The Boomerang

Understand history. Understand the world.

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) is considered by many as one of the greatest American writers. His novels on World War I, the Spanish Civil War, bullfighting and big game hunting has helped to solidify a view of Hemingway as a man’s man who killed what he ate. A hamburger recipe, supposedly of Hemingway’s favorite, has circulated the internet and foodies and literary scholars alike have vowed to try it out in honor of this great writer. However, Hemingway not only ate cows with great delight, he also ate dolphin. Would you eat dolphin in his honor?

Ernest Hemingway (1950). Source: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was born in Oak Park, Illinois, but spent most of his life living elsewhere. From 1927 until the mid-1950s, Hemingway lived in Key West, Florida, and on Cuba. Here he wrote the novels A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, respectively. As a child he had learned how to hunt and fish and while he lived in Florida and Cuba, fishing was one of Hemingway’s pastimes. During World War II Hemingway outfitted his fishing boat with guns and explosives and patrolled the waters off the Cuban coast looking for enemy submarines.

Hemingway’s life in Florida and Cuba lays the foundation for his Pulitzer Prize winning story, The Old Man and the Sea. The Old Man and the Sea is a story of the aging Cuban fisherman Santiago and his struggle to land a marlin.

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Ernest Hemingway (right) with a so-called “apple-cored” marlin, Bimini, 1935. This is probably what Santiago’s marlin looked like after the sharks go to it.
Source: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The struggle with the fish takes Santiago far off the coast and he is forced to spend several nights in his boat with insufficient food and water. To survive Santiago fishes for dolphin. Hemingway describes the catching of a dolphin as follows:

Just before it was dark […] his small line was taken by a dolphin. [—] When the fish was at the stern, plunging and cutting from side to side in desperation, the old man leaned over the stern and lifted the burnished gold fish with its purple spots over the stern. […] it pounded the bottom of the skiff with its long flat body, its tail and its head until he clubbed it across the shining golden head until it shivered and was still. (p. 855)

The first time I read this, I did not think that much about the actual description of the animal Santiago had caught. I was more focused on the struggle. However, Hemingway clearly describes the dolphin as a golden fish. Confusing marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, with fish is not uncommon in literature. Throughout Moby Dick, Herman Melville refers to all whales, including the White Whale himself, as fish. The Biblical story of Noah and the Whale, in fact, is a story about a man named Noah who is swallowed by a fish. Would Hemingway make such a mistake?

No, he wouldn’t. And he didn’t. Which becomes evident in the description of Santiago cleaning the dolphin he just caught:

The stars were bright now and he saw the dolphin clearly and he pushed the back of his knife into his head and drew him out from under the stern. He put one of his feet on the fish and slit him quickly from the vent up to the tip of his lower jaw. Then he put his knife down and gutted him with his right hand, scooping him clean and pulling the gills clear. (p. 858)

The give-away is the last four words: “pulling the gills clear”. Hemingway is obviously not talking about a marine mammal since they do not have gills.

What Hemingway is talking about is a fish called mahi-mahi. The local name for this fish in South Florida is “dolphin”.

Mahi-mahi caught off the coast of Costa Rica

Mahi-mahi is found in temperate, sub-tropical and tropical waters all over the world, which can explain why the fish caught by Santiago in the Mexican Gulf has a Hawaiian name. Mahi-mahi in Hawaiian means “very strong”. The mahi-mahi are attracted to the seaweed Sargassum, which can be found in plenty around the Florida Keys. Incidentally, Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea repeatedly makes references to the Sargassum seen by Santiago from his fishing boat. The mahi-mahi is distinguished by its odd shaped head and dazzling colors. Or as Santiago puts it,

The dolphin looks green of course because he is really golden (p. 855)

Santiago, forced to eat the fish raw, also states that the dolphin tastes the best when cooked. So here is a recipe on blackened mahi-mahi, which is the way I prefer to prepare my dolphin.

Blackened Mahi-Mahi (or Dolphin)
Equal measures of
paprika powder
chili powder
ground coriander
ground garlic
Mixed with
one freshly squeezed lemon
olive oil

Smear it all over the mahi-mahi fillets and sear on both sides in a skillet.

Bon appetit!

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Ernest Hemingway Four Novels (Barnes & Noble, New York, 2007)

The images of Ernest Hemingway and the mahi-mahi have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

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