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Fish Heads

September 18, 2015


It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I have a robust appetite and don’t turn down much when it comes to food, but there is one notable exception. Some people believe that the head is the tastiest part of a fish. I don’t care; I won’t be eating fish heads unless I find myself starving on one of those survival programs with a million dollar prize. Two incidents involving fish heads come to mind.


My late mother-in-law often related an incident from a lunch she attended at Berlin’s Spandau Prison in the 1960s, back in the day when Rudolph Hess was the only person imprisoned there. My mother-in-law, along with other wives of American Army officers, had been invited to a lunch hosted by the Russian ambassador. It might have been a strange venue for a ladies’ lunch, but I’m told it was an opulent affair with china, silver and crystal.


When the main entrée was served, my mother-in-law was faced with a fish on her plate, served whole with opaque eyes staring up at her from the plate. She’d never been served an entire fish before and didn’t know what to do. She considered placing her napkin over the head to cover those unnerving eyes, but instead she used her fork to try and dislodge the eyeballs and hide them beneath the salad. Unfortunately, she applied too much pressure and an eyeball popped free and rolled across the table, picking up speed as it careened toward the ambassador. She said her cheeks were on fire as the eyeball rolled down the table and was plucked up by the Russian ambassador, who without comment enthusiastically popped it in his mouth.





Spandau Prison. Not my idea of a hot lunch spot.


My own encounter with fish heads came shortly after I received my driver’s license. Rarely was I given access to our family’s one and only car, but I did receive the keys when an errand necessitated it. My mother told me to drive to Grandma’s house to pick up a kettle of soup Grandma had prepared for her. I didn’t eat Grandma’s weird concoctions—strange things can end up in Portuguese soup—but I was so happy having the car keys that I ignored the contents of the covered kettle beside me on the front seat as I drove home—until the car in front of me braked unexpectedly.


To avoid a collision, I punched our LeMans’ brakes and the kettle flew off the seat, collided with the dashboard and ricocheted back in my direction. The kettle’s lid flew off and soup covered my lap—fish head soup. Dozens of milky red-rimmed eyes stared up at me, mouths wide as if complaining about what a shitty driver I was. Traffic was heavy with no convenient place to pull off the road. While driving home I made a life rule I’ve yet to break:







Have you ever eaten anything that looked back at you?




