A String of Fish

I was passing by in a friend’s car,

on our way to Doctor’s Cave beach.

We were friends reminiscing, talking,

looking forward to a lazy, idyllic day.

It was beautiful outside, the way the sky mirrored the sea,

a striking depth of blue frosted with clouds.

Looking out the passenger window,

I motioned Rick to pull over.

Hanging from a crooked stick beside the road

Was a string of fish.

All I wanted was a picture,

to capture a spear fisherman’s bounty from the sea.

These fish must have swum in a school,

 close to each other,

Darting in and out the coral rock.

They looked like friends,

uniform in size,

oblivious to the menace above.

I could imagine him, floating, suspended,

the sun glistening on his back.

The furrow of his brow, inhaling deeply,

 as he pulled the rubber taut on his spear.

Silent, deadly as a mako shark, shooting them one-by-one.

The spurt of blood in the water as he attached each fish to a string,

then tied it to his waist.

He barely cast a shadow, soundlessly hunting with grim purpose.

Flippers moving in unison,

glass mask protecting his eyes.

I’m sure he thought about their worth in dollar bills.

A line of fish tied with a length of string.

Their scales glistened brightly in the afternoon sun,

hues of red and green like tiny crystals on a hanging chandelier.

You could tell he had just caught them;

standing close my nose smelled the sea.

I thought about cooking.

Scaling each one over an opened sheet of old newspaper.

Using my knife to slice the belly, removing  the entrails, then the gills.

A cascade of coarse ground salt and pepper for seasoning.

A string of fish,

Swaying slightly as a truck thundered past, inanimate, perfect for frying.

I thought about their white flesh,

hot and flaky and the crunch from crispy skin.

I used my fork to remove the bones,

pointed like needles both big and small.

And when I was done,

and ready to leave.

I looked at this string of fish;

their eyes staring back at water so close.

Eyes larger than mine,

unblinking and somber.IMG_6610IMG_6611IMG_6612IMG_6609

Spice it up Pepper Shrimp !!!

“River shrimp sweet, spice wit pepper, cook wit heat.” Jomo Morris

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Middle Quarters in St. Elizabeth is famous for its peppered shrimp. It’s a simple preparation, consisting of fresh shrimp paired with the fiery heat of local Scotch bonnet pepper. The juiciest examples of fresh shrimp, pronounced “swims” by the vendors who sell them, come from among the thick reeds and rushes that are characteristic of the Black River’s swampy morass. IMG_4162The Lower Morass consists of shallow estuaries, marshland, and mangrove swamps which provide a rich ecosystem for a broad range of fish and birds. Mangrove snapper, snook, mullet, egret, heron and osprey all abound here. Shrimp, though tiny in size, also thrive in this brackish water and bring a viable cottage industry to this part of the island. Fishermen still use bamboo traps – a method brought to Jamaica by African slaves – to catch the shrimp, which are then sold to vendors.  The construction and appearance of the bamboo baskets still bear similarities to those used by fishermen along the Niger River.IMG_4142

St. Elizabeth is Jamaica’s breadbasket, and it’s easy to see why: everything planted in this rich soil grows profusely and in abundance.  It’s no secret: pepper shrimp from Middle Quarters is delicious because the recipe is simple. The tastiest shrimp, cooked with salt and fresh peppers in a giant Dutch pot. Scotch bonnet peppers grown in St. Elizabeth are fiercely hot and have a subtle smoky and fruity flavor, unlike any other pepper.IMG_3009

It’s a scenic two-hour drive from Montego Bay to Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth. By car, turn left at the stoplight by Reading, up Longhill, through Cambridge, past orchards filled with oranges and acres of sugar cane, make a left at the sign for Santa Cruz and Savanna La Mar. After passing through the town of Lacovia, keep your eyes open for Holland Bamboo, a beautifully arched arrangement of bamboo trees which shade the road for miles. These bamboo arches and its environs get their name from the Holland sugar estate.  It is said the the owners planted these bamboo arches in the 17th century to provide gentle breezes in the heat of the St. Elizabeth savannah. The landscape changes as you approach Middle Quarters; rolling green hills give way to flat expanses of slow-moving water filled with water rushes. On the right side of the road, as far as the eye can see, the Black River seeps into and enriches the vivid hues and greens of everything it touches.  IMG_3010Everyone wants you to buy a plastic bag filled with bright red river shrimp from them. It’s not unusual to see cars surrounded by a dozen or more women vying for a sale. It can be a bit intimidating to the casual observer. Bags of shrimp pressed close to your face, the gaggle of voices, the smell of pepper and spice, a mob of hands reaching for attention, will last only as long as your indecision from whom to buy. Pick a vendor; buy her shrimp and the crowd melts away as they move on to the next potential sale. In your hands, the prize: a bag or two of shrimp cooked in spices, bright red in color, delicious, salty, hot, and sweet. Pepper shrimp is a great bar snack and tastes even better with a glass of cold beer to wash it down.

Purists believe in eating the entire thing: head, shell, the whole caboodle.  This method is not for everyone. It’s ok to remove the head and suck on the juices and then remove the shell and eat the tasty tail meat.

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Pepper shrimp is easy to prepare at home as well.  Buy 2 lbs. head-on shrimp from the farmers market. Wash shrimp, drain well and pat dry with several sheets of paper towel.  In a very hot Dutch pot or cast iron skillet add 1 tbsp. oil and add shrimp.  Season with ½ tsp. salt (you can add more if you like), 1 finely chopped scotch bonnet pepper (remove the seeds). Cover with a lid and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the lid and add ¼ cup plain white distilled vinegar. Replace lid and cook for another two minutes. Let sit until ready to serve.