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  • Writer's pictureDr. Chi

Tales of an African Booty-Scratcher: Stockfish

Updated: Feb 25

long dried fish with 3 sawed off pieces below it
Nigerians love stockfish!!

Iberians, Latin Americans, and Caribbeans love their bacalao, bacalhão, or salty codfish. Nigerians, on the other hand, preferred that unsalted Norwegian variety: stockfish. It’s strong scent always permeated the air of our home and, by default, our clothes and our hair. The pile of stockfish logs sat in the cupboard, emitting a smell that was the promise of future good food.


My mother’s nickname for my father revealed the state of their marriage. According to my mother, when she first arrived in America to be his wife, she had asked him, “What would you like me to call you?” She said, “He never said anything, so when I needed him, I said, ‘Cliff-lé!’” “Cliff, listen!” was how my mother got my father’s attention, especially when she wanted him to do something for her.

two silver pieces of dried cod hanging upside down
Bacalao's popular in Iberian countries


As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was an avid fan of McDonald’s. Since my father’s favorite item there was the Fish-filet, I would occasionally mimic my mother, calling “Cliff-filet!” since that was similar to what it sounded like. That humor was lost on them, only reminding them of my non-existent Igbo. “That’s not it! Don’t say that!” either of them or both would respond. To keep the peace, I switched to a small, mental giggle as I repeated the poor translation/joke to myself.


The worst part of the joke was when my mother began the preparations for okra soup, the only farina soup that my father would eat. Before we could afford the prepackaged pre-chopped varieties decades later, my mother would bring out the pile of stockfish and call out, “Cliff-lé!” followed by a command in Igbo. My father would come to the kitchen and grab his bone saw along with the pile of stockfish. He placed newspaper on the floor next to the table and proceeded to saw the fish logs into fist-sized pieces that could fit into a pot. “Cliff-filet!” was not filet-ing the dry boneless fish, but it was enough for me to think my own nickname was more appropriate.


When he was finished, my mother boiled the fish for a long time until it was soft and easy to chew. Perhaps my mother had the energy to add oil to another pot and add onions, the beginnings of a number of dishes. Perhaps she did not. No matter the case, she would take a piece of burning hot stockfish and blow on it until it was cool enough to pop into her mouth. Sometimes, she would run it under cold water before she did so. Wandering to the kitchen to assess the stockfish’s state of doneness was a dangerous endeavor, especially as more and more siblings came. If we all snuck one or two small pieces of stockfish, there would not be enough for the soup for which it was prepared.


Before the prepackaged varieties arrived decades later, the open cavity of the long stockfish gaped at me as my father sawed it village-style into pieces that could fit in a pot to simmer for an hour. But the kitchen could not breathe. It had no windows and there were no fans above the stove to blow away the scent. Instead it just hovered and then settled into everything Osuji.


My mother did not believe in opening the windows. Opening the curtains, pulling up the blinds, and opening the window meant that we could now see outdoors. For my mother, this meant that they could also see us. With the terrors of city life common to people from rural areas, it was better to keep America out there and us, safe, in our village.


As a consequence, we all smelled like fish, every single day. For me, as a girl, it was a peculiarity that my friends could accept. “It’s because you’re Nigerian,” my friend Shanara told me in high school. As an African American living in Uptown, she was used to the different aromas permeating the neighborhood from the mix of immigrants and refugees combined with her community.


For my brothers, it was different. They were teased at school for smelling like vagina. This led to a variety of campaigns: spraying the air with fresheners that produced a striking “citrus-stockfish” or “lavender-stockfish” smell; opening windows when our mother wasn’t home only have her to scream-shriek “Close the windows! Do you want everybody to be looking us!”; spraying a powder on our carpet that we later vacuumed that left an issue similar to the first attempt.

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