I have an affection for rays. I’ve watched them sleep in a secluded bay under full moonlight, glide between channels of mangroves, and fly beneath the seawater as if they’ve wings. They’re creatures possessed of a quiet grace: Stay still in the water beside them and they’ll graze your leg if you don’t fear their spiked tail. Mostly, though, you wouldn’t want to. As Monsieur Chardin shows us, they are better off beyond the hands of man.
Yes, I am sentimental about rays.
The Still-Life in 1728
Gazing at Chardin’s The Ray, or The Kitchen Interior plumbs from me a visceral reaction: repulsion. The tableau is unsettling and provocative, inciting neither the appetite nor the anticipation of gastronomic pleasure. The anthropomorphic ray has a face reminiscent of a sad clown or a person, however comically, pleading for mercy before death. Apart from the indignity of being eviscerated, he emblazons the wall with a natural opalescent splendor, but the eye doesn’t stray far from raw flesh; he’s hung on a hook until he’s chopped and plopped in a pot.
The sole living object in the painting is the cat. Perched in maniacal rapture, the feline is takings its chance on slurping the glutinous flesh of a half-dozen oysters before it’s swatted off the counter. The instruments of death–i.e. kitchen pans and cutlery–await the arrival of the cook. But what is being said about death here and what of life? What did Chardin intend? Interpretations range from religious overtones of Christ and martyrs, to man versus nature, to the simplest explanation: rays or skates were a regular fixture in French fish markets. No need for squeamishness here.
Play find the skate! – ‘Water’ by Giuseppe Acrimboldo (1566).
On Zee Plate
Curious about the customs and regularity of eating skate (the type of rays commonly dished up), I searched Google books and found recipes for fried skate, boiled skate, steamed skate, skate a la beaufort, skate a la plenty. Turns out, Bubba’s enumeration of shrimp from Forrest Gump equally applies to skate. In the 18th century, the fish was more common in France than England, but today the BBC has skate recipes which leads me to believe skate has been accepted as a tasty food source. According to an 1828 Angler’s Guide, skates were also plentiful in Scotland but the traveling writer wasn’t particularly impressed. The 1785 A View of the British Empire, most especially Scotland, cites Harwich in Essex as supplying London with 2000 tons of fish, including skate. As another writer of ichthyofauna records, presumably some English folk besides residents of Devon ate it as a cheap and nutritious food source.
Across the channel, the opinion on the deliciousness of skate differs and there tends to be greater consensus. The Magazine of Domestic Comforts (1839) describes skate as “. . . held in high estimation, and is looked upon as one of the most delicate of fish.” Back in 2006 when I was in France, I saw skate in Parisian markets and on restaurant menus throughout the countryside. In fact, before I knew skate was a ray, I think I ate it at a restaurant in a teeny French town where the local butcher shop lady had blackened teeth and few, if any people, could or would speak English. I remember asking the hurried waiter to describe the fish and after confirming it as having crimped white flesh, I thought: fish, edible, smells fine – we are good here. Turns out, I believe I also ate pureed brains during that dinner because the waiter called it “cervelle” and ’twas not cervelle de canut (this is what happens when you eat in a town where a lady has blackened teeth!).
The practice of eating skate is apparently not as horror-inducing as I seem to think or as Chardin has portrayed. A book from 1903, Fish, Volume 1 from the Queen Cookery Books at Windsor, describes the various names, the preparation required to turn wing to edible filet, and what I have come to consider a predictable reaction to the cartilaginous fish: “. . . known as the thornback, the tinker, the ray, and the maid ['Young skate are called 'maids' and their flesh is tender and delicate.'] It is seldom seen in its natural and very ugly state on the fishmonger’s slab, though it is common enough when cut up and crimped.”
Do you recall how the ray in Chardin’s still life is hung from a hook? Surprisingly, it is not for effect but rather practicality. An 1897 Handbook of Fish Cookery explains: “Skate improves by being hung up for a day before using.” According to another fish guide, it should be hung head down (rather than Chardin’s head up) for two days in cool weather to fully develop its flavor and texture. The wise fisherman knows that their skin secretes mucus for a number of days after catch and will ward against consuming this anti-digestive . What is the mucus, you ask? Ammonia the skates have converted to urea which is stored in their blood while they’re alive. Nineteenth century Scots in the Hebrides used the hang dry method to prepare “sour skate” (salted and strongly smelling of ammonia) which, based on what I could find, sounds similar to the Norwegian lutefisk (salted and treated with lye).
Of note to literary fans, Dickens, whose prolific pen seems to cover all topics known to man, edited a volume of Household Works in 1883. Whilst eating a sixpence dinner at a Fisheries Exhibition in South Kensington one evening it was remarked: “We were glad it was not skate, for a portion of this fish, with the redness which gives it the appearance of being undone, was served to a lady near us, and was rejected as being uneatable.” The reference to red flesh is a minor conundrum. Skate flesh is ever described as white, but when it’s uncooked or, in the lady’s case, undercooked, it looks like the picture below.
Chagrin, chagrin, my dear. Seems the lady got a raw deal, after all.