The slippery sardine slides off the platter towards the giant metal grill. I gulp the smoky, Portuguese air as I prepare to try the very food my palate has been avoiding for the last twenty years of my life: seafood.
Traveling in a foreign country makes your taste buds irrationally brave.
Plummeting to its inevitable demise, the sardine squirms and gasps in an attempt to free itself from the restaurant’s famous open-air grill. The embers glow red, reflecting off the blank eyes of my soon-to-be lunch. Torrents of heat shoot upwards to the sweltering sardine. The scales adhere to the grate while the eyeball does its best not to explode. The opposite-facing eye slips through the metal grate and lands amidst the glowing charcoals. I blink twice. I have never been this aware of my own sense of sight. I thank God for the two eyes I have still attached to my head.
I finally tear myself aware from the horror movie that’s unfolding before me. Really I don’t enjoy seeing my food alive moments before I’m going to attempt to ingest it. Walking to a nearby bench, I plop down, knees shaking, slightly light-headed.
You can do this, Hayley. Stop being a baby. You traveled to five countries on your own, but you decide to freak out because you’re gonna eat a stupid fish.
The moment I think “fish,” my mind races back to my grandparents’ cottage. I’m seven years old, dangling my feet and a fishing pole off the end of the wooden dock. The line goes taut and I jump up in excitement and anxious hesitation. This is my first fish! Mom leans over and instructs me on how to real in the line, keeping a tight grip on the rod as I do so. The tiny blue gill shoots out of the water; at least that’s how I remember it anyway. The fins glisten in the late afternoon sun while the gills expand and contract in rapid succession.
“Now you have to take it off the hook,” Mom declares. “So we can eat it.”
I look up at her, revolted. I have to touch it? And then eat it? I shudder at the very thought.
Gulping, I reach towards the ugly creature, closing my fingers firmly over its slimy, smelly body. My hand flies backwards, releasing the stupid fish as blood drips from my hand. How I managed to cut myself on the paper-thin fins I’ll absolutely never know. But I did. I wouldn’t even try a single bite of that wretched blue gill after watching my grandpa gut it on the backyard stump and toss it on the Weber. For some reason my bandaged hand just wouldn’t grab its smoky body from grandpa’s plate.
Commence hatred off all things seafood.
Pull yourself together. That was years ago.
I pull myself back to the Portuguese restaurant, shaking my head as if the physical movement will permanently erase this horrific memory from my brain. But it’s to no avail.
The waiter walks over to my bench, lowering a white platter filled with charred sardines to the table. The crispy scales flake off as he deposits the load irreverently in front of my plate.
Be brave. Be brave.
The mantra plays on repeat as my friend and her acquaintances (who happen to be the owners of the restaurant) appear out of nowhere and sit beside me. A pile of hands engulfs the platter. As they retreat, I notice one lonely sardine left on the plate.
“All to you,” the restaurant owner says smiling in her broken English.
I assess my predicament one final time. Firstly, it would be completely rude and inconsiderate of me to not try the food my new friends are freely giving to me. Secondly, who wants to leave Portugal saying they were too afraid to try her famous seafood? And thirdly, what’s the point of traveling if one isn’t even going to branch out and experience the edible staples of a new community?
My mind made up, I catapult my arm to the single sardine grinning toothlessly up at me. The warm flesh singes my fingers as the oily juices run down my arm.
I stare down at the innocent sardine. It stares blankly back.
Picking up my fork and knife, I peal back the flaky scales, revealing the plump flesh below. I slice beneath the neck and carefully lift the piece of seafood to my quivering mouth. My lips unwillingly part and my fork slides in to fill the void. I clench my teeth, awaiting the stinky fish taste I am sure is coming.
An explosion of flavor emanates from the soft meat. Shocked, I stare down at the beautiful creature I have naively avoided for the past two decades. Its juicy flesh leaves a salty film on my salivating tongue. Ditching the fork and knife, I rip apart the rest of the heavenly fish with my greasy fingers, shoving each morsel disrespectfully into my greedy mouth.
“Don’t forget slurping of the head juice,” the owner reminds me.
Smiling, I happily oblige.