It had come from a bucket or bowl or some unseen vat behind the counter. But that didn’t matter. The ceviche I was spooning up from a Styrofoam cup was one of those meals that made music in the mouth. A haunting melody of acid, heat, and texture. I was standing at the counter of Musuco, an open-fronted restaurant in Panama City, while I dug at the bottom of the cup for the last few pieces of corvina, a fish whose soft flesh seems to beg for a sea of citrus juice instead of salt water. I almost transcended the faint scent of diesel exhaust swirling in from the whoosh of traffic along Via Porras.
“What are you doing here and why are you talking with them?”
“The corvina made me do it,” I wanted to say to her…
But this moment was not the first of its kind. I’d had similar experiences with corvina ceviche before, whether served in a to-go plastic cup at the fish market or in a ceramic bowl at a nouveau-Panamanian restaurant in the city’s newly renovated Casco Viejo neighborhood. And not just ceviched. As one of Panama’s most popular fishes—steamed, sautéed, or fried—it’s a gift to hopeless cooks, since it can forgivingly take some overcooking and still remain agreeably moist. Reflecting on my history with corvina, I began asking myself: where did all this music come from?
Several days later, I set out to trace the path of corvina from the boat to my cup, and that would be when the song would take a melodramatic turn.
* * * * *
Corvina tends to be a catchall name for several varieties of fish, from cod-like giants of the Atlantic to lanky, one- to three foot-long creatures of the Pacific. The latter corvina, also called sea bass or croaker, interested me, since it is difficult to find a town in Panama that is a stranger to the fish.
Aside from its versatility, corvina’s dinnertime popularity also stems from Panama’s wiry, S-shaped profile being mostly coastline. And then there’s the historical evidence of the word Panama meaning “abundance of fish” in the language of the indigenous Cueva nation, a people wiped out by the Spaniards in the 1500s (the conquerors ended up adopting the Cueva’s word as a place name, offering the Cueva a kind of posthumous consolation prize).
Industrial vessels now pull in most of the country’s corvina haul, but there are still a few thousand artisan fishermen, piloting narrow boats, who rely on corvina to support their families. I have also relied on corvina. Its various culinary permutations have always been there for me when I desired a day off from Panama’s regular preoccupation with meat (pity that the Cueva didn’t survive long enough to invent a catchy word for “abundance of fried chicken kept warm under light bulbs”). Thus, I wanted to learn more about the work of the Panamanian fishermen to understand this gastronomic and economic symbiosis we shared.
The journey started in a minibus through the lumpy terrain of Panama’s Veraguas province, about 150 miles southwest of the high-rise condos of Panama City. The hills had been shorn treeless for grazing cattle, forming a sea of bald, green waves of earth benignly frozen in mid-ripple. But this agricultural-based landscape was also the home of fishermen, as evidenced by a nimble, bony man who had just hopped on the minibus and sat across from me. He was wearing polyester shorts and reeked of fish, handily revealing his occupation. We were headed south for the short trip to the last stop, Puerto Mutis, a port on a river that feeds into the Pacific Ocean, where the man, Pedro, would be departing to catch as much corvina as his thirty-foot boat can carry.
Pedro’s boat mate was already waiting for him on the concrete dock. Flip-flops, bright polo shirt, a new backpack—he could have been a college student in the nearby city of Santiago. Despite his fresh attire, he would soon smell just like Pedro. He was ready for a multi-day journey in and around the Gulf of Montijo, a brackish inlet whose shallow water and island topography provide a preferred hangout for many species of fish, especially corvina.
Puerto Mutis is little more than a short curve of zinc-roofed houses clinging to the road that snakes down to the dock. Five miles south of the port, the Gulf is too shallow for larger industrial vessels, leaving the port as the domain of about two hundred artisan fishermen. While Pedro went to hitch a ride to his moored boat, I walked to the end of the road, which doubles as a boat launch. A crusting of fish scales lined the pavement. Off the port, a couple dozen boats had been moored, the sun and salt water chronically fading and cracking the paint on their wooden hulls—the kind of natural distressing that would attract dreamy gazes from collectors of repurposed antiques. I doubt that the collectors would have a chance to cannibalize the vessels’ planks any time soon, as a Panamanian artisanal boat retirement only seems to occur when the vehicle deteriorates so badly that it can’t be patched with fiberglass mesh or sheet metal.
A half-hearted breeze did little to blow away the noontime heat. Back at the dock, I found a crew of two unloading their catch. Their fiberglass vessel was scarcely larger than a rowboat and had been carrying several hundred pounds of corvina and the odd snapper in a plastic cooler that spanned across the boat’s entire width. A few dozen remaining corvina, wading in a soup of blood and half-melted ice in the cooler, were waiting to be lifted up to the dock one milk crate at a time. Shiny scales, endless eyes. Tomorrow’s ceviche.
Such intensive work didn’t leave much room for the questions of a nosy visitor. I kept walking along the port and scored better luck with Jaime, a teenager whose mother owns one of the town’s three open-air, portside restaurants. While he was waiting for his mother to arrive to start lunch service, he insisted on showing me the dock behind the restaurant. “Come,” he said with a quick wave, “There’s a crew loading supplies for a week in the Gulf, maybe less than a week if the fishing is good.”
A violent clanking noise grew louder. We found a man, in flip-flops and a t-shirt with the sleeves torn off, hacking away at a mattress-sized block of ice and feeding the chunks into a chipping machine. The chips slid down a chute and into the cooler of a thirty-foot vessel, where another boat mate, in rubber boots, had what seemed to be the more enviable of the crew’s tasks—trampling down the ice chips in the giant cooler while the midday sun fried the others. As if to confirm my impression, the rubber-booted man found me watching him and pointed a glowing thumbs-up at me.
