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Saturday, April 10, 2010

ICELAND: A Bittersweet Sometimes Sulfurous Feast

Selecting the right traveling partner is the ultimate key to happy traveling. I don’t travel with high maintenance control freaky fussy filtered water types if I can avoid it. I don’t give a shit about filtered water. My friend Joanne and I have been traveling the world together for years, mostly because we both enjoy flexible relationhips with our significant others. My husband tends to get carsick, seasick, airsick and his delicate palate (read bland in my politically correct parlance here) does not enjoy the more boldly spiced foods of other regions. So, sayanara I say, and off I go with my crazy girlfriend to hike, jump from mountains, kayak around ice bergs, to dance like nobody is watching and to eat my way across a foreign land and hopefully into some unsuspecting local kitchen.

Joanne hails from New york, and we got a wild hair in our ass to travel to Iceland, because it is only a five hour flight from NYC. That seemed reasonable to me and I had the pleasure of working with an Icelandic man who extolled the virtues and natural beauty of his country. I once partied with him and some other colleagues where he uncorked a huge bottle of brenevin, a juniper liquor indigenous to Iceland, and damned hard to find here in the states. After a few toots of that stuff we were All able to sing Icelandic drinking songs in full uninhibited voice. Icelandic is the root language of all that is Scandinavian. It sounds like one is choking on a fishbone. Puking up Brenevin sounds much like speaking Icelandic too. But I digress.

Joanne and I decided to take a redeye out of New York so we could start our week in Iceland as early as possible. One arrives at the Reykjavik airport at 6 am, located in a barren lava field. Black craggy rocks and lonely cairns dot the stark landscape, and not one tree greets you because apparently the Vikings cut them all down some centuries ago to build boats so they could trade and raid other countries. For wood I suspect, right up there with love and decent food.

(Typical little farm, with a large new volcanic berm next to it)

We were fascinated and a little intimidated by the barren landscape, but we were completely dismayed to find out that Icelanders do NOT get up and do anything before 9 am in the morning. So travelers arriving at 6 am from the redeye are S.O.L. when looking for that all-important cup of coffee, or for a decent breakfast.

We drove into the ghost town of Reykjavik, and there was not an open coffee shop in sight. No doughnut, bagel, no roach coach, no drive through coffee kiosk; can you see a business opportunity forming here? If Iceland ever becomes hospitable to tourists, an early bird coffee service will score a mint. We chased down an early jogger with our Toyota corolla rental, and begged him to direct us to the brew. Alas, he was an expat, and said nothing could be had until 9 am.

Despondent, we searched out our pensione to see if we could check in early. The man at the front desk curtly told us we’d have to wait until noon. We pleaded with him to let us crash the house breakfast currently in progress and he conceded at $8 a pop.

When we showed up, a very heated argument was in progress between the man of the house and his shrew. $16 extra clams or no, she wasn’t into welcoming traveling waifs for an “extra” breakfast. The argument was conducted in a sotto voce chorus of snarling Icelandic which bubbled up behind the front desk as she glared daggers at us. The man had the final word and with a militant toss of her scarf, the shrew escorted us downstairs to a very pain dining room. Breakfast was a bowl of sour cream next to a bowl of plain yogurt, a stinky plate of pickled herring, hard cheddar cheese, hard white bread, grape jelly, hard butter and a wheezing toaster. The shrew watched as we took our portions then cleaned up after us, whisking things away lest we might want second helpings of the awful stuff. There was watery tea, and no coffee in sight. Depressed, we managed to get into our room a bit early where we crashed out for a few hours. Suddenly it was 8 pm, and the sun was blazing into our room like high noon. The sun does not set until midnight or so, and such is the Arctic circle in August. Although we were completely disoriented, we hauled ourselves up for a sulfurous shower. We had a date to keep

In the grand convoluted scheme of things, Joanne had a friend she knew in Iceland, which had about as much serendipity as my friendship with the Icelandic physical therapist who led us astray to this Godforsaken place of unfriendly reserved Scandinavian Inn owners and their goddamned miserly breakfasts. No coffee indeed.

J happened to be an eccentric luthier of fine stringed things, dating an Icelandic woman, and he happened to be a best friend of Joanne’s Brother in law. It was a shot in the dark, but we decided we needed to call him up. Being a fellow New Yorker, we figured he knew where to score a decent cup of coffee. We called him and struck gold. He agreed to meet us downtown at the one touristy coffee shop in the center of town. There we found hard french rolls, and stand up in your saddle, stout, no-nonsense black gold in the form of DARK french roast from a french press right on the table. This café quickly became our launching pad for the many little adventures we would enjoy in Iceland.

(Fumarole field - watch your step!)

It was going on 10:30 pm and the sun was still blazing high in the sky so we decided to take a wonderful hike around an old burnt out caldera. Did I mention that Iceland is amazingly geothermally active? The hot water feels, tastes and smells like it comes straight from the earth (sulfurous) and all heat and electric power is geothermal. We wandered around the forbidding rocky lip of a crater to discover mossy greenery in its center. 11 pm and we were ravenous. J volunteered his girlfriend to cook us a midnight dinner. We demurred, but he called her up – pushy, raucous, New Yorker style – and we all received a warm invitation into her house.

Ah! The much vaunted home cooked meal was going to happen sooner than we anticipated on this trip as luck would have it. Lovisa, as her name would suggest, was a lovely person inside and out. A long necked, graceful cellist – she warmly welcomed us into her hardwood floored bungalow. We sat at her glowing wood table, woozy with jetlag and hunger.

Lovisa apologized for not having any fancy food, then she proceeded to make the most heavenly toasted homemade bread with butter, smoked salmon and green pickled pepper corns. I’ve not had anything like it before or since, and it still rests in my mind as the most satisfying thing I have ever eaten. First, warm crunchy toast with high quality butter topped with Icelandic lox, which has a completely different flavor then smoked salmon in the states. This was topped with green peppercorns, which were both piquant and heavenly.

Refreshed, we perked up and listened to J rattle on happily about his business, some medical treatments he was getting in Iceland, the Icelandic people and their idiosyncrasies. Lovisa, meanwhile was in her tiny kitchen, creating a magical alchemy I’ll forever call, “Pasta Lovisa”

Bowtie Pasta

Green peas

Hard brick of government swiss cheese

Dry white wine


Boil the pasta to al dente. In a separate pan, melt a cup of shredded cheese. Saute lightly with shredded ham, green peas and white wine. Toss with the pasta. Serve with a fresh green salad and homemade vinegarette. Splash white or red wine liberally into whatever you happen to be handling, be it salad or pasta on the stove. Have your own glass at hand for frequent sipping.

Outside of Lovisa’s magical kitchen, Icelandic food and service does not have much to recommend it. We discovered a candy shop with open bins of fantastic pastilles and licorice. I bought some big, flat licorice happy faces encrusted with glittering sugar. I adore licorice and it is a real Scandinavian treat. Joanne was driving and we were enjoying the bright green fields and the uniformity of the little red farms with white trim. It was amazing how there was not a tree in site to break the green flow of the landscape before the field ended abruptly at the base of a rocky mountain of black volcanic stuff.

I decided to enjoy some of my licorice as an après nosh to the traditional country Icelandic breakfast we'd “enjoyed”. Hard black pumpernickel-like bread, smeared with cold butter and topped with hard wizened pieces of lamb jerky, all chased down with faintly sulphurous strong black coffee. Where do they come up with these menus? I wondered. It was like swallowing hard tack on dry land. I popped a big licorice smiley face into my mouth to chase away the gamey vestige of morning lamb meat.

I think the sound that I made can only be described phonetically as, “Whahhhhhh Fuuu-oooooo-WAHHHHHH”, as in “what the Fuuuuuu-wahhhh” enunciated with a sticky slab of licorice stuck to the palate. The sparkly crystals turned out to be pure salt, or salmiak, which is ammonium chloride to be exact. The Dutch and the Scandinavian folk like their salty-pissy licorice, and I had just been initiated. I started gagging, drooling viscous strings of black drool and pawing at my mouth and rolling down the car window all at once.

“What? WHAT?” Joanne shouted, still driving. “What is wrong? Are you having an attack? What is it?”

I was in ammonia overload, speechless, trailing black sticky strings of drool out the window and trying to dislodge the disc from my palate. “fugging solly shih” I spewed.

