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Travel Writing by Chelle

Destination: Bahamas
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Souse, Johnnycake, and Boil' Fish

The vocabulary of traditional Bahamian breakfast

By Chelle Koster Walton

For purchase only; published in Island Scene magazine Dec. 2001

When Becky Smith was only 7 years old in the Exuma Islands, she would get up at 4 a.m. to cook breakfast for her father before he shoved off in his wooden boat to lure fish hunting for breakfast of their own. She had to stand on a box to reach the stove.

Becky still gets up early to cook breakfast for half the population of Freeport, it sometimes seems. She doesn't need a box to stand on now, but her stove top still produces the same heady aromas and hearty flavors of her childhood. Becky's Restaurant's Bahamian-style breakfasts are so popular, she serves them daylong, made to order, just as she did for her father.

Back then, Bahamians ate what came from the sea, their "yard" (garden), and, to supplement, tin cans. That explains why dishes such as boil' fish, stew fish, conch souse, and tuna and grits (just wait, it gets even stranger) became embedded in Bahamian morning tradition. For a cold pizza breakfaster such as myself, breakfast in the islands has always been the departure from everyday American life I anticipated most. It all began with the chunk of steaming johnnycake and plate of "fire engine" I tasted on my first trip to Grand Bahama Island.

Why children and some adults refer to corned beef and grits as "fire engine" has even Bahamians guessing. Some say it has to do with the quickness of the preparation; others, the red sauce that binds the minced canned meat, onions, and green peppers together. As for the johnnycake, its name is a corruption of "journey cake," short cakes colonials carried on long trips. The Bahamian version does not follow the rules of other West Indian flat, pan-cooked johnnycake. It's baked in long loaves and has the coarse texture and sweetness of cornbread. It is the must-order accompaniment to the most trademark Bahamian breakfast of all, boiled (a.k.a. boil') fish.

Seafood still figures importantly into the Bahamian diet, even at breakfast time. Boil' fish is a broth soup with the fish bones, skin, and sometimes even the head still intact. (Its a matter of pride and a test of Bahamianism how well you can clean the meat off the bones.) Restaurant cooks prefer grouper, but snapper or any catch of the day will suffice. Purists use sea water in the broth, others simply wash the fish with sea, or at least salted, water. They then season it with lime juice and hot pepper, and cook it with onions and potatoes. The salty-tart-fishy result is said to cure hangovers. It cured a stubborn cold the first time I tried it. For an extra dose of recovery, add more heat. Authentic Bahamian restaurants, such as Geneva's Place in Freeport (a restaurant named after its cook is always a good indication) serves lime wedges and a small but potent native bird pepper on the side. If you ask at Becky's, you can get a cruet of salt peppers -- crushed bird peppers in lime and salt.

Stewed (stew') fish makes different use of the day's catch, smothering it in a thick brown, tomato-based sauce. At Blue Lagoon Seafood Restaurant on Paradise Island, the fish is first floured and fried, and the sauce flecked with fresh thyme. Stew' conch is a less common variation. Conch also appears in souse, another ubiquitous breakfast concoction in several guises. Prepared much the same as boil' fish, souse can feature chicken (most common), pigs feet, mutton, or even "sheep tongue." I've lacked the courage to try the latter, but, a young Bahamian woman told me recently, so does she, so I don't feel too "conchy joe" (non-native Bahamian) about it. (After all, I DO clean my boil fish bones.)

Around grits, other traditional dishes revolve. Besides corned beef, you'll find tuna, fried bologna (called "sausage" on the menu), or sardines. Upon request, Becky makes an old-time recipe called grits belo, consisting of onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and "whatever else you want to put in." Bahamian women, especially those watching their figures, favor tuna 'n' grits, which is tuna salad (seasoned with lime and chiles as well as onions and mayo) on a plate with grits. Its surprisingly tasty though I suspect not as light as the women would like to believe. Lighter, by far, nonetheless, than the stews and sweets coconut tarts and (sweet) potato bread that tempt at the breakfast table.

Not all Bahamians eat traditional breakfast every day, most typically on weekends. Eggs and pancakes have made their way into the island a.m. diet, especially in the cities. Famous Lucaya beach conch stand owner Joe Billy (Joe Gilbert) only occasionally indulges in traditional breakfast, and that's usually when he goes home to Cat Island or when he buys something from "May," who sells breakfast out of the back of her car near the airport. In Nassau, business people on the run get breakfast take-out downtown at Bahamian Kitchen.

More and more, non-Bahamians are discovering the adventure of island breakfast. Becky Smith sees to it: "I always try to get tourists to try a little taste," she says. "I specially make their fish with a little less bone. But some clean off the bone good as a Bahamian."

In Grand Bahama and the out-islands, youll find traditional breakfast served in the plain, homey dining rooms of off-the-tourist path native restaurants. Same is true in Nassau, though it also has become the fare of mainstream modern restaurants with tourist appeal, such as Conch Fritters, Café Johnny Canoe, and Blue Lagoon.

Wherever you relish the culinary adventure, Bahamian breakfast recollects a slice of old-island times that has survived as a bond with Bahamians' sea-washed past and a link for daring visitors to the essence of island cuisine and lifestyle.

Sidebar: Breakfast Call

Find authentic Bahamian breakfast at these restaurants throughout the islands:

New Providence Island

Blue Lagoon Seafood Restaurant, Paradise Island, 242-363-5364

Bahamian Kitchen, downtown Nassau, 242-325-0702

Conch Fritters Bar & Grill, downtown Nassau, 242-323-8778

The Shoal Restaurant, downtown Nassau, 242-323-4400

Café Johnny Canoe, Cable Beach, 242-327-3373

Grand Bahama Island

Geneva's Place, Freeport, 242-352-5085

Becky's Restaurant, Freeport, 242-352-5247

Georgie's, Lucaya, 242-373-8513

Les Fountains, Lucaya, 242-373-9553

Great Abaco Island

Lazy Parrot Restaurant, Sunset Point Hotel, 242-367-5333

Anglers Restaurant, Abaco Beach Resort, 242-367-2158
Mangoes Restaurant, 242-367-2366

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Sidebar: Boil' Fish

2 lb. grouper or other firm-fleshed white fish

2 limes, juiced

bird pepper

salt & pepper

2 medium onions, sliced

1 stalk celery, diced

6 potatoes, peeled and quartered

1/4 cup butter

1 liter water (sea water, if preferred)

Cut the grouper into serving pieces. Wash with salted water and vinegar. Season with lime juice, salt, pepper, and bird pepper if desired, and let marinate while you prepare the rest of the meal. Place the remaining ingredients in a deep saucepan and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add fish and more water if required. Cook another 5 minutes or until fish is done but still firm. Serve with salt peppers and wedges of lime.

Copyright Chelle Koster Walton; it is illegal to reproduce this article or photograph without author's permission.
To purchase this article for publication, contact ChelleTrav@aol.com.