In a rowhouse kitchen near Patterson Park, a small pennant-shaped Cuban flag hangs from a cabinet above a pot of garlic and onions warming in wine, vinegar and water.
Smudged and worn, the fringed banner used to hang from the rearview mirror in the Chevy pickup of Octavio Norman, a Havana-born nurse who worked at Mercy Medical Center, lived most of his life in Baltimore, and died here not long after his 59th birthday in January of 2012.
Into the garlic and onions, his daughter, Elizabeth "Beth" Norman of South Collington Avenue, soon adds a simmering mix of green tomatoes, sweet red peppers, diced green bell peppers and herbs.
This sauce will later be spooned over the large fillet of cod that is now boiling on the stove. Before getting to this point, the salt cod soaked in tap water for a full 24 hours, with the water getting changed half a dozen times to reduce the saltiness.
As Norman keeps an eye on the pots, her second-floor apartment is perfumed with the scents of the Caribbean. She remembers the great appetite her father had for good food (particularly hot cross buns at Hoehn's on Conkling Street) and the camaraderie and simple pleasures of neighborhood barrooms like Roman's.
The 28-year-old Notre Dame Prep graduate is preparing one of her father's favorites: bacalao en salsa verde — salted cod in green sauce.
And once again, she is moved by the abruptness with which her father's proud Cuban heritage was uprooted (he told the story often — how his mother sewed jewelry into the linings of their suitcases and cash into the hems of her dresses) after Fidel and Che and the Communists came down from the mountains in 1959 to overthrow the Batista government.
Octavio was 6 when the family fled to the United States, and the recipe traveled with the Normans along a route from Havana to Mexico City to East Baltimore. It was recently chanced upon, written in Spanish on a stained and folded sheet of loose-leaf paper, mixed in with a bunch of recipes on index cards.
The family believes it is in the hand of Beth's grandfather, a long-deceased merchant mariner named Salvador Norman.
"It was like finding the holy covenant of recipes," said Norman's boyfriend of nine years, Glen Burnie native and Baltimore culinary school graduate Phil Faux.
Once found by Norman's stepmother (Betty Mott Norman of Parkville), it had to be translated into English. Beth Norman's Spanish was pretty good when she was younger — when she ice-skated in Patterson Park and sat on the front steps of Octavio's South Decker Avenue rowhouse — but she didn't trust it for her first pass at bacalao.
A Puerto Rican co-worker at a veterinarian's office in Bowie, where Norman works as a technician, did the translation.
"The hardest part of the recipe was convincing Phil that we had to use salted cod instead of fresh cod," said Norman, for whom following her father's palate to the letter was very important. It had to start with salt cod.
Drying is one of the oldest ways humans have used to preserve food, and for more than 500 years the process — with salt — has been applied to codfish in Scandinavia, Newfoundland, Iceland and the independent Faroe Islands some 180 miles from Scotland.
A staple of seafarers in the days before refrigeration, salt cod — traditionally dried by the wind and the sun — also became standard fare throughout the Roman Catholic world in the days when the faithful were prohibited from eating meat on Fridays.
You can get dried, salted cod throughout the Baltimore area. It goes for $8.99 a pound at Trinacria on North Paca Street downtown. At S. DiPaula & Sons seafood in Rosedale, salted cod fillets go for $9.25 a pound.
DiPasquale's Italian Market in Highlandtown (once an Italian-American stronghold with a strong taste for bacalao and now heavily Hispanic with an equally strong preference for the fish) gets its salt cod from Canada. It sells for $12.99 a pound, both regular and boneless.
"A lot of people try to pass off dried hake as cod because it's cheaper, but we sell the real thing," said owner Joe DiPasquale. "You can tell the difference. Salted cod changes [the quality] of everything."
Among the long-assimilated, not many American families have the time (or their children the heart) for soaking a smelly dried fish with which you could hit a tennis ball over the net. Old-school Baltimoreans know that the once ubiquitous "coddie" treat can be difficult to find.
The varieties of prepared salted cod offered at DiPasquale's include the fish marinated in parsley, garlic and hot peppers and olive oil.
Norman bought hers at Cross Street Seafood in South Baltimore for $8.99 a pound. She and Faux did a trial run a week before inviting guests and determined that after the fish had soaked for a good 24 to 36 hours (the more times the water is changed, the less salty the final product) it was best to boil it for 10 to 12 minutes, tops. The first time they boiled it for 15 minutes and found it a bit overcooked.
Faux and Norman grew the oregano and mint on their deck, used green tomatoes and green bell pepper from the Sunday farmers' market under the Jones Falls Expressway near City Hall, and got their bay leaf from MOM's Organic Market on Ridgely Road in Timonium.
They served the meal with fried plantains and black beans seasoned with cayenne, cilantro, garlic and onion. Rarely a day went by, said Norman, that her father didn't eat some kind of beans, preferably black.
In all, the meal fed five (with second helpings) and cost about $26.
Recipes for dried cod with a variety of sauces – including some that use pumpkin seeds – arrived in Cuba with Spanish explorers. Many of those recipes originated in the Basque region of the Iberian Peninsula.
Beth Norman’s great-grandfather was a Basque from Spain who made his way to Cuba. Her grandfather, the seafarer Salvador, met a woman named Hortensia on a voyage to the port city of Veracruz, Mexico. They married there and returned to Cuba.
And though Octavio Norman regularly waxed nostalgic about childhood meals in Havana like bacalao and ham croquettes and red snapper deep fried whole – head to tail, the meat behind the jowls among the sweetest – he had no interest in returning to the island where those memories were made.
“Absolutely not,” said Beth Norman, who has a tattoo on her right arm honoring all aspects of her Hispanic heritage.
From shoulder to elbow is an intricate melding of her family’s journey in the New World worthy of a V.S. Naipaul novel.
At the top is the word LIBERTAD, the name of the Cuban sugar freighter sunk by a German U-Boat off of Cape Hatteras on December 4, 1943. Grandfather Salvador was sailing as a third engineer on the ship and survived.
Below the name of the ship are a tropical bird in lush greenery and a skull commemorating the Mexican “Day of the Dead” - November 1st and 2nd - which in Catholic tradition is All Souls Day and All Saints Day.
On those days, a sugar confection shaped like a skull is enjoyed throughout Mexico and Norman did the same in Baltimore with her grandmother Hortensia.
Through all of those experiences, marking each stop along the way, there was food and stories.
“Our family history is rich, long and confusing and food has always been super important to us,” Norman said. “We make big meals and eat very late. And then we sit at the table for a very long time.”
Octavio's bacalao en salsa verde
2 pounds salted cod
1 medium onion
2 green bell peppers
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 tablespoon vinegar
4 medium sized green tomatoes
1 small container sweet red peppers
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
Fresh oregano leaves to garnish
Soak codfish overnight for at least 24 hours, up to 36 for less salty taste. Change water every 3 to 4 hours.
Chop tomatoes, green peppers, onion, garlic and sweet peppers. Set aside.
Bring large pot of water to boil. Add reconstituted cod to boiling water. Cook for about 10 minutes or until fish has softened. Drain and set fish aside.
Combine vinegar, wine and water in saucepan. In this, warm with the onions and garlic for less than a minute. Add fish, tomatoes, green pepper, sweet peppers, parsley and pepper to onion and garlic mix. Simmer for a half-hour or less, making sure it doesn't overcook. Once fish is flaky, cooking is complete.
Garnish with sprigs of fresh oregano and bay leaf. Serve on colorful ceramic tray and enjoy.
—Recipe courtesy of Beth Norman
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