Joanne pulled over at this point, and I managed to flip the thing out of my mouth with my index finger. Black tarry stripes trailed down the length of the car. Joanne had a laughing fit as I glared balefully at her, still spitting stringy black stuff.

“it’s hard to find good food in this country,” she said. ‘Even the candy sucks. We need to buy Lovisa a bottle of wine so she keeps cooking for us while we are here!”

I was still rinsing out my mouth with sulfur-flavored bottled water, so I merely nodded. Fucking Icelandic candy.


As it turned out, Lovisa’s family was really old news in iceland, to the point that she actually owned within her family, a rustic cabin out in Pingvellir, both the viking treaty lands of yore and the National Shrine of Iceland. We planned a camping trip out there, and were warned that we’d be cooking over a campfire, have no heat and would have to take things as we found them. We were delighted and we got the directions out to the cabin so we could drive ourselves and meet up with Lovisa and J.

Joanne and I decided we really needed to try some trout fishing. Pingthillir was known for its clear streams and Lovisa had told us there was some fishing tackle at the cabin, slowly rotting from disuse. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous little buildings marked with a large “I” for information. Inside we found a very laconic man behind the counter. Like most other Icelanders we had met, getting any information from him was like pulling teeth by hand. He showed us a cardboard display of various flies and we bought 40 dollars worth, which was about 6 flies total. Upon repeated questioning, he said we did NOT need a fishing license for the treaty lands, especially if we had access to a historic homestead (which we did). He also said all streams had fine trout in them.

We got to the little wooden cabin, charming in its simplicity and met J there. Lovisa was off playing a symphony gig and planned to join us later with some excellent Icelandic lamb for grilling later. Joanne and I pulled out the crumbling fishing rods and rotting filament. After about 40 minutes of fussing with various parts and lines, we had two reasonable rigs. We sallied out to a beautiful stream just below a quaint historic hotel and dropped out lines in.

It took all of about 10 minutes for a female ranger to bust our chops and threaten to ticket and fine us for not having a license.

“But WAIT!", we sputtered, “ the man at the information center told us repeatedly that we didn’t need a license to fish here!”

“I don’t know what you heard, because I wasn’t there," she said, placidly. “But you need a license to fish anywhere and what’s more, this stream is where the sewage runs off from this old hotel, so you don’t want to eat fish from this stream anyway.”

We were livid, disgusted and pissed off at Iceland in general. We packed up our tackle and left it on the porch and went for a hike to cool off. We found little low growing bushes with charming berries all over them, so we picked a hatful of berries. When Lovisa arrived, cello case in one hand, grocery bag in the other, she was ecstatic.

“Oh! Those are wild juniper berries! They are only ripe this time of year and we seldom get them!” They ended up making a fine treat for snacking later in the evening, though I must say they are an acquired taste. They are sort of sour and gritty – but Lovisa and a few of her children who arrived for a free meal (did I mention she has five kids?) savored them slowly. Lovisa and her kids conversed in Icelandic and within a family dialect, the language washed over me like a clean, cold stream over mossy rocks – not the harsh choking sounds that we heard from the city folk. I began to like Iceland again a little.

(At the ancestral family dinner table with Lovisa, J and me)

Lovisa grilled fresh Grenavik Icelandic lamb, which has none of the gamey taste of traditional New Zealand lamb. This delicious creature stores all of its oily lanolin in a big fat padded tail instead of throughout its skin. The lamb was lean and flavorful, and like no other meat I have tasted and was only lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Lovisa turned out a hard almond tart, cooked in a dutch oven over her open fire. It was both smoky and savory as a dessert.

Pingvellir was lovely in a harsh untamed way. Very deep fissures seemed as though they had just spring apart recently and dark blue and mossy green water flowed in their depths. There was a slaty forbidding lake created when two tectonic plates split apart and drifted away from each other over thousands of years. The other half of the mountain could be seen across the lake. This obvious place of division is why the Vikings choose to decide laws of the land here. No one Viking clan was allowed to lay claim to this area so they shared it uneasily, between wars. We headed back towards town to find some new adventures. On the way we stopped at the information center.

“To hell with this! I am going right in there and getting our money back!” Joanne growled, pulling in next to the blinking “i” sign. I didn’t feel like arguing with any of these Scandinavian people.

“Have at it, I 've already written it off” I said, and took a nap.

In less than 10 minutes, Joanne emerged triumphant of course, waving $40 in her hand.

“I New Yorked them,” she said smugly. ‘You would have been proud of me! Whenever they challenged somehting I said, I said "I really don't know, I wasn't THERE. "Now we are taking this money and going out to a really nice restaurant!”

Icelandic Lobster and Other Tall Tales

Don’t let anyone sell you an Icelandic lobster as a big deal. It is no more than a large, flavorless prawn. The true cuisine of the land is reindeer steaks and Ptarmigan, but these are only available around Christmastime, when the Icelandic Jolasveinar, a group of 13 Anti-Santas come out to wreak havoc. Christmas in Iceland is a grim affair and there are these 13 "Yule Lads" from hell to prove it.

The first one is Stiff Legs, who likes to suck milk from sheep. Followed by sausage swipers, door slammers, ladle lickers, window peepers, and pot scrapers and froth suckers. A ready made wedding party if you ask me.

We rolled into a "famous" haute eatery sucked in by the promise of lobster. We ordered wine. Word to the wise. A $10 bottle of wine will cost you $30-$40 in Iceland because of the import taxes. We got a nice chardonnay that arrived in individual little glass carafes. I thought this was some kind of traditional wine glass so I started sipping my wine directly from the carafe, until I felt the most glacial stare from the neighboring table. J had been telling us all along how socially conscious the Icelanders were and a faux pas like chugging wine from the source would not be forgotten. I stared back double-dog glacially until they dropped their eyes back to their own damned dinner, muttering to themselves. There was that infernal choking noise again. We had already run the gauntlet of outraged stares just getting into the place because we were so under dressed. Tennis shoes, jeans and sweat shirts were no match for the fox furs and sleek wool dresses of our dining compatriots, but we bulldozed our way in anyway, unwilling to let a good meal escape.

There is not much to say about the “lobster”. It is truly tasteless, even when artfully prepared. Next time I will wait for the Ptarmigan.


One treat I heard about continually, but managed to avoid as an obvious tourist trap was Skate, pronounced “Shkot-tah”. This treat, typically served at drinking establishments was a marinated type of fish, usually enjoyed by the equally marinated drinker at the height of inebriation. Then, it became the gift that keeps on giving, by making the consumer reek urinously of ammonia and strong fish essence for up to three days. Men had been known to be banished from sleeping inside after eating skate, and there were rumors about guys left outside to freeze to death over “eating skate before a date.”

Avid drinkers will tell you the history of skate involves a group of men lost at sea, and their worthy captain preserving what fish they caught by pissing on it. This kept them alive long enough to return and serve it to their drinking buddies apparently. J was something of an afficionado, and a worthy drinker to boot. He offered the “full Icelandic experience” many times. We declined politely.

Skate is actually another Icelandic Christmas Delicacy. The skates are caught in late Autumn and allowed to putrefy until December. One can choose between very putrid and less putrid extra salty skate, accompanied by balls of melted sheep tallow with burned membrane. I don't even know what to say about that.

We did take a fantastic tiny cruise out to some tiny islands created from octagonal basalt columns, encrusted with bird shit and Kittywake nests. Kittywakes are little terns that sound like dying cats, hence the name Kitty – wake. The tour was completely in Icelandic, which we found typical in this tourist-averse environment. We observed as two stone silent old salts dressed in yellow slickers unfurled a reeking mossy net and flung it out behind the boat.

Suddenly appeared a steel table covered with delights enough to make a hard core sushi lover have an orgasm on the spot. Fresh scallops, sea urchins, cherry stone clams, shrimps – all were flung out of the mossy net and upon a steel processing table, and just as quickly snatched up by boat patrons.

Bottles of white wine were produced from hidden pockets, along with pen knives, whole lemons and tiny salt shakers. Nobody said anything about a fresh seafood feast! We each ate a raw scallop doused in lemon, and then had the shell as a plate for other delicacies.