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I'm with you. I remember one time when we ordered dinner at a restaurant in Cannes. A friend (his nickname was 'Wanking Clown') ordered fish. But, when his order came, he was appalled. "It's the whole fish! Scales, fins, and all! I don't want a whole fish! The creepy thing is looking at me!!!" Glad I ordered spaghetti. On a related note, was she able to watch ballet at that prison? Think about it...think about it.
By: Al Penwasser on September 18, 2015
I am in complete agreement. I won't share all my fish head stories with you, but now when I go to a seafood restaurant here in Spain and I say I'll try whatever the local favorites are I make a point of saying, "But no fish heads." It was one of my very important early phrases in Spanish.
By: Mitchell is Moving on September 18, 2015
Well, I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with you. When we lived in Mexico we used to go to an outdoor restaurant in Guadalajara that served their wonderful grilled fish complete with heads and tails. The fish head cheeks were the tenderest part of the meal. And I used to joke that whoever finished their meal first got to eat the eyes. But we never did.
By: Catalyst on September 18, 2015
Reminds me of a story about when my husband was serving as a groundpounder (combat infantry) in Vietnam. To show their gratitude, some mountain people invited my hubby and his squad to share a meal with them. Much fanfare was made over presenting my husband with the "special" bowl of soup... which contained a chicken's head. He isn't usually a tactful man, but on that occasion, his quick thinking saved the day. He, with great fanfare of his own, bowed to the town elder, and presented him with the bowl of soup. His show of deference earned him great respect, and saved him from dealing with those eyeballs looking up at him from the bowl.
By: Susan Swiderski on September 18, 2015
Once, in Germany, we were served fish with the heads still on. There was a plate passed around the table for us to put the heads on, which we did. It was eerie, that plate in the middle of the table with fish heads sticking up.
By: mimi on September 18, 2015
oy! totally agree!
By: TexWisGirl on September 18, 2015
well- a few occasions: first when I was 15 and in Milano Italy. I had my first pizza there and "Ecco!" there was a complete little fish in the middle of the sauce and veggies. I ate the fish but did pluck the head off first! Second time was in Spain when the roasted rabbit came complete with head. Mama mia!
By: Kathe W. on September 18, 2015
Fish heads in your lap, driving home with no soup is one heckuva dilemma. Now as to looking back at you-I've had many fish dinners featuring the whole fish. The fish cheeks are a special treat and in fact I've consumed the eyes in Thai or Chinese style crispy fish. Fish head soup though is another matter and I think I'd pass. Something about the crispy frying and seasoning that makes a difference.
By: Tom Cochrun on September 18, 2015
I am an adventurous eater & will generally eat anything that doesn't try to eat me first, but I think I'll pass on fish heads!!
By: fishducky on September 18, 2015
I suppose PEEPS don't count...
By: Val on September 18, 2015
Totally agree with you. Your MIL's tale was quite funny but yours was barf-able. That would kill anyone's appetite for a long time.
By: Akansas Patti on September 18, 2015
I haven't eaten anything that looks back at me and I probably wouldn't.
By: red on September 18, 2015
Yuck indeed. Not that I needed any help to avoid fish heads but your two incidents certainly didn't sway me to give it a try. No thank you. As far as I can recall. As far as I know, I haven't eaten nothing that looked back at me but I can't say that with 100 percent uncertainty as I lived in Japan for about a year. And who knows what was snuck past me when I was just nodding my head and saying "Sure I'll try that" to the non-English speaking Japanese cooks.
By: Mr. Shife on September 18, 2015
Here's a Fish Heads song for you. The music doesn't start until 2:18 into the video.
By: Val on September 18, 2015
I've eaten off an entire fish, coincidentally while in Germany, where they must not be as queasy as Americans about their food. I think it was smoked grilled mackerel. But then I've been to a pig pickin' in South Carolina where I seem to remember the entire pig including head being roasted. Your story about driving with fish heads in your lap is hilarious!!!
By: Pixel Peeper on September 18, 2015
The episode in the LeMans sounds like the beginning of a horror story! I once was at a Chinese restaurant for lunch with a group of people, hosted by a Chinese woman. The plates of food came out, including one with a whole fish complete with head. It was looking at me. I stared at it for a moment, then solved my problem by simply turning the plate around. The rear end of a fish isn't so bad to look at..
By: Tom Sightings on September 18, 2015
Never had a problem with being served a whole fish - freshly-grilled trout and mackerel are wonderful. One thing I do recall not being brave enough to face was also in Germany. I'm usually a fan of most varieties of sausage (and even such things as haggis and black pudding) but couldn't quite pluck up the courage to try a particularly anemic boiled white sausage that someone in our party ordered for a dare :)
By: Botanist on September 18, 2015
I have to say I will never eat anything that stares back at me unless I am starving and there is nothing else left. I have another fish head story to tell. Marlene Dietrich made a film with Ray Milland called Golden Earrings. In it she plays a gypsy! Anyway, neither of the 2 stars liked one another and Ray Milland made everyone hear how much he disliked having to show any romantic interest in an old has-been-Marlene. This did not escape Marlene's ears so one day, while he looked at her, she took a fish head, sucked out its eyeballs and then threw up in front of him. Milland almost lost his lunch and never said anything negative about Marlene again
By: Birgit on September 18, 2015
Chocolate Easter bunny? I can barely eat fish, period, let alone the part of a fish with eyes intact ...
By: jenny_o on September 18, 2015
OMG I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouthâ¦.
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on September 18, 2015
I am with you when it comes to fish heads, the stuff of nightmares! And that sounds like two very scary and worst nightmares to me!
By: John on September 19, 2015
Like some of your other readers, I have been served a fully intact fish at a restaurant but couldn't eat it while it wore its head. I have enough trouble eating freshly-caught fish because I've seen it alive.. and that's just the fillets.
By: HIlary on September 19, 2015
I have been surprised by fish head on in a restaurant once, no I ask and request no head. Fish soup...that looks worse than scrapple.
By: cranky on September 19, 2015
I may have been served a grilled fish once that still had head and tail attached but no scales. and no, I did not eat the head and just the idea of eating the eyes make me a little queasy. crawdads are a big think here. I tried them once and as far as I'm concerned, they taste like the mud in which they live. what I didn't do though was suck the heads which many people do. oh ick and gross.
By: ellen abbott on September 19, 2015
I won't eat any part of a fish, and even the little eyes on prawns freak me out. No I'm afraid I'm a total bore when it comes to food, it needs to be spliced, diced and looking like baby food before I'll eat it. :D
By: LL Cool Joe on September 20, 2015
I'm with you Stephen. I'll eat just about anything, but I draw the line at bait. R
By: Rick Watson on September 20, 2015
I much sheepishly admit I suck the crawfish heads after devouring the more traditional tails. Did I mention there was beer involved first?
By: on September 20, 2015
I'm totally with you on the fish heads, and all the other offal people eat, including liver. In fact, my taste buds are so particular that I don't even like lamb. I guess the sheep are happy to hear that! :)
By: Lexa Cain on September 21, 2015
Oh man I would have DIED on both occasions... I've had to filet a few fish and it's weird having to cut their heads off, I can't imagine seeing it all cooked or prepared and waiting for an eating... GAG!!! But all this talk about fish heads makes me want to watch The Goonies!
By: Hey Monkey Butt on September 21, 2015
I agree, Stephen. I never have and never will! ;)
By: Michael Manning on September 22, 2015
I'm left wondering about the part you left out. What did your mother say when you got back home with an empty kettle? ...and no I don't care for attached heads or tails.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 25, 2015

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