My memory raced back 40 years to when my grandfather corned fish and had them hanging in a sheltered area for months – and they remained forever fresh. Today rather than corning fish at home (the local term for making saltfish), one can pick up a package of already processed salt fish in the supermarket. Sam, though, likes his salt-fish prepared the traditional way. Upon my return, sure enough, he was ready to give an authoritative lesson on the subject.
"You corn fish to preserve them," he began as the crowd size increased. "Long ago, from Anegada to Jost Van Dyke, that's what the process was. In those days, the people caught lots of fish and they didn't want to lose their product since they had no refrigerators. So, they corned the fish and took it to St. Thomas because the trade in those days was better than it was here."
Sam – who described himself as "a better cutter than any local surgeon" – had three knives to begin the process. One was used to cut through the fish easily and quickly to put the salt in the creases, the second was a saw tooth knife, which is used to cut through bones – like the head and spine – while the third is a back up that could split the fish if need be.
After the fish is scaled, the process begins by removing the center bone – it can also remain but it's a personal choice Sam noted – pointing out that when one purchases salt fish, they have a choice of bone and boneless.
In the process that took ten minutes Sam used an 18 pound Anegada grouper for his demonstration and sliced the meat so that the natural salt he was sprinkling, which came from Salt Island, could go thoroughly through the flesh making it flavorful and tasty. The salt, which is garnished with black pepper, local hot peppers and garlic, acts as a preservative and extracts the excess water from the flesh that might contain bacteria, improving the product's quality. Besides food preservation, the salt also keeps flies and insect that might contaminate the product.
The eyes were also removed and Sam noted that because they contain water, they would hinder the proper preservation process. After the process, the fish is brined (saturated in its own extracted water for 15-24 hours) then it's hung on a line to dry out as the sun does its natural work – and just like in the old times one hopes it doesn't rain. Sometimes, the fish is hung in a shaded area so that it's not exposed to moisture.
"Things have come a long way and nowadays, with technology, we can preserve the fish longer with icing," he noted. "That is one thing we are promoting within the industry and educating our fishermen about the importance of ice. Ice cools, the sun bakes, so it's a balancing act to get the best quality and be able to please your customers."
While he usually does corning for his personal use, Sam said demonstrating the process before a crowd was inspiring, as the crowed loved what he was doing and he fielded numerous questions. Several people told him their grandparents did the process and gave him advice – which he already knew – but welcomed it anyway. "I'm happy to see the young people coming around and seeing how we corn fish," Sam said. "That's a wonderful thing." And, a lesson passed on.