by family we ate pretty darn well, didn't we? These days the closest I come to honoring my father's tradition is trading my homegrown herbs and veggies for my brother's fishing and hunting bounty. No more bartered shrimp, but fresh redfish ain't too shabby! Anyone else got a great food bartering story? What about a fish story? Everyone's got one of those.