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Fish for Lent: When inflation meets tradition

Published: 
Thursday, April 13, 2017
Fish vendor Ravi Ramkissoon at his stall in Cragnish Village, Princes Town. PHOTO: RISHI RAGOONATH

When local fishermen announced in February that the cost of Kingfish could be as much as $75 per pound, shoppers were not happy and I am sure at that price, they wondered if their Kingfish came with an actual crown.

Of course, it meant that as a fish lover happening to go through the post Carnival Lenten sacrifice, you would be definitely feeling some apprehension over how fish prices skyrocketed and contemplate asking your local bank for a small loan to cover your pot.

Getting your fish fix from fast food outlets proved to be harder on the pocket than missing a KFC Real Deal, for tilapia and shrimp combinations were going as high as $49 to $55 a meal. Alternatively, buying fresh fish would make any pescatarian bawl and wish they could bring back the ole time days, which I still remember well.

Growing up with my Tobago-born grandmother meant that every Friday and Good Friday, religiously, we ate fish. Her chosen catch was Kingfish, cut into steaks for the ‘fry and stew’ method or ‘dressed’ (gutted, gills removed and fins and tail trimmed) and left whole for stuffing.

But if things were lean that particular Easter, the runner up was a large tin of Canadian salmon, stewed with tomatoes, onions, chives and thyme and lovingly spooned over an austere combination boiled rice, provisions, plantains and peas with bitter greens like watercress.

Taking to social media to find out what consumers were doing to ease their Friday fish conundrum interestingly showed that the need to economise is winning over religion and tradition, and taste preferences ran a close second. Indeed, many were foregoing fish. Those who weren’t had intentions of cooking everything from barbecued pork to curried duck. Those who did chose tinned mackerel, followed closely by saltfish, tuna, salmon, snapper fillets and smoked herring. Interestingly, tinned salmon, that ever-faithful standby, was not a ready choice; but with a price tag of $31 to $35 for the large tin, it wasn’t difficult to see why.

“I always buy and freeze (fish) way before the prices go sky high. This year I may use tinned salmon but that and all is [censoring himself] expensive,” said Felix Padilla, the man behind the popular food blog Simply Trini Cooking. Many echoed his sentiments, except for Cheryl Lala, who made her intentions clear by choosing to have a ‘home cooked steak’ over fish for Good Friday, adding that she was not particularly religious, and as a youngster disliked the taste of fish and wasn’t too happy when KFC outlets would be closed on that day.

“But I enjoy cooking fish now as an adult,” she added cheekily.

Conversely, according to Tobago resident Bernadette Roberts (whose son is a fisherman), prices are comparatively lower over there and you’d be hard pressed to find someone paying more than $25 per pound. “All fish is $20 a pound in the country; sometimes it’s $25. But I heard that down in Pigeon Point it’s more like $40 to $50,” she said. And an even happier contender is Semoy Piggott, an avid cook and writer who gave huge props to her mother for bringing her a bountiful supply of fish from the sister isle for her Lenten lunch.

“Right now I can choose anything I need,” she said happily. “My mother brought dolphin, boneless red fish fillets and even smoked albacore. I have down to conch in the deep freezer—I can choose anything I need, and fish in Tobago was $25 and the smaller fish is $20. Depending on who you go by, they will also clean it for you, so I am good to go.”

So, when all is said and done, did tradition win over inflation? Well, it definitely depended on whom you asked, but it was a close race (or swim) to the finish line. Overall, there is no guilt about not having fish to eat on Good Friday due to shallow pockets, but many savvy shoppers made sure to ‘take in front’ to ensure their stash was within reach. Amusingly, fishermen have reported that sales were not so good, and the prices took a little dip (pun intended) and will continue to ebb and flow until the season ends.

And if you’re wondering what’s going into my pot, don’t worry. My memories of Granny’s Lenten cooking will continue to sustain me as I head to the supermarket to find myself some salt fish for a special Good Friday Buljol to satisfy my family’s piscine persuasions.

Happy Easter, everyone!