Seven-Step Guide to Eating Smelts

Runner-up in the 2022 Food-Writing Flash Contest

Standing in line at the fish counter, I hear the man two people in front of me ask for smelts. “We don’t have any today,” the counter man tells him. Then, my son looks up and asks, “What are smelts, Mom? How do you eat them?” I think a minute and then tell him, “There are seven things you should know about smelts.”

  1. Smelts are small fish whose bones are soft enough to allow us to devour them whole.
    My father loved them. Grandma fried smelts after dipping them in egg, then a thin layer of flour spiked with salt, pepper, and grated romano cheese.
  2. Smelts are smelly when they fry. The deep basket fryer oil retained “smelt essence” long after smelts were cooked. Grandma tossed it before frying the sweet balls of dough and powder sugar I liked and still love. The kitchen smelled for days.
  3. Smelts are at the end of the case in the fish stores, as they were in the time before meat and fish came on Styrofoam trays. Grandma used to buy enough for her, for Dad, and more—just enough so we could all “at least try just one.”
  4. Smelts once fried were set out on a platter in the center of Grandma’s dinner table. My mother would put two on her plate, three on Dad’s.
    Just one for me. “It won’t hurt, to try just one,” she would whisper. But the cloak of flour and oil did not hide the creature’s accusing eyes or tame its smell.
  5. Smelts are more bearable when sampled tail first, but oh my, the bones.
    Not as soft as they told me, though. I hear their bones crunching inside my head as I chew. I forced myself to swallow one small bite. After my grandma died, no one in our family made smelts. They disappeared. I was relieved.
  6. Smelts are, however, making a comeback. I’ve seen them in this very store, at this very counter. Your dad likes them. He said that the next time I see them, I should buy them. He promises to fry them for us.
  7. Smelts will definitely appear on our holiday serving platters. The fish man has promised me he will have them. Your father will fry them, and I will take just one, knowing now to bite tail first. This is also how I advise you to manage it, son, with one addition. After that first bite, when the master fryer turns away, I will carefully make the remaining fish disappear into my paper napkin. Smile at me when you have followed my example and I will smile back, acknowledging that although smelts may reappear, you and I know the best way to make them disappear.
Joan Leotta
Joan Leotta

Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. As a performer, she tells tales of food, family, nature, and strong women. Her essays, articles, poems, and short stories have been widely published in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the UK. She is a 2021 and 2022 Pushcart nominee and was in Best of Penny Fiction 2021. She was a runner up in the 2022 Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Competition and is a nominee for Best of the Net 2022. Her first chapbook, Languid Lusciousness with Lemon, came out in 2017 from Finishing Line Press. Her second chapbook, Feathers on Stone, is coming in late 2022 from Main Street Rag.