It was here I discovered why the Japanese grow sloe-eyed over fresh sea urchin. Emphasis on the fresh. We opened the spiny purple shells by sawing through them with the sharp edge of the scallop shell and scooped out the firm, glistening orange meat and rinsed off the vestiges of the creature’s last black seaweed meal. Then, after a hit of fresh lemon into the mouth it went. There is nothing like fresh Uni from the arctic ocean – it is the happy taste of every beach trip you can ever remember. Salty, fishy, fresh, exotic. A little like first sex perhaps.

So there is Iceland, a true love-hate experience. There is more to tell, but in another life perhaps. All I can say is “Anthony Bourdain was right” once again. Watch his show “No Reservations” all about Iceland, perhaps instead of visiting.

Your personal link to research the "Yule Lads" :

Friday, April 2, 2010

Castries: The Dark Tourist Heart of St. Lucia

After surviving a harrowing transport ride back from the rain forest and the plantation of the Octaves, we buckled down and stayed a bit closer to the hospital. We ventured into Vieux Fort to the docks to pick up some fresh fish for a patio fish fry. Pius had promised us he'd make us his famous salt fish with green figs and we decided to hold him to it. Of course we had to supply the fish ourselves so we had to go get it, and pay for it too.

Vieux Fort is a very poor town with shallow open cement gutters that run on the left side of the road, creating a hazard for transports, bicyclists, unwary tourists and motor scooters alike. The dock was a bustling place where people thronged and shouted, haggling for any fish fresh off the boat. We were traveling by transport with Frances, one of the hospital drivers. His transport had leopard covered seats and pink fuzzy dice. When we arrived , there was a huge fish that looked like a dolphin, easily 12 feet long, hanging by its tail. It had dark deep red flesh that we could see through gaping slashes in it's gray skin, and its dark blood was pooling all over the dock. That put off our appetites quite a bit, but we managed to find another fish monger selling a nice, less-Flipper looking white fish and we bought enough to feed the hospital group. Frances haggled in Patois with the young man selling us the fish, and the man finally slapped the fish onto a rough board and straddling the open gutter, began to gut and bleed it into the gutter. Wielding his 15 -inch long cutlass expertly, he filleted the fish, cleaned it up, and wrapped it in rough newspaper. We paid and left him wiping fish blood onto his dirty pants and waiting for the next customer.

That night, Pius busted out his cooking ju-ju and fried that fish with some of his heavenly herbs and spices. He was very close mouthed about his recipe even though Joanne and I kept a very close eye on him. We ate, drank and danced until late. I had Pius's keyboard out for fun and he had it programmed to play some Reggae riffs that he could sing along to. Paul badgered me to play Stride boogie Woogie piano and scoffed at me when I couldn't do it. I told him I play Be-bop and to kiss my ass, and he just laughed condescendingly. Need I say, he himself can't play a note of piano, but everyone is a critic.

Frances took us on a wonderful excursion into the fruity byways of the island. He seemed to know everyone, and they knew him. He was rumored to have three "lady friends", each with several children. This was the way of St. Lucian men. They started one family, and moved on to start another, and kept very loose alliances with all involved. We liked Frances. He flirted with us and was open and friendly. For a price, he would drive us most places.

(Frances working it with his cutlass)

We tooled around windy back roads. Every so often, Frances would jump out, saunter into someone's front yard, pull some fruit from one of their trees, then cut it up for us with his cutlass. We ate fresh mangoes, guavas, and cashew fruits ,which are brilliantly red and very tart. The immature cashew hangs from the bottom in a hard little nutcase which, of course, is cashew shaped.

At one point Frances cut the ends off of fresh green coconuts and we drank the refreshing milk inside and ate the slippery gelatinous white flesh.

Me drinking the nectar of the Rainforest

Later that week, we planned a visit to the Castries market on Saturday. Castries is the main city on the island of St. Lucia, and the cruise ships stop there to let fat tourists off for a few hours so they can buy some wooden carvings and maybe a banana. We collected our motley volunteer crew of the usual suspects: myself, joanne, paul, Rebecca , and booked a transport off to the market. The transport stopped all along the way and picked up so many extra passengers, we felt like we were in a clown car. The driver kept telling us to scoot in closer until our thighs started to meld with the neighboring passenger's. Transports were in the habit of blasting Reggae music as loud as possible, and for burning several sticks of incense while driving to erase the smell of too many sweaty bodies crammed into a small space. It took about an hour to get to Castries and we were relieved to pry ourselves apart from each other, stretch our legs and escape the cumin-like stench of armpits.

As we arrived in the market, a cacophony of color met our eyes. This is the moment Anthony Bourdain forever lives for when he travels - to go to the local market. To smell, sample poke and fondle what is fresh and to give oneself over to a completely sensual experience. We were delighted. Stacks of mangoes, bananas, green pumpkins and other gourds, brightly wrapped sugar bombs, all were at our fingertips. The first thing I bought were hand-made rolls of cocoa paste wrapped in plastic and paper. They looked like giant chocolate cigars and smelled heavenly. I watched the powdery brown hands of the creator rolling more cocoa and was mesmerized. Then I bought a fresh mango and had it sliced open for me so I could eat it immediately, the juice running to my elbows. Joanne bought a huge purple plantain and ripped it open with her teeth, thinking it was a banana. Plantains need to be cooked, and they pucker the mouth like a starchy persimmon when raw. Joanne had a little fit.

"I can't believe this banana is so UNRIPE. They could have sold me a ripe one!" she complained.

When she tried to give the fruit back to the lady who sold it to her, the lady pitched a loud fit which quelled the music and easy-going atmosphereof the market immediately.

"No No No No No No! It's not right! I can't take that back! YOU bought it! And you bit into it! It's not right!" She insisted loudly. She was an ample women dressed in bright red scarves, a multi-colored skirt and a bright shoulder wrap. She swelled up like a large angry peacock to tell us white folk off about trying to get our money back.

"I don't want money back from you, I just can't eat this and dont' want it to go to waste!" Joanne exclaimed, thrusting the fruit at her.

The lady wasn't having it. The market roiled, muttering ensued, and the vendors looked at us and at one another. Were these hospital volunteers going to act badly? What was going on?

A homeless man seized the opportunity, and ran up to claim the offending fruit. "I can put that to good use! I'll take it!" he said. Joanne handed it over gratefully and we split.

I almost peed myself laughing. I knew the difference between bananas and plantains, and I knew Joanne biting into the fruit would be an interesting adventure. I am a bad friend and Joanne told me as much. We found we had to pay to pee in a public toilet guarded by a hard looking young woman, then pay MORE if we wanted toilet paper too!

We decided we did not like Castries too much.

Anchastenet is a beautiful harbor we visited, and we had to get there by boat. The gorgeous Piton mountains loomed along the far side of the cove. We had wanted to hike the Pitons, but the rain made all the trails much too treacherous so we settled for a boat ride. Because we were hospital volunteers, the boat captain let us ride for around $5 a piece. He quickly picked up some honeymooners from the beach, and promptly charged them a cool $50 for the same ride. We bit our tongues, and tried to speak quietly to him about how he was going to pull off charging us different prices in the same small boat, but he just gave us a steady look and we shut up. When we reached the beach, everything went smoothly, just like a James Bond Mission. The couple, fogged in by matrimonial bliss handed over 5 crisp tens, and sauntered off and the captain, having made his daily bread decided to lounge with us on the beach and drink away his largesse. We bought Aki, little green sour fruits much like a lychee with a large seed in the center that could be gnawed and sucked for hours. We lounged on little rented beach chairs, munched Aki, drank coke and ate more rotis. The boatman sank deeper under his hat, a Piton beer bottle lolling at his fingertips.

At some point we decided to wander the beach and we found some beach artisans selling charming little carvings of dancing people , turtles and dolphins. They cost the equivalent of $1 or $2 or so. Joanne got into a haggling New York mood, and started chiseling the prices down to 50 cents, 25 cents. I rained on her and said, "Dude, just pay the price and support the local economy wouldja?" But the beach vendors enjoyed the haggling and gave as good as they got. We bought all sorts of trinkets and everyone was satisfied.

The snorkeling was excellent. As we flippered our way lazily around the inner harbor I spied what looked like a ping pong ball gently wafting along the sand. I dove down an picked it up. It looked and felt like some sort of egg and I flopped up the beach on my duck feet to ask a dive instructor who was on the beach preparing for an excursion.

"Is this some sort of egg?" I asked him.

"Not only is THAT an egg, but it is a sea turtle egg, and there is a $10,000 fine for handling it!," he said in my face, eyes snapping.