The roof of the vessel, only covering a six- by six-foot square of the rear, was festooned with a tangle of empty corn oil jugs to serve as floats for the net. “They all sleep in there,” Jaime said, pointing to three wooden bunks under the roof. My immediate thought: in such tight quarters, you’d better make sure everyone gets along. Choose your boat mates wisely. I’d find out more about that later.
In the meantime, Jaime enlightened me on a fisherman’s much darker hazard: greed. He recounted a story of a crew of a wooden vessel, similar to the one we had just seen, that had decided to take advantage of fortuitous fishing and filled their coolers with about three thousand pounds of fish—a thousand more than what was safe—seven years ago. “The waves came suddenly and tore apart the boat into splinters. The crew held on to the remains until they were rescued a day later by another fishing vessel,” he said plainly. A true, albeit impromptu, Panamanian boat retirement. The vultures must have appreciated the unexpected bounty of corvina—about seven thousand dollars’ worth if it had reached the market. I washed down the anecdote with a fifty-cent bottle of Atlas beer and left Jaime to his duties of peeling shrimp and chopping potatoes.
I had thus far not spoken at length with any fishermen, and if I were going to, I knew I had to catch them when they were not busy making money for their families. Up the road from the docks, I entered a concrete, barracks-like building marked with hand-painted block letters reading BAR HADARIX. The legs of the stools were bolted to the floor. On the back wall, the jukebox was blasting REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” a song I didn’t think could be blasted. Jaime had mentioned that fishermen often gathered at the bar, so I approached several patrons hunched over collections of empty beer bottles. The knobs of their knees poked out of cargo shorts. The bar shone with patches of spilled beer, while the bartender, a roughly cut woman in her 40s, glared at the men, hinting at a chronically sour customer-server relationship.
A man with a bright face and five empties in front of him introduced himself as Kiko. He was thirty-two years old and had been fishing for twenty of those years. In a few days, he would be heading back to the Gulf for a week.
Over a round of Atlases, he held out his hand at waist height to show the height of his kids. I asked him if it was difficult to leave his family for so many days a year. He reflected for a moment without losing his grin. He shouted back into my ear, “We bring music on the boat. I like to think of my family while listening to smooth, romantic music. Maybe some bachata, some salsa. Some ranchera. My favorite is Vicente Fernandez.”
Vicente Fernandez. I immediately envisioned that big, basket-like hat of his. Though the Mexican vocalist is arguably Latin America’s most prolific ballad singer, I had never been a devoted fan of his waltzy, overemotional oompahs such as “Adorado tormento” (My beloved) and “El martes me fusilan” (On Tuesday, they shoot me).
“You mean the guy with the big hat?” I asked, making sure I’d heard him correctly over the juke.
“Yes, the sombrerón,” he said. He held his hands around his head and gripped a phantom Fernandez brim. The juke started into a brass-heavy salsa number. Distorted trumpet lines bounced hopelessly back and forth against the concrete walls. “Calm, smooth. The best for a week on the boat.”
He crimped off his smile, looking like he had just eaten something bitter, and added, “I don’t like discotheque music.” He pressed his hands toward his ears several times and shook his head. Apparently, it was aggressive drum programming, not aggressive volume, that didn’t agree with Kiko. Another round of Atlas. Another humorless stare from the bartender, who also began eyeing me sideways, part suspicion and part puzzlement, as if to ask, “What are you doing here and why are you talking with them?”
“The corvina made me do it,” I wanted to say to her, but I let the wails of the juke fill up the space between us instead.
A man in a baseball cap, leaning over a table behind us, waved a big calloused hand towards me. “I work with him on the boat,” Kiko said. “He is my friend.”
“He is my wife,” said the man, pointing to Kiko, half-holding back a smile.
The tongue-slowing effect of the beer began competing with the juke in its valiant effort to obfuscate the words of Kiko and his boat mate. I realized I wasn’t going to gain any more insight from them. I said goodbye, leaving with a greater understanding of the commercial trail of Panama’s corvina, but I was still unsure of how the whole boat-wife thing worked.
* * * * *
I’ve had corvina on several occasions since then. Dusted with flour and fried; sautéed with garlic and lemon; ceviched with lime juice, aji chombo pepper, and onion. But the music changed.
At each bite, my mind would cultivate an image of Kiko’s crew pulling up the nets to a tinny bootleg of Vicente Fernandez. This soundtrack, with its delicate guitar strums and orchestral strings accompanying Fernandez’s romantically-drenched delivery of “A quien vas a amar mas que a mi” (Who are you going to love more than me), is the last thing the corvina hear before they are dumped into iced coolers. An artisanal death knell.
That was the sound that kept getting dialed up, like a laboratory dog conditioned to salivate when the bell is rung. Ding! It’s Vicente.
As I looked back at the Styrofoam-gripping moment in Musuco, something reappeared in a more defining light. I recalled how the squat counterman had begun describing the aphrodisiac powers of the juice lurking at the bottom of the ceviche vessel. The murky liquid, leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), was featured in a hand-painted mural on the concrete wall, depicting a virile-looking black cat ready to pounce. “You mix it with beer and give it to a woman,” he instructed. “Then she says, ‘I have to have sex!’”
Perhaps the counterman was a Vicente Fernandez fan too.
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