What she didn’t know is that I dream of being a fish, a dolphin, a whale; anything slick and fast that navigates easily through salty waters, pushing all worries away. Night after night after night I’d become this aquatic creature and slip through miles upon miles of space with only speed serving as my guide. Occasionally I stir things up a bit and jump to the surface, sporadically breaking the wall of water for a moment of bright blue sky, hot sun, and prowling birds. But that is gone in an instant, because once again I dive low and deep and swim, swim, swim, fast and furiously.
“You’re here practically every day, honey” she noted, slightly amused. She was an older woman from one of the islands and she’d been working here for years, parked between produce and meats, serving sterile-looking bits of salmon and tilapia to shoppers weary of anything that wasn’t pork or beef. It seemed I did make a daily stop to visit her and her fish.
She was trapped in this barren environment as I was, forced to sell remnants of the seafood she most definitely enjoyed heartily as a child growing up. Seeing her brought me back to my childhood trips to Barbados, a sunny island filled with warm salty air, turquoise beaches and beautiful people. Food was simple and direct in Barbados: every Tuesday and Thursday morning the local fish market, which consisted of a decaying wooden table and three stumps of wood painted in faded reds and yellows, would come to life with whatever the local fishermen brought in.
I loved coming to the market. It would always be hot and crowded and very chaotic, with a smell of dirt and fish guts that inevitably brought lots of flies. There’d be the occasional dog or cat scamming for scraps and plenty of Bajan women dressed in bright colored dresses haggling over the fresh catch still squirming in the buckets. It was smelly, hot, and teeming with people but it was alive, and I relished being the little blonde kid stuck in the middle of it all. It didn’t take long; by noon the market was closed, all the fish was gone and the only remnant of any activity would be that happy stray cat licking a paw or two.
Some days it would be baskets upon baskets of flying fish- a tiny meaty fish with unusually large pectoral fins that enable it to take flight with each jump. This is the national fish of Barbados and it is a title that is not taken lightly. Flying fish abound, on t-shirts, store signs, and even coins. In kitchens, they are served up slathered in Bajan spice (a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, and mace, amongst other ingredients ) and fried to a crisp alongside wedges of juicy limes. If they didn’t end up on your plate you could see them jumping about carelessly through the water, swimming all worries away as I do in my sleep.
On other days the catch was bigger and the fishermen carried orange plastic buckets flapping with snapper or dolphin. The first time my father told me he had bought dolphin my blue eyes welled up with tears and the images of the kind and good man who was raising me was instantly replaced by new visions of a cruel and heartless Flipper killer. A ten-year old’s mind works fast.
“Dolphin?” was all I managed to mutter in my dismay.
My mother’s intuition salvaged the moment preventing further trauma with a casual chuckle and a quick clarification:
“No, honey, not Flipper dolphin, a fish called dolphin. It’s also called Mahi-Mahi.”
I liked the lyrical sound of Mahi-Mahi, but of course, now that I knew the truth, I preferred the shock value of telling folks I ate dolphin. With that thought my eyes dried up and I was suddenly very hungry.
I soon learned it to be a delicious fish: white and meaty with a firm texture, it too was prepared in the classic Bajan manner, slathered in herbs and pan-fried, enjoyed with a cold Coca-Cola (or a frothy Banks beer for the adults) and barefoot, sandy feet.
Today I see my fish lady has a fresh batch of dolphin and I am inevitably drawn to it. I am under neon lights in a large warehouse space, not under the warm and comforting Caribbean skies where I want to be. This dolphin should be coming off the tiny fisherman’s boat in Barbados, I think to myself. And, even though I don’t share the thought with her, I watch my fish lady with her graying hair, her sun-kissed smile, and her gold tooth, and I know that she must be thinking the same thing too.
She weighs the fillets and wraps them for me, handing me my package with her usual grin. I am thinking of how I will prepare my fish tonight. Perhaps a dash of spice in a creamy sauce would be nice. I suddenly have a craving for a cold beer too.
“See you tomorrow” she sings, and she knows it is true. I always return to the sea, even if under these artificial lights.
Dolphin in Jalapeño Cream Sauce
(adapted from Gourmet Magazine, June 2005, as seen on Epicurious.com)
2 scallions, white parts finely chopped and greens reserved for another use
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 to 2 cups finely chopped fresh jalapeño, including seeds
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon salt
4 (6- to 8-oz) pieces flounder fillet
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
½ cup quartered grape tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Cook chopped scallions in butter in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add jalapeño (to taste), cream, and ¼ teaspoon salt and bring to a simmer.
Pat fish dry, then sprinkle with pepper and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Fold each fillet in half crosswise. Put folded fish in sauce in skillet and cook at a bare simmer, covered, until fish is just cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer fish to a platter and keep warm, covered with foil.
Add tomatoes and cilantro to sauce in skillet, along with any fish juices on platter, and cook over moderately low heat until heated through, about 1 minute. Spoon sauce over fish.