The egg slipped from my nerveless fingers into the sand. I hastily scooped it up, hoping like hell it hadn't broken.

"I f-f-f-found it on the bottom of the ocean," I stuttered, dollar signs dancing in my head. I thought fast. I did not have $10, 000.

"I wasn't really sure if it was an egg, I've never seen one, it was in the water, are they usually in the water? I thought it was a ping pong ball and......ANYWAY, can't we just bury it and it'll hatch and we'll have a baby turtle and all that?" I was hyperventilating a little.

"No, no, " the guide said sadly. " Sometimes they wash out to sea when the tide comes in. Then they are done for."

"Well, anyway, I didn't know what it was and......Here you take it! I brought it for you!" I dumped the egg into his hand and took off down the beach. I found Joanne.

"Where is our boatman? Let's get the hell out of Dodge!" I said sotto voce, ditching my flips at the flipper shack, my head swiveling nervously.

"What? What's going on? I was going to have a drink....." Joanne said.

"I'm a fucking fugitive, man. I touched a contraband turtle egg and now I am wanted by the turtle police.....and we have to split, like Now!" I said urgently. There was no immediate sign of the turtle egg patrol assembling troops on the beach. Joanne laughed.

"See, that is what you get for making fun of me at the market! Karma!" Her eyes danced. "I'll bet that guy was bullshitting you!"

My heart was still pounding - ten THOUSAND, ten THOUSAND, ten THOUSAND. I wasn't so sure.

We rousted our now tipsy boat captain out of a smiling stupor and tried to persuade him to put a rush on our return trip. He did not rush one iota, but moved as slowly as a black trickle of molasses. We putted in a zig-zag path back across the bay. Still no signs of pursuit. I began to relax a little.

We made sure to tip him handsomely, both for the discount ride and for being good natured. When we reached the home dock he gave us his best four tooth minimum smile, tipped his hat and said, "Come sail with me anytime ladies!".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Lucia 1996: A Haunted Bed and Breakfast and Crazy Times in the Rainforest

My trip to St. Lucia to volunteer in the physical therapy department of St. Jude hospital in Vieux Fort is too rich and varied an experience to cover in just one blog. I last left my readers dancing in modestly appointed St. Lucian suburbia to the whiny blast of country western music. Joanne and I made it home and staggered off to bed. I found Pinky snoozing on my pillow as my door had been blown open by the wind and rain and I had to deal with fleas until the next sheet washing and bleaching.

We worked hard at the hospital, toiling in the 90 degree heat inside the PT department. We yearned to be outside and I rode out into the jungle with Joanne on occasion to see her work with kids with cerebral palsy, trying to teach them good balance and motor control. In spite of the very poor conditions, the Bismuth -pink one room concrete open air houses, some of the children had pretty decent leg braces or wheelchairs. Apparently there was some good medical stuff being provided by various mainland US sources, albeit supplies were sporadic and random.

Janice was another volunteer in our PT department. She had no medical skills to offer but she was a crackerjack organizer and office manager. Her superpower was to clean out the physical therapy supply closet which was a disaster of donated supplies: a hodge-podge of tipless crutches, dusty casting material, splint plastic, ace wraps and the like. She sweated like a French whore at Mardis Gras and the dust motes glittered in the sunbeams that poured through the glazed windows in the 90 degree heat. Our favorite find: a brittle cardboard box of breast prostheses, all sizes from A to D. However, the rubbery breasts with their eternally erect rubber nipples were all caucasian colored and we mused on who in their right mind would send such a thing to an island of mostly brown people. We wondered if there was a way to dye them brown, but we needn't have worried. Some of the nurses took to stuffing them into their dresses to plump up their existing decolletage, the pinkish flanged rubber edges clearly visible at the chest and sleeve lines. It became a hilarious short-lived fashion while we were there.

St Lucia is a small island, 239 square miles in all, a lot of it dense forest and rocky coast. Everyone knew we were volunteers immediately, no matter where we went. They also knew who we were treating and had opinions about how we were treating them. I was treating a young woman named Emile, and she had been knocked down by a transport. She was in bad shape when I was taking care of her broken hand and extensor tendon repairs, but she succumbed to her internal injuries in the night. We were all very sad about it, and took a mind clearing trip to Soufriere, which literally means "Sulphur air" . The fumes from the local active volcano permeate the entire town making it smell like hell and brimfire. As we wandered downtown, I stumbled into a very real hell. I was suddenly mobbed by cousins, friends and family of Emile, who KNEW I had seen her the night before and wondered what could have gone wrong and what did I DO, and what could I have done better. I told them as much as I knew and beat it out of town. That is how small that island is.

Balenbouche is another wonderfully unique place on the island, albeit with a dark history. 150 years ago, it was a sugar plantation house built by a Frenchman, who died when he took a musket ball in the mouth during one of the many conflicts on the island, hence the name - "Ball in Mouth". His ghost was said to haunt the place, and it was being run as a historic bed and breakfast by a fascinating woman named Uta. She cooked a fantastic gourmet meal of fresh island ingredients, and told gory ghost stories while we ate her sumptous food. She served Mustard sauced papaya, puree'd papaya and dasheen with a cheese sauce. There was palm hearts in a cream sauce and rolled beef tartar with mushrooms for the carnivores. The main libation was a heavenly fruit juice that tasted like tamarind but was more subtle. If one looks online these days, Balenbouche has blossomed into an entire estate of eco-lodges, artist's retreats and a true destination wedding location but then it was simple, tucked away and private.

(A view of Balenbouche across the lawn, before the land was developed)

A visiting doctor was enjoying dinner with us therapists and talking about how his fiance was due to arrive in a week or two. She called him around every hour or so to check on him. Between jealous phone calls, he gave all of us women a fantastic foot massage, confessing his deep desire to be a massage therapist. He stirred a lot of deep desires in all of us that had nothing to do with massage or therapy. He double- handedly converted our English gynocologist friend, Liz who yearned to be a nun. He plied her feet with his artful warm hands, while we sipped wine and listened to the lady of the house tell us her ghostly stories about haunted rooms and things that go bump. Liz went from chaste nunnishness to obsessing about men after the foot massage. That is what I call a miracle and a conversion rolled into one!

We picked up a lanky charming texan named Mark while lounging on the beach, and he spent some quality time trying to impress us ladies by quoting Byron: "She walks in beauty like the night....." and other so called "beer poets". Apparently he had had some success in bed with this strategy. We adopted him into the volunteer group, and upon having a cheesy, fatty egg, ham and bacon breakfast one morning - we picked up the oddest character yet: Morgan Octave, a Rastafarian with permanent dark glasses to hide his reddened ganja eyes, a grin filled with snaggle teeth, a huge pile of dreads and a body odor like a moldy beach towel from slumming on the beach. He charmed himself into our graces and Mark bought him breakfast. Apparently he had already discovered that Mark was an easy mark for free food.

He chattered nonstop, elected himself as our immediate expert St. Lucian tour guide and would not take no for an answer. His main phrase was, "LISTEN LISTEN! Is everybody having FUN??" and "You've NOT seen the last of ME!" when we would extricate ourselves from him to return to our modest hospital digs. He would faithfully show up at the reef, or wherever we happened to be, usually at mealtimes - where he would conveniently be short of cash. He incessantly cadged Beedies, little Indian cigarettes that were wrapped in a charming colorful cone of gold foil paper with a picture of a smiling turbaned fellow. This particularly annoyed Rebecca, who savored her Beedies like the true Brit she was.

We indulged Morgan a bit and he insisted on taking us to his parents massive plantation, deep in the jungle heart of the St. Lucian rainforest. We all decided that was a worthy adventure, and off we went, first by transport, then by taxi until the roads became far too rutted and we were dumped unceremoniously on the road within some distance of the farm. The transport driver warned us that we'd have trouble getting a ride for a few days, then he roared off. We (being myself, Joanne, Paul, Rebecca , and Mark) all looked at each other in consternation, then hiked up a very bad road, up a hill and into the Octave's farm. Morgan's mouth ran nonstop about the riches we'd see.

