On uncommon occasion, reading some British book, I have seen a reference to eating whitebait. This has generally struck me as one of those pretentious understatements, rather like calling an enormous mansion a country pile, the pile in this case being short for pile of stones. After all, bait is something you use to catch fish; it’s not something for human consumption. Might as well be referring to a salad as rabbit food – only referring to it that way and no other way, since any time I saw whitebait it was used just that way with no further explanation, paraphrase, or context, as though absolutely everyone knew just what it meant.
Rather frustrating, aren’t they, those in-group cultural references? Terms used in an everyone-knows manner when you have no idea what they might be referring to. Do you know, it was years and years between the first time I saw consumption referred to as a disease in a work of fiction and the time I finally learned that it was just another term for tuberculosis. (That was before we could just Google everything up on Wikipedia on teh interwebz.)
I gathered, anyway, that whitebait must be some kind of fish. The context made that plain enough; also, I knew that fish were sometimes used as bait for other fish (it’s a fish-eat-fish world), and, having done fishing on occasion in my youth, I knew that the other things you might bait fish with were less likely on one’s dinner plate. I figured it must be some term for some set of white fish.
In fact, it refers to very young fish of actually quite a variety of species – mainly herring and sprat, but varying from place to place. The original fish to which it referred were caught in the Thames around Greenwich, and given the name because they were used as bait to catch bigger fish. But they gained popularity as snacks and light eating. After all, they’re just one to two inches long. You eat them whole, head, bones, and all. I think whitebait might make about one bite.
The word whitebait, on the other hand, makes two bites, or anyway two touches of the tongue, one at the end of each syllable, and each syllable is a morpheme, a whole word in fact, an entire Anglo-Saxon root. In saying whitebait, the mouth starts more forward, and ends up pulled farther back. If you make it sprat whitebait it will have three short, crisp syllables, but it seems that generally one doesn’t bother specifying what species they are; indeed, they’re all so small, you could lose them altogether if you were to batter them for deep-frying. Mind you, they often are coated in flour or some kind of batter for deep-frying, but you may feel sure it’s not the thick kind of batter you’re likely to get with full-size fish that’s served with chips.
I’m not sure exactly why this word came into my mind today, but it was brought back some hours later when Aina and I went for fish and chips at Off the Hook, which has five different kinds of fish available in four different kinds of batter (one of which gluten-free) – but no whitebait. It happened that on the TV screen in the back of the place the movie Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck was showing, and it reached its conclusion just as we reached ours: the small white men in their small wooden boats going after a large white whale; they want it for consumption (I mean oil, mainly, but perhaps food too), but it becomes all-consuming for Captain Ahab, and in the end he, small mouthful that he is, is fully consumed by it – not eaten, but caught up in the harpoon lines and dragged under, and his whaleboat likewise lost. You might say he was the white bait; at any rate, his life was abated when he was ablated. He was no less fish than the whale was, and in the end he was battered and deep-sixed.
But at least he was not in his infancy. Whitebait are so small because they have not yet reached maturity. They are cut off before they can reproduce. The result can leave us hard of herring and short of sprat. Better to stick with the thicker batter rather eating something that’s just one biteweight.