Traditional old Snoek saying from Snoektown in the Cape: “OEHHHHHHH SLAT MY PLAT MET ‘N PAP SNOEK EK HET DIT GEMAAK DIS VRYDAG!”

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All about Cape Snoek

Cape Snoek is more like a traditional meal. A meal that our ancestors all feasted, or survived on. Depending on the Capppppppe weather.

The Cape Snoek, or Thyrsites atun, is a species of fish that has a significant presence in the history of the Western Cape and the development of Cape Town. The snoek is a lively creature that is historically, culturally, economically, and ecologically active in the Western Cape.

The snoek is a historical, cultural, economic, and ecological feature of the region. The living, breathing creature that has bred, and continues to breed, feed, and die, is the basis of investigations for a wide range of researchers—historians, marine biologists, fisheries scientists, economists, other social scientists, and consumers.

Snoek (Thyrsites atun) is a member of the mackerel (Gempylidae) family, found in New Zealand, South Africa and Chile. Snoek are mean things to catch; they come out of the water under extreme duress, slashing and snapping at anything that moves, with razor teeth and spiny fins. You got to break it’s neck immediately, as it delivers a blood-thinning toxin with its bite. To stop the bleeding, grab it’s eye, squeeze the juice out onto your wound. This will stop you from bleeding out eventually.

“Slaan my dood met ’n pap snoek” is a beautiful old saying, in the colourful Afrikaans dialect of the Cape. It translates as “knock me dead with a mushy snoek” and is an expression that means “that’s astonishing.” It derives its meaning from the tendency of snoek flesh to turn soft, and thus be a very ineffectual weapon. This is a significant feature of Cape snoek in that it determines how it is handled and viewed. As soon as a snoek is dead, the fisher must endeavour to stop its meat from turning into an undesirable pulp. It is caused by a myxosporean parasite (Kudoa thyrsites); first recorded in the Cape snoek.

Snoek has long been a vital marine staple in the human diet. In the late 1600s, when the Cape was a Dutch-controlled supply station along the route from Europe to Asia, the plentiful snoek was integral to the provisioning of passing ships. The skills that the large Malay slave population in the Cape held regarding preserving fish in warm climates helped to make “ingelegte vis,” or preserved/pickled fish, an important, reliable, and plentiful food for the journey onwards, either to the east or home to Europe (Davidson and Jaine 2006:730). Its abundance also meant that snoek became a staple in the diet of colonists, sailors, and slaves whose resident populations steadily grew once settlement was made. It is still called by the Dutch name for it, which derives from “zeesnoek,” or sea pike.

It is well known that the success of the Dutch East India Company refreshment station in the Cape was an important factor in their expansive economic exploits (Wilmot 1869:21). It can be argued that the snoek they took onto their ships as rations played a minor part in the success of their sea journeys. It played an important role in the daily economic life of the colony and was provided, along with mutton, as a cheap staple to slaves and servants. Excavations at Barack Street, considered a typical dwelling, reveal that the household servants ate mainly snoek, with the bones of other species contributing an insignificant amount (Hall et al. 1990:78).

Bickford-Smith et al. have this to say about the radio station’s use of the “snoekhorn:” “Cape Town’s fish horns, whose raucous sound the white middle class had fought against for so long, were incorporated into the ‘respectable’ folk culture of the nation through Cecil Wightman’s radio programme” (1999:67). What helped this incorporation along was the fish horn’s later honor of being used to signal tries or victories for the western province rugby team’s home games, which allows for comparison with the much-debated vuvuzela of soccer’s 2010 World Cup fame. The name “Snoektown” still lives on, with references littering the internet as markers toward posts or articles that are either tongue-in-cheek or nostalgic. The name is often used in online news media to refer to Cape Town in a jocular manner that either aims to caricature Cape Town and the sea-obsessed Capetonians, or to evoke nostalgia for its colorful people and seaside living.

It is often claimed that “no fish is more traditional to the Cape” and that it is “the best known and most versatile Cape fish” (van Wyk and Barton 2008). It is a traditional meal during Easter, a bigger event than Christmas for many communities, where fish, and especially “kerrievis” or curried fish, is the main item on the menu. Many articles by South Africans, particularly Capetonians, feature snoek as the classic Cape “braai,” the South African, originally Afrikaans, word for barbecue, fish that must be tried. For those authors not living at “home,” the quest to find a fresh snoek to “braai” is part of the joy of eating it again after months of pining. That way, you get to drive from the city to the harbors, asking people for “inside info,” choosing the fish, and bartering. So snoek is also living imagination; it is a shorthand that summons, to memory and imagination, glittering seas, seagulls, sunshine, harbors, colorful boats, even more colorful conversation, fishers, fleckers and merchants, coastal drives, finding the fish, not finding the fish, preparing it, “braaing,” finding it “pap,” eating it with friends and family. When people reminisce about eating snoek, it is not only the particular taste of snoek that they speak about, but it is also these kinds of experiences—the ones that shape, in the memory and in the moment, a Cape Town that is held together by a strand of snoek. If you have tasted snoek before, the representation of the snoek, as something craved again, enacts a relation to Cape Town that could be read as nostalgic belonging; if you have never eaten snoek before, it is the experience that will allow you a deeper relation with many levels of the “real Cape Town:” scenery, wildlife, nature, people, and food.



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