Cooking Saltfish – My Jamaican Childhood Memory

This is not a recipe by any means but a childhood memory of me cooking saltfish for the first time. As a child growing up in Clarendon during the seventies, if you happen to be the eldest child in the household it was your responsibility to learn fundamental domestic duties. Cooking, washing, ironing, sewing, things like that. In certain household, if the eldest child happens to be a boy he was also expected to learn these things but if you were a girl especially, the bulk of societal and parental pressure was ours, to prepare us for future roles as wives and mothers. In the evenings after school when most of us children would be outside playing, my oldest cousin ‘Leta’ would be indoors with her mother learning how to cook. Then it would be my turn.

I would often be distracted by the giggles and merriment outside wishing I was out there instead of being in the stuffy kitchen learning how to cook. It didn’t help that I could see what was happening out there through the clear glass panes, the laughter or friends chasing each other, just basically having a great time. Needless to say my attention to the cooking lessons was less than one hundred percent.

On this particular evening Auntie had to go out for a short period and my cousin Leta wasn’t home either so I had the responsibility to finish dinner, ground provisions, dumplings and saltfish. She had already cooked the saltfish, ground provisions, yam, green bananas and cornmeal dumplings. All I had to do was ‘pick up’ the saltfish, scrape off the skin, de-boned it to the best of ability and sautéed it down with onions, escallions, tomatoes and sprinkle with a little black pepper. Sounds easy right?

Not when you’re ten or twelve and didn’t know what the heck I was doing or have the courage to say “I don’t know how.” So I dutifully washed the saltfish, scraped the skin off and took out all the big bones I could see and ‘picked it up’ which just means separating it into smaller pieces. I washed the tomatoes and sliced it quite nicely, then the onions, next I stripped the escallions (skellions) and cut them just like she did. I had a colorful mixture of ‘seasonings’ with a pungent and familiar smell so I knew I was doing the right thing so far. Next I poured the coconut oil in the ‘frying pan’, set that on the stove, lit it and when it was heated enough I put in my colorful mixture with a sizzling sound and with a wooden spoon I sautéed being careful not to break the beautiful onion rings I was so proud of. So far so good.

I added the saltfish and mixed it in with the sautéed seasonings and I cooked, cooked and boy did I cook the heck out of that saltfish! When I proudly finished cooking the saltfish it was brown and fried dry! More like saltfish-jerky if ever there was such a thing! The onions, tomatoes and escallions burnt to a crisp and smelled terrible. Of course I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be like that even though I can’t ever recall her giving us anything like that to eat. I put the lid on the pot. Still, I was so proud not unlike the peacock, I had cooked-up the saltfish and I was finished! I cleaned off the counter, washed up the utensils and dishes I had used and went outside to play thinking I did a great job and all was well. Well…!

Auntie came home and immediately called me inside. I knew by the tone of her voice all was not well! When she saw the end result of her cooked-up saltfish… let’s just say after she started in on me, punctuating every sentence while she raised her hand with the strap, my butt stung for hours! Had I been paying attention when the lesson was in progress or had the courage to say “I didn’t know how” I would’ve been spared all of that. You can bet your bottom dollar I never paid less than a hundred percent attention during my next lesson.

Thanks to my Aunt I can now make a decent dinner with cooked-up saltfish and even adding other ingredients like okras, sweet peppers or carrots sometimes to make it interesting.

© Carmen Lawrence

Photo by Anna Auza on Unsplash