Codfish and Potatoes: A quintessentially Bermudian Sunday breakfast
Bermuda—a small, wealthy British Overseas Territory in the North Atlantic — doesn’t make much sense. Most locals, when asked to describe what Bermudian culture is, struggle to provide a unified answer. To be American is to worship the flag and freedom. To be British is to be stoic — taking hardship on the chin (and downplaying the god-awful weather). Bermuda, in contrast, has no obvious grand narrative.
The island is historically and officially British. Yet its proximity to America has dictated its economic fortunes, and thus way of life, since it was founded in 1609 as an extension of the Jamestown, Virginia colony. Over time, Bermuda has also been influenced by immigrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere. This melting pot of a society can be tasted on the Bermudian plate.
The mid-19th Century saw the already declining Portuguese empire further decimated by famine. The British Overseas Territory of Bermuda was a colonial backwater during the time between American independence and the Civil War. It was also in desperate need of experienced agricultural labour following Britain’s passage of the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833.
Such an opportunity (and the relatively similar setting) led Portuguese islanders from Madeira and the Azores to begin migrating over en-masse a decade later. With them came bacalhau — dried and salted cod — and potatoes. Many former Afro-Caribbean slaves, newly-freed, also sought out opportunities for work in Bermuda. They came bearing cornmeal — a starchy staple of their diet — as well as tomatoes and plantains.
As its name suggests, Codfish and Potatoes allows little room for frivolity. Derived out of necessity by the poor, seafaring Atlantic societies from where it came, it is comprised of a few cheap staples that, when done right, provides a hearty fare sure to satisfy many mouths.
From the Portuguese: Codfish — purchased dried and salted, as a means of keeping before widespread refrigeration — is soaked overnight in water to re-hydrate and remove excess salt, then boiled stove-top until flaky. Once finished, boil the potatoes.
From the Afro-Caribbean emigres: banana or plantain can be pan-fried in oil and lightly salted, or consumed raw; the ‘turned’ cornmeal, as it is locally known, is cooked stove-top in saltwater from the thawed cod — first add brown sugar and chopped stewed tomatoes (okra optional). Once you bring the water to a boil, add the cornmeal — turning it thoroughly until you get a soft, sticky hash (not-too-dissimilar in texture from mashed potatoes).
Finally, a tomato and onion sauce — seasoned according to tightly-guarded family secrets — is stewed and added to top it all off; hard-boiled egg optional. From the hipsters: add avocado on the side, but don’t let grandma see. Serve piping hot, and be sure to have enough for extended family should they stop over after church.
I’ve heard many Bermudians say that we have no distinct culture. Not so, I’d argue. Bermudian culture is a blend of Afro-Caribbean, Portuguese, British and American. Bermudian culture is as Atlantic as salt cod. Bermudian culture is Codfish and Potatoes.