(The road into the Octaves farm)

It was a modest house, painted an electric blue with open air windows, a fantastic porch, and an oil drum with a pipe leading into it off the corner gutter of the roof to fill it with rainwater. There was no running water in anyone's house on the island in the jungle, the rain provided for all. This house actually had a flush toilet, but one had to dip a bucket of water from the barrel and lug it in to flush and who knows where the waste ended up. The Octaves had no furniture, just a small dresser with a doll collection in the living room, and mattresses on the floor in two bedrooms. Otherwise the concrete floor was bare, and the rooms were swept clean. A sallow freckled girl with glasses, faded reddish hair and a light tan cotton peasant dress sat on the porch sifting through rice grains, discarding rocks and dark grains.

Morgan's younger brother George, was a dark handsome Rastafarian that put Morgan to shame on the charisma scale. He was a Reggae musician back from touring in England, and in town to visit his parents and to take care of a little "farm" business. The pale girl, Dory, was his wife from England. She said not one word to us but kept her eyes on the bowl of rice, a smirk upon her lips.

Mary and Don "the Don" Octave were the parents of these two very different boys. We toured the farm, got thoroughly soaked in a sudden roaring rain shower, looked at bananas, marveled over pictures of George's bumper crop of HUGE Marijuana plants, hidden somewhere deep in the forest. We experienced "the Don", who was decked out like a Spanish Caballero ready for a rodeo in a black felt suit spangled with silver cord, rivets and conchas. He wore a Zorro hat, decorated to match and was utterly animated. His wife Mary said quietly, "He is a troublesome man, but it has been an interesting 46 years" and that was the extent of her conversation. They only got excited when we took photos of them and offered to mail them copies. They posed regally on their blue concrete porch, and that is how I will always remember them. They were quietly proud of their modest homestead and they seemed to like us well enough.

(Rebecca, Mary, The Don, Joanne and me on the Octave's porch)

We were always starving on this trip, and always ending up in places where it took forever to get chow. This was no exception. Dory picked through the rice for what seemed like hours, then Mary slowly cooked it, and she used a tiny little propane powered hibachi outside cooker to make a few rotis for us at some point. We devoured them hungrily. She made them of potato flour, so they were potato bread with Dahl - curried split peas in between. I was so hungry, I think that was the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. Then we got a tiny portion of heavenly sticky rice and vegetables. We felt guilty, because we worried we had eaten up all of their food. Their kitchen was literally bare, we felt like a group of locusts and still we starved. The Octaves were considered very rich as farmers and landowners so it was a reality check for us. We began to appreciate the abundance of bland food the hospital could afford to put out.

It began to get dark and we worried about getting back to the hospital in time to work the next day. Morgan became sullen and useless at this point as he didn't want to deal with us and our responsible work schedules. His father finally took charge and said he knew how to get us a ride. We all had to hike into town, which was about 6 miles away through the darkening rain forest. Off we went, getting soaked intermittently by rain showers and slipping along the muddy rutted road in the dusk with The Don behind us in full Zorro regalia waving his hands and shouting, "Drive! Drive! Drive!" It was truly surreal. We stumbled into the tiny town, only to see people unloading huge speakers and planning some sort of jungle Reggae music festival. Music was already blasting up and down the street. We wished we had more time to enjoy this, but we were nervous about being at work in time. Paul kept repeating his mantra, "We got here, we'll get home." and we took comfort in his conviction. Street food for the festival was cooking and smelling tantalizing. The aroma of rotis and plantains and meat filled the air, but it wasn't ready yet even though we waved dollars and sniffed hopefully around the booths.

Finally we found a truck willing to take us out of the jungle and to the major highway where a transport could pick us up and cart us back to the fenced in safety of St. Jude's. We dragged our muddy, bug-bitten selves back to our concrete barracks, exhausted and regretful that we didn't have the flexibility to stick out the adventure in the jungle. A few years on the island maybe, and perhaps we'd lose our adherence to the almighty clock.

(Lambert, a beautiful soul and one of our most trusted drivers)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Archives of Foodventure: St. Lucia 1996

St. Lucia Archives: Small Island Cuisine and Tropical Treats and Eats

Part One: Getting Settled

My time spent as a Health Volunteer in St. Lucia is a topic I have meant to write about for over a decade, and yet that experience seems like it just happened yesterday. My ultimate travel companion, Joanne was the main impetus for this trip. In fact, SHE is the member of Health Volunteers Overseas and she was the one who heard about the tiny West Indies island of St. Lucia, and their dire need for physical therapists. Joanne is a wonderful friend and a huge hearted person. She works with disabled children in New York, which already qualifies her for Sainthood in my very thin book of truly good Catholics. I myself am not worthy to even be in the same room with that little book, but not only am I digressing early on, I am no longer Catholic and not up for the vote.

Joanne called me up the spring of 1996 to say, “I just booked a month for myself volunteering at a hospital on a little tropical island in the West Indies! They need physical therapists to work in the clinic and to go out into the jungle and do outreach programs with kids who can’t get to the hospital!”

“Oh man, that sounds really cool, “ said I. “ I’ll bet they really need an Occupational Therapist to teach their therapists how to make Kleinert Tendon repair splints. I think I am totally going to attach myself to your trip and come along!”

I called Roy D. White, the hospital director of St. Jude Hospital, an expat from Iowa by way of Texas who spoke with a drawl longer then the drool from a cud-chewing Longhorn. I extolled my virtues, mentioned the saintly Joanne and offered my expert hand therapy services and teaching skills in exchange for a hard cot, pillow and some chow.

“Wa-a-a-a-lll, you’ll have to come here and work if I’ma gonna put you up and give you three squares a day,” Roy said. “Lotta folks just think life’s a beach round here, but plenty work to be done. Them folks cut they hands with they machetes all the time and we have our share of tendon problems. ”

(The View of the hospital grounds from my room - after a hard rain)

And that was all it took to seal the deal. A telephone handshake as it were, and I was on the ticket. The experiences from this are so rich and prescient, I have decided to publish it in installments to spare my readers from blog-fatigue.

Because I flew from California by way of Miami and Puerto Rico, I flew on a redeye and it took forever to arrive. I got in about 10 pm the next day, just in time to get on the meal ticket with a group of hospital volunteers headed out to an open air restaurant to celebrate someone’s birthday. I was cross-eyed with fatigue, but got swept up by the ebullient Joanne who had already been there a week ahead of me and was firmly accepted as a golden girl by the hospital staff and other volunteers. We jumped into one of the rickety mini vans, called “transports” by the locals, and found ourselves crushed together cheek by jowl on hard benches. The van seats had been ripped out and replaced in order to pack in more paying customers and there was not a seatbelt in sight. I think perhaps 15 of us crammed in one van? My jetlagged memory is fuzzy, I just remember being more amazed than scared. Later I was to learn that those transports supplied about 60-80 percent of our injury cases in physical therapy and some of our patients actually died from transport accidents while we were there, but I was blissfully ignorant of that fact and on my way to dinner.

It was late July to August, the start of the rainy season in St. Lucia and the black clouds roiled in the night sky and heat lightening flashed ominously as we filed into an open air restaurant called the Chak-Chak. It was made of cinder blocks and open on three sides like a porch. We were seated at a long skinny table, which made conversation and meeting new people impossible and the cinder blocks threw our words back at us with reverb. The night’s rain crept closer and fierce wind kept whipping the paper plates and napkins off of the table. We waited and waited and waited and waited for our orders. An hour passed, then a half. Finally Joanne pitched a NY fit. She pulled the hospital volunteer card, which was a great card to have on this island.

“You know, we really ARE hungry and we ALL have to be up EARLY to work at your hospital tomorrow. Could you at least bring us some bread before dinner?” Joanne said, emphasis on the bread, early and hospital.

“No problem,” the smiling waitress said. Another 15 minutes passed, and she returned with little plastic baskets filled with slices of slightly toasted wonder bread for us, about ½ slice per person. We ate our two bites in silence and waited. After another 40 minutes or so, our plates of rice and fresh brothy steaming fish came out and we fell upon our dinners like hawks after famine. A final huge gust of wind blew through, extinguishing candles and whisking napkins from the table and the rain hammered down on the tin roof in a cacophonous fury. We screamed in delight as the humid air cooled around us, washing away our annoyance. Someone ordered wine. Soon we found ourselves whirling and slapping like itchy dervishes. Every mosquito on the island apparently decided to seek refuge from the rain in the restaurant. Unhindered by screens or nets, they fell upon us much like we had attacked our fish moments before. We slapped and cursed much to the extreme delight of a neighboring table of locals, their white teeth flashing in the candlelight. Three waitresses zoomed around our table furiously lighting mosquito coils until we each had two personal coils and were enveloped in a yellow noxious cloud. Our heavenly dinner took on the sulphurous taste of a struck match.

