FOR a century, salt cod was the backbone of Provincetown’s prosperity. After whaling moved to Nantucket and New Bedford, the town continued to produce the basic food supply for the sugar plantation slaves of the West Indies. Even after slavery was abolished by the British, French and Dutch a couple of decades before the US got around to it, odoriferous displays of drying fish – as in this old scene just a few blocks along Commercial Street from the house where I grew up – still dominated the landscape.
Next you make a brine of the quantity needed to cover your fish. The old Cape Cod way of making brine is to lay a medium‑sized potato on the bottom of the container, fill it with water and then add salt and stir slowly until the potato rises to the surface and floats. (A quicker way to approximate this is to use 1 quart water to 1 pound of salt.) To make Skully Joes easy to handle you tie them together at the tails by twos with strong cord; they are slick when they come out of the brine, and the cord with a fish on each side also provides a handy way of hanging them up. You soak them in the brine for 12 to 20 hours, then you hang them out in the back yard on the clothesline for 3 days of sunshine. Moisture must be avoided at all costs; take your fish in at sundown to avoid dew and frost and if it's rainy or foggy do not put them out at all.
If there are any bluebottle flies around, they usually won’t attack a well‑salted fish, but just to be doubly safe you should pack about 1/4 teaspoon of salt at the upper end of the split by the tall, which is where any residues of blood or oil are most likely to seep out. At the end of the third day of sunning you can move them to a shed, or an attic or a cellar; drive nails in a rafter or joist, and drape a pair of fish over each nail. (Do not put them in a furnace room or they will dry out too fast.) At the end of 10 days they should be ready to eat.
And there's also the fine old Yankee version of sugar cured Skully Joe. To achieve this effect you add a pint of Porty Reek Long Lick or long tail sugar to each 2½ gallons of brine. Porty Reek Long Lick and long tail sugar, of course, is old Cape Cod lingo for molasses. Or you can just use a pound of sugar. Now this kind of Skully Joe really will draw flies, so you must build a screen box to dry them in. Didn't I warn you this business could become complex?
I didn't warn you that Skully Joes throw off a very strong smell. After the cure is finished, they should be stored in airtight plastic garbage bags and hidden in some far off corner of the house, say the garage, or the tool shed. To eat 'em you take a sharp pocket knife and cut off a chunk and chew on it. Or if you want to be dainty about it and you happen to have an electric table saw, you can saw them up fast into bite-size squares. Dear Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, I know your ghosts is shudderin' at this salty old Cape Cod custom of Skully Joe, but that's how it is, take it or leave it.
Howard Mitcham, Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, 1975, Addison Wesley, pp186-7
Footnote: Mary Alice Cook’s Traditional Portugese Recipes from Provincetown is introduced by Grace Goveia Collinson, who was the first Provincetown Portugese fisherman’s child to graduate from college. Shortly thereafter she was my fifth grade English teacher and helped me form my life-long excitement in the presence of good writing. It wasn’t until half a century later, when we spent half the night getting reacquainted, that I learned how her unique scholarship to Mt. Holyoke had carried with it the condition that she renounce her church. What cultural arrogance those puritanical do-gooders were capable of!
©2002 John Whiting