(Our host for this week's Fun Monday, Olive , wants to hear our version of a fish story. She very generously gives us a lot of leeway in telling our story. It can be a big whopping exaggeration, ahem lie. Or, we can tell it straight. I'll stick with the truth, or as close as I can remember from 40 years ago, about learning to live in and cook fish, Caribbean style.)
In the early 70s I was a Peace Corps teacher for three years on St. Kitts, a small island in the West Indies. I've written previously about this great experience, but never talked about what day to day life was like in a totally new place and culture.
One of the requirements of the U.S. Peace Corps is that volunteers live among the people they work with and not depend on other volunteers for social support. It takes a while to get to this point--or at least in my case it did. When I arrived on St. Kitts, another particularly adventurous volunteer and I rented an old sugar cane estate house perched close to the Caribbean Sea. The house was about 15 miles out of the capital city, Basseterre. It set in the middle of a sugar cane field. The house had large rooms, tall ceilings and a wrap around porch. On one side there was the sea, on the other the mountain. Roseanne took the bedroom on the mountain side since she was from New Mexico. I took the sea view because I knew the mountains from growing up in Appalachia. The sea views were a novelty for me. However, the mosquitoes were equal opportunity tormentors--the only relief came from the evening winds.
Life on the sugar cane estate was great for several months. Roseanne and I both taught at schools in Basseterre. Every morning we climbed on an open transport truck that carried workers, students, and farmers and their produce into town. Eventually, we pooled our cash and bought a secondhand mini moke which was little more than a glorified golf cart. It did offer us some freedom though. Our house soon became party central for other volunteers and Kittian friends--especially on the weekends. We cooked local foods(I remember a birthday celebrated with Black Cake made with dried fruits soaked in cask wine and angostura bitters, decorated with purple bougainvillea blossoms. . .), swam in the sea, learned to dance to the popular reggae music, and flirted outrageously with fellow volunteers and the locals.
This lifestyle was a novelty for about six months and then it wasn't so much fun. The mini moke broke down frequently and was stolen once. Our house was robbed because the estate was so isolated. We feared the black cane snakes that came close when the fields were burned and the mosquitoes were relentless. Even party central grew tiresome after awhile.
Roseanne and I decided to move closer to our work in Basseterre. I decided to go solo again and rented a small house on the outskirts of Basseterre for me and my new roommate, a dog named Virgil. Unfortunately, I don't have photos of him, but take my word, he was not "overnamed". Our house was near my school and in the neighborhood where many local fishermen lived. The fishermen brought their catch in every morning at dawn and sold it to the locals from their boats pulled up on the beach just across the road from my house. My closest neighbor was a fisherman and his "woman." They lived rough--too much rum, loud fights ending up with her being put out on the street. Some nights she walked up and down cursing him. Other nights she crawled under the house and slept. All this chaos to a backdrop of reggae music.
Now we finally get to the cookin' fish Caribbean style. In previous posts I've written about how kind the local women were to me. Teaching me how to negotiate with local tradesmen and how to cook the unfamiliar foods grown on St. Kitts. One woman in particular, taught me the ropes. She had a vested interest in me. I taught her daughter and fancied myself in love with her handsome scoundrel of a son. Mrs. L took me to the open air markets and showed me how to haggle for meat, vegetables, and fruits. She also introduced me to a couple of fishermen who would take me on as a steady customer. Early in the morning she and I would walk across the street from my house to buy fish before I left for school.
If you grow up in my part of the south, cooking fish means rolling fillets in corn meal and pan frying them or shaking out a row of fish sticks for the oven. On St. Kitts, fish was a mainstay protein eaten most days. I learned how to use fresh herbs and spices to make delicious local recipes. Here's some of my favorite dishes:
1. Virgil's Fish and Rice--there was no Alpo on the island that I could afford on a PC volunteer's budget. So, twice a week I cooked up a big pot of fish and rice for Virgil and stored it in the fridge. He got a big wedge every night. He always watched me clean the fish and would not have minded me leaving on the heads, tails and other disgusting etcs.
2. Fish with Rice and Peas--every meal on St. Kitts included rice and peas. The peas were any variety of dried beans. The fish was gently braised with aromatic vegetables like peppers, onion, garlic and tomato and fresh herbs. The sides for this meal would be fried plantains or green papaya slices.
3. Flying Fish and Fungi -- small fish were cooked in a tomato broth and served over fungi, a cornmeal mush.
4. Conchs and Rice -- near Christmas my scoundrel boyfriend would bring me this great delicacy. The meat from these huge mollusks had to be pounded to tenderize and then, you guessed it, cooked with peas and rice--and coconut milk.
5. Salt fish Cod--this dish is a carryover from when European sailors subsisted on salt dried fish for months. These hard, dry bricks of codfish had to be soaked for at least 18 hours to "reconstitute" it. It was then cooked in a mild tomato broth and served with fresh shop bread on Sunday morning.
6. Seviche--is a top quality fresh fish that is marinated in lemon and lime juice. The acid in the juices "cook" the fish. Seviche is served as a starter or appetizer. I learned to make this fish from a German woman whom I taught to speak English. Her husband was an engineer with Curtis Matthes Manufacturing on the island. Prior to St Kitts, they lived in South America where she learned to make this dish.
Well, there you have it--a few ways to cook fish Caribbean style. So far as I know, everything is pretty trustworthy in these recipes. All whoppers avoided if possible. Now head over to Olive's place where you may find some actual fishing tales told.
- Recent retiree--35 year's experience teaching reading, English, adult basic education and volunteer leadership skills. Started this blog to exchange ideas and commentary with friends and others having an interest in joining the discussions. Greatest life accomplishments include: 1.organized my 3rd grade class to check out library books for me to get around librarian's weekly limit--Amazon.com, the Mullins Elementary 3rd Grade Class of 1956 is still waiting for "thank you" notes; 2. volunteered in the Peace Corps, island of St. Kitts, West Indies; 3.taught adults to read, earn their GEDs., and speak English as a second language; 4. bought a border collie puppy for $6, got evicted rather than give him up, and began a life-long love affair with all things "Dog"; 5. joined a physical fitness boot camp in my mid-50s--don't mess with someone who's been doing regulation pushups in wet grass at 5:30 a.m.; 6. walked across Northern England with best friend Sally--over 80 miles from the Irish to North Seas; and 7. travelled to many foreign countries for pleasure and work.