The hilarity at the next table was reaching a fever pitch so I had to walk over and be social.

“Hey man, how come the mosquitoes aren’t biting you guys anyway?” I asked.

“Fresh meat! That’s why! Fresh meat!” they chortled, eyes sparkling. “That’s why we sit next to you. We can have a quiet dinner just now!” We had a nice conversation about how caucasians swell up and turn red, blotchy and unattractive with mosquito bites, and locals shake them off as a minor annoyance, unscathed, no swelling no marks. I thought about the Dengue fever vaccination I had passed up in travel medicine as I ambled back to our table, slapping my arms and neck.

After an uneventful transport ride back to the hospital, I finally got to see my room. A narrow room, 8 by 12 feet long with a chipped wooden two-door dresser with water-rotted feet, and a hard plastic army cot. A crucifix was nailed firmly to the wall and the room smelled strongly of bug spray. Baygon: outlawed in the US as a relative of DDT but apparently still manufactured and sold to small poor islands.

There was at least an inch of water on the floor and water was pouring steadily onto my pillow from the ceiling from the heavy rain. The sound of piping tree frogs was as shrill and deafening as a chorus of piccolos, and there was a Speakeasy just across the fence and outside of my window. Reggae music was blasting out and the angry raised voices of some conflict sure to bring us new patients the next day. I wondered how I was ever going to get enough rest to work here as I swept water out of my room and moved my bed away from the drip. The next thing I knew, bright daylight was streaming into my window and it was at least 85 degrees. It was 8 am and time to hie myself to my first day of work in the physical therapy department.

Breakfast Cafeteria Style

St. Lucia has a rich history of being fought over by the British and the French. Apparently the island exchanged hands no less then 28 times. The result is a culture as well-mixed as pulled taffy. The locals speak a Patois French along with a fractured English, but alas, their cooking tends to be English. There is a strong Indian influence too which brings about roti wraps and curries, but the food at the hospital was mostly English: Starchy, bland and rib-sticking.

Porridge was always available in a big sticky pot, the sides sporting layers resembling the terminal moraine of a glacier as we ate our way to the bottom of the same pot every morning until end of week. White bread could be stuck into an ancient wire clip vertical toaster, and powdered scrambled eggs could be had most days. Dinners included macaroni and cheese in heaping sticky quantities and great pans of dusheen roots, a purple potato-like vegetable cut into chunks. Fridays brought about fist-sized hunks of fried fish in keeping with the Catholic tradition of meatless Fridays. In spite of St. Lucia providing an abundant banana crop, and having an excellent fruit market in Castries our side of the island was devoid of fresh fruit. Vieux Fort was a starchy English stronghold; the poor flat no-nonsense side of the island, and the food reflected that. In spite of all the starch, I actually lost weight on this trip. We made some funny midnight road trips out to a local “fast food” eatery, risking wild transport rides to score rotis, wraps filled with fragrant curried potatoes and other vegetables.

Pius is one of the regular hospital employees and is known as quite a cook. He is also very black, very handsome and has a famous roving eye and a taste for seducing young female hospital volunteers after luring them to his room for a few toots of strong Jamaican rum. He says he will cook us salt fish with green figs one night. We salivate for that, but don’t hold out hope. Pius is a slippery fellow, filled with many promises. I did come to his room and have some rum but I escaped un-pawed. He did lend me his Casio keyboard for the week though, so I was not without a piano. I luckily tend to write quotes from people I meet when traveling, so I can remember them in detail later. The quote I have by Pius is, “I really think you need to have the WHOLE entire St Lucian experience, Hmmmmm?”. Meaning basically, all female visitors should sleep with a St. Lucian, namely Pius. Which isn’t very pious of him at all now is it?

We scored some spiny Soursop fruits from a local lady and Pious had the recipe for the ultimate drink. One takes the bready pulp and squeezes it by hand in cold milk. This is then strained through cotton or cheesecloth, mixed with nutmeg and sugar and 120 proof Jamaican rum! Methinks the rum is the main ticket in this drink as the fruit is like a very bland guava. We gave a little of the milk and fruit mixture to a white puppy we nicknamed “Pinky” because of his pink visible skin, and we truly thought we’d killed him. He reeled around and staggered, and collapsed. Soursop must be a bit poisonous to dogs. He lived to bark about it and the next day was back to his frisky self.

Seamoss punch is another local libation, made viscous from some sort of seaweed gathered and boiled into a gray-green sludge. It can be bought on the roadside from private houses, but we got it from a tiny bar on the local beach nearest the hospital. It looks gray and sludgy, but is actually full of cream, milk, nutmeg and cinnamon. It can be spiked with 150 proof rum that burns out your nasal membranes at first sniff. It is fantastic. One glass, and gravity conspires against you.

(Paul,Rebecca Joanne on the beach - the bar is out of site on the left)

Physical Therapy

It was never less then 85 or 90 degrees in our physical therapy department. The Hospital of St. Lucia was built of cinder blocks, and was open air in most rooms. Our waiting room was an open chapel complete with pews and a huge crucifix nailed to the wall. Next to Jesus, a 20” TV was mounted blasting the Olympics at the time. The waiting room was always full, as few people had TVs in their houses. They sat on the pews heads bowed in prayer fingering rosaries, but looking surreptitiously at the TV all the while. Green Anole lizards ran around the walls. They lived behind Jesus and mated sacrilegiously on his vestments and basked on his head. The waiting room was supposed to be only for patients or families. We went out to call for patients and were always met with at least 25 blank stares. Occasionally a patient would be waiting and would pull himself up slowly from the pews eyes straying reluctantly back to the TV.

(Rebecca, a patient, joanne in red pants, my poor amputated finger person, me, elbow patient in front)

We actually had an appointment schedule book, but noone ever showed up at the appointed time. Transportation was unreliable, the rains were heavy, and things came up. We spent a fair bit of time doing wound care in the one whirlpool bath, and cleaning it with some of the most caustic bleach I have ever encountered. Physical therapy cost about 4 East Caribbean dollars a treatment, about $1.50 American at the time, but people didn’t even have that. Sometimes they would pay with eggs, fruit or even a live chicken. We accepted everything and nothing too.

Home Cooking, St. Lucia Style

Joanne treated a nice, statuesque lady named Helen who had plantar fasciitis, which is a sore sole of the foot. She healed extremely well, and she and her husband, Roy invited Joanne home for a traditional St. Lucian home cooked meal. Of course I got myself invited along, and I brought a bottle of red wine (a merlot I think) to avoid being a mooch.

We booked a transport and found ourselves carried into the equivalent of a St. Lucian suburb. Her patient owned a nice two-story house on a little swatch of land, and her husband wasted no time in showing us everything possible. We looked at sapling fruit trees, and a small vegetable garden, an eager puppy tied to a stake in the yard. Roy relayed a sad story about the dog he had before that left him only to live a few houses down the street with another family. Roy still saw the dog but the dog spurned him. Dogs run in wild packs here in between houses with very loose alliances with their human masters, so we were not surprised. We examined the house’s construction, appreciated the basement and the stairs and duly admired the view across the valley looking at an active volcano shrouded in a doughnut of clouds at its peak. We discussed the possibilities of lava flow into his living room and Roy shrugged. Life was short and the view was spectacular, so he took his chances, he said.

(Looking out from Roy and Helen's porch)

Roy offered us all sorts of tidbits, like Heinlanmalt, a rootbeer-like drink, Ameline champaigne, nuts, cake and various other snacks. We began to feel really stuffed. His wife reminded him that we had dinner planned and told him not to feed us to death.

After we worked out the dinner mix-up, we settled in to helping Helen cook the fish and we three ladies crammed into a tiny kitchen around a gas-powered stove as Helen taught us how to make a Creole pan broth of onions, peppers and tomatoes and spices, then to slowly braise the fish. The fish smelled heavenly, and there was a fresh green salad too. I am sure the fish was snapper. We brought the food to the table and noticed only two place settings. Helen and her husband refused to sit down and eat at 6 pm as it was “too early for them to eat”. They were accustomed to eating at 8 or 9 pm so they chose to sit out on their porch drinking a little brandy and watching the sunset as we uncomfortably ate our solitary but heavenly dinner. That was really strange to us, so we ate and cleaned the entire kitchen up after ourselves, feeling acutely embarrassed. We were quite open with Roy and Helen that we really wanted to share dinner with THEM but they were just as adamant in their refusal. This was a thank you dinner to us, they said. To Joanne, I thought silently, and I am the unworthy benefactor! I made sure they kept the wine for themselves rather than opening it for us.

After dinner, we drank some of their very strong brandy. We were stuffed to the gills, full from dinner, getting liquored up and feeling most tipsy. It was about this time that Roy said, “Hey, I know you Americans appreciate country music! You have to listen to my fine new stereo system!” With that, he cranked up the “CottonEye Joe” to full volume so we could engage in some country western line dancing in the living room. He moved furniture with gusto and kicked the rugs aside and we all started swinging around and around, the music pounding in our heads along with the brandy. We tried a little swaying Caribbean beat music too and jiggled our thighs and bellies dangerously. We really thought our heads or our bellies were going to explode but we lived to laugh about it many times over.

(The grand and petit Petons, the iconic mountains of St Lucia as seen across Rodney Bay)

PART 2: Balenbouche: A Tale of a haunted Bed and Breakfast and other St. Lucian delights

Monday, February 15, 2010

Gold Country Travels and Eats: A Birthday Feast

Gold Country Travels and Eats: A Birthday Feast with a Four-Tooth Minimum

California is absolutely close to everything. From 50-foot swells on the coast (Maverick’s of recent bone-crushing mini-Tsunami fame) to 7800 feet of powder and a cornice slicker than greased owl shit (Kirkwood, the Ice Master), one can experience both in the same day if you plan your travels right. Jackson, Ca. exists in between both extremes, leaning a little closer to the mountains.

We are lucky to know a couple friends who own a nice little bungalow in Jackson. Jackson is a historic Gold Rush town with a rich cowboy and Native American history to back it up. It has lots of un-reinforced masonry in the form of old brick buildings from the 1800’s with fading paint banners right on the soft edged bricks boasting “Chicken – Steak- Rib Dinners!” and a myriad of antique stores all selling the same pink and gray Franciscan 8-piece dish set. Funny thing is, my mom has that dish set too and she is not parting with it.

Fat Freddie’s Hot Doggery jostles cheek by jowl with a crystal-fossil shop, and several foo-foo boutiques (Pronounced Boo-ti-cues by the local wags). Fat Freddie has a penguin mascot on the sign and the interior is decorated with all sorts of penguin memorabilia. I have yet to see a penguin in Jackson, but I seem to remember that the owner's daughter has a "thing" for penguins. The fellow behind the bar is a hard-bitten and hard-biting local in his 70s who says he can still jump over the bar and chase down a deadbeat bill shirker. He dared us to walk out on our bill so he could demonstrate. We politely paid and left. The hotdogs were decent, but certainly not worth fighting over.

Good food in the town of Jackson is hit or miss, mostly miss if you give in and frequent the chain and fast food restaurants. If you land at Swingle’s Meat Market, and are a serious carnivore, you’ll be a happy soul. Swingle’s has steaming chafing dishes of that day’s special meat or sausage brewing. Browsing shoppers can get a pretty good protein hit just sampling sausage or tender tri-tip, one toothpick poke at a time. Like the pusher on the corner said, “the first one is free…..” Garlic chicken sausage, or pesto pork or whatever, it is all good.

Swingle’s does have some of the best steak I have ever cooked, and a mix of interesting game meats too. They also have the heads of many exotic African animals mounted on the wall and staring over the meat counter with liquid, life-like eyes. They seem to beseech, “Help me! My body has been grilled and eaten and my head has to hang out here and look at the hungry pink faces of two-legged carnivores all day!” That creeps me out.

Zebras, wildebeasts, duikers, antelope – I would like to see those animals alive rather than staring reproachfully at me over the meat counter. Of course I thought the male meat master and shop owner was responsible for all these safari trophies, but a local told me his wife killed most of them. Now THAT’s a wife to make a country boy proud! She’s not going to flinch when the bear challenges her for the Hefty bag late at night. She’ll pull out her sawed off shotgun and it’s BOOM, lights out, Boo-Boo.

Pine Grove is a little pissant town 10 miles north towards the mountains and it boasts a huge old-fashioned Italian restaurant called Giannini’s’s. We decided to have a multi- course Italian meal there for my birthday Après ski.

Giannini’s’s is a huge, historic hulking house of a place right off of Hwy 88. It is cave-dark inside with glowing red vinyl booths and sticky plastic red tablecloths. Red is the color old-fashioned restaurants always used to be to inspire hunger. It reminds me of countless diners and fish restaurants of my youth and it tweaks me to order a fried seafood platter or a grilled cheese with pickles.

Mr. Giannini was apparently Mr. California, at some point in his career before he started slinging garlic-infused hash. The walls are adorned with signed photos of him posing with various town luminaries and other celebrities. In most of the pictures he is wearing a shirt several sizes too small or is full on shirtless, muscles bulging aggressively, his long lupine face grinning out into the blare of a flash. He is unabashedly handsome and the many pictures speak to the success of his restaurant. Perhaps people were afraid NOT to eat there at some point in his muscular career.

“Try the canolli if you know what’s good for yous!” I can hear him saying, but I digress.

Giananni’s offers both “light” and “Deluxe” Italian dinners. A light dinner will have salad, soup, bread and an entrée guaranteed to drop anchor on your innards. The deluxe dinner includes a “cheeseboard”, a wooden cutting board slathered with a lava flow of polenta, tomato sauce and cheese. Diners scoop this up with chunks of hot bread and apply it directly to their hips. It is delish, but hardly leaves room for the quarter of cow, or the metric ton of steaming pasta to follow. The “Deluxe” also includes dessert, to be applied to other weight-bearing parts of your anatomy.

Because I am officially on a diet, we opted for the “light” Italian dinner. The salads are fresh and served with fresh-made Italian dressing, which is basically celery, peppers, garlic and garbanzo beans chopped up into oil and vinegar. It is a chunky dressing and is quite tart and heavenly. Soup that night was a plain brothy lentil, VERY salty, but savory. In times past, we got some odd soup brewed up from the pan juices of too many wild beasts with a few carrots thrown in for ballast. Not their finest effort, that.

The lentil soup was passable, but the lentils were a little undercooked and potentially packed a high fart-factor. It arrived in a huge (Fransciscan) bowl with enough soup for three bowls each. We eschewed second helpings both to save room and to lessen the afterburner effect.

We ate raviolis and tortellini as our entrees. They served us about a bucket of each with a heavenly, slow-cooked meat and savory tomato sauce that could only have been fresh-cooked and reduced from real fresh tomatoes. This is definitely their forte. They are the Gold Country Meat Sauce kings! Their pasta was tender, stuffed with fresh ingredients and truly a worthy vehicle for the sauce.

We had good intentions of eating half and taking some home, but the addictive sauce won out and we polished our plates.

Desserts are classic Italian for the most part: Spumoni, Zabaglione for two or MORE. I failed to see tiramisu on the menu that night, but I am sure it is a frequent visitor.

The friendly and garrulous waitress extolled the virtues of the special “Mudpie” dessert. We don’t do Mudpie. Period. We might order nice fresh slice of flourless chocolate cake maybe, or a crème brulee, or a heavenly custard but no Mudpie. Mudpie is a redneck dessert and don’t let anyone tell you differently. Even though I could have played the birthday card and probably scored a free piece, no Mudpie for me.

Just to be fair, I’ll finish this treatise off with a charming redneck recipe for RV Mudpie and you see what you think. No hard feelings, but no Mudpie for me. I don’t eat mud with my pie.

I did have a latte, but it was an effort. Ordering a “skinny” latte in this Old Family style Italian restaurant was like inviting the anti Christ to the all mighty altar of Frank Sinatra (which you can experience at the Beppo’s chain Italian family -style eatery ANYTIME, and even leave offerings – but I digress).

I heard the proprietress and the waitress scurrying around saying “Skim milk? We NEVER have any stinking skim milk!” I acquiesced and said any milk would do, but I was punished with weak coffee, thin milk and no sign of a crema.

A complimentary ride out on a hand truck would have been a nice perk, but alas, we had to walk our own lardasses back to the car. An entire day of skiing hard was negated by one depth charge birthday dinner. Happy birthday to MEEEEEE.

RV Mudpie

This is a dessert to make while camping ,when you don’t feel complicated, or have no one to impress and your guests are tolerant. It requires some ingenuity, but little skill or finesse. The better the ingredients you use, the better it will be. Or use cheap ingredients and serve it up to your four-tooth minimum friends.

9 x 13 cake pan, lightly buttered (greased)

10-12 ice cream sandwiches

6-8 Heath toffee bars

Marshmallow goo topping

Hot fudge topping or Hershey’s syrup in a squeeze bottle or both

Canned whipped cream topping or coolwhip, softened

Nuts – crushed peanuts, almonds or walnuts – your choice. Or make it vasectomy style and have NO nuts

Take the ice cream sandwiches, unwrap them and lay them out symmetrically in the cake pan. Cut the extras to fit to cover the entire pan.

Crush the Heath bars in a plastic bag and lay down a layer on top of the ice cream sandwiches. Pour whatever goop you like over the heath bars. Sprinkle a layer of chopped nuts. Slather on more topping – fudge or marshmallow. Spray entire thing with canned whip cream, or dump on the softened Coolwhip and spread it around. Top with nuts if desired. Heat some hot fudge, let it drip through fork tines and decorate like Martha Stewart. If you really want to dude it up, bust out the maraschino cherries and place them symmetrically all around the top, or be a minimalist and use one.

Freeze it a little, if you have a freezer, otherwise turn it loose at the campsite and start shoveling it into bowls. This dessert goes over really well with big scout troop parties and any group of people who have been smoking doobies all day.

Bon apetit! (I’ll bet Julia Child’s is rolling over in her grave on this one – or passing the roach)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cajun Chronicles of California: South meets West

Cajun Chronicles of California: South meets West Gumbo and other tales.

I am a Louisiana girl. There I actually said it and admitted to it. Once a year around Mardis Gras, I am willing to do that. I knew I needed to live in trendy and liberal California by the time I was 12, or about the time the Catholic Church got tired of my questions and excommunicated me. But no matter. You can take the girl out of the south, but you can’t take the south out of the girl. I am proud of my southern cooking, and I am proud to know Cajun folk who have taught me a thing or two about the value of a well-seasoned black iron skillet and the patience it takes to make a heavenly brown roux. Besides, you have to understand that Louisiana and SOUTH Louisiana are really two different states, almost two different countries.

Every year around this time, I celebrate Mardis Gras, my birthday and my husband’s birthday with a huge authentic gumbo fest. I make seafood file gumbo, which is vegetarian based, and chicken andouille sausage bacon gumbo for the carnivores. This has become a tradition over the past 12 years or so, and at some point in January people are harass me for a definitive date so they can calendar it, punch it into the blackberry, Iphone it, put it in Outlook, write it on a post-it, tattoo it on their hand or do whatever they need to do to stay organized and not miss a great party.

Not only is this a traditional Cajun food fest, it is a White Elephant gift exchange just for fun. This allows people to clear out the flotsam and jetsam of Christmas crap their clueless friends and relatives have dumped on them during Christmas 2009. Or it allows them the excuse to go out and purchase something off the wall, totally filthy or bizarre. But I digress.

I want to discuss the value of South Louisiana church lady cookbooks. In 2002, I asked my friend N. to write down her family recipes as a wedding present for me. She came up with two small town church lady-published cookbooks as well as a handful of hand-written recipes picked from her 90-year-old grandmother’s gray curly head.

In the St Peter’s Altar Society Cookbook, Every other contributing cook has one of her family names and there is so much inter-marriage and so many related cousins it makes my head spin. I spent some quality time jotting family anecdotes by several of the recipes.

N. is easily related to 2/3 of the entrants by blood or marriage, or by incident. Everyone in Bordelonville is way less than 6 degrees of separation from each other.

Three recipes for both banana and bread pudding, three for pralines, two recipes for Te Gateau cookies. These ladies are competitive. Where else will one find Okra roll ups and red cinnamon cucumber pickle rings?

I noticed the Church lady committee members got more than one recipe each in the book. Closer to God than thee and perhaps sleeping with the publisher! Mon Dieu!

I expected to find good wholesome ingredients in those church recipes and was amazed to see…..PET milk and Velveeta cheese food as a primary ingredient for many sauces! Holy Merlitons! My heart hurts just thinking about it, both emotionally and physically. “One can of PET milk, melt in 1 pound of Velveeta in cut into cubes and stir until smooth…..” Oh my. I know it would taste great but give me Chez Paul’s cream sauce with butter if I am going to have a coronary. Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning is a mainstay too, and original Tobasco sauce. None of this green tomatillo or Chipotle flavor crap. Give me that original pepper taste from New Iberia, Please.

Glorified potatoes! (AKA get into heaven with a covered dish)

Add the ½ pound of Velveeta, ½ cup margarine, real bacon bits, ½ cup sour cream, chives, dash of Tobasco and Tony Chachere’s and Sacre Bleu! It sho be hard to get up them stairs.

(Thank you Dardene and just kidding. You know we’ll eat them up and love them.)

Glorified Gumbo

N’s parents favor a dark brown watery roux with sausage and chicken, poured over a liberal bowl of rice. I always liked the taste of their kitchen. My dad still makes “Hamburgers ala Stanley” with Tony Chachere’s and soy sauce. That is a burger that bites back.

In spite of me attempting to get adopted into the Cajun kitchen down the street, my mom has always used the Better Homes and Gardens recipe for Creole gumbo, which is a tomato –based variety. My mom and I both make thick stewy gumbos rather than the watery brothy kind favored in the deep south. A thick stew doesn’t always set well in hot weather.

I diverge from the BHG recipe, but still make my chicken gumbo tomato-based with andouille sausage. Being the health conscious person I am, I have seriously cut down on the grease and I often just bait the pot with one or two andouilles and fry up diced turkey kielbasa or chicken sausage to add some meat impact to the sauce.

Andouille is such a distinct hot flavor, one can have just a little and it informs any other lower fat sausage you choose to use.

I do fry a pound of bacon and use the grease to fry everything – just because bacon is righteous. It doesn’t take all that much bacon grease to make a gumbo savory.

Even when I am making my “vegetarian” seafood gumbo, I sometimes still fry the vegetables in a pan that has recently known bacon. Trust me, they are better for it, both the vegetarians and the vegetables, whether they realize it or not.

The triumphant trio: celery, red/yellow bells, onions – all get fried in a black seasoned iron skillet informed with bacon.

I don’t like green bell peppers and I think they overpower the gumbo and make it bitter, so I eschew them. I feel the same way about oregano, which is a common spice in Cajun mixes, and I don’t like Bay leaf either. I feel like all these spices can get out of hand and hide the simple taste of all the other fresh ingredients.

I do use some of my Cajun seasoning while softening these veggies. I avoid traditional Tony Chachere’s because I don’t want that much salt, but I occasionally will use salt-free Tony’s. I am a big fan of Andy Roo’s salt free stuff, which I originally bought in the street Market in New Orleans. Back in the day (10 years ago? 18?) you could get it in an unmarked plastic bag but it kicked ass all the same. Now you can buy it online. no doubt.

I have also been making my own Cajun spice for a number of years. When I am feeling generous, I package it up in little bottles and give it as gifts to my party guests. I call it “Hoochie Cootchie Hot stuff” or “Hootch” for short. I sprinkle this over the veggies, and onto any sausage I might be frying up, then I’ll fry my raw chicken pieces in that pan with the bacon fat, sausage grease and veggies. I could give you the spice recipe but then I’d have to kill you.

I like a mix of thighs and breasts, but if you are feeling guilty, skinless chopped breast meat is the healthiest choice. Once I have fried up a couple pounds of bacon, I’m less conservative about fat and throw caution to the wind. After all in parts of the south, a third ass cheek is actually a prized possession. I crumble a little of that bacon into the soup too after the fact. Bacon is righteous!

I add cans of tomato sauce, paste and chopped fresh or canned tomatoes depending on my mood and supplies. If I am using fresh chopped tomato, I sauté the tomato in my ever-ready bacon pan. Do you see a theme forming here? Bacon bacon bacon!

I like to make my own chicken broth too, which entails taking the bones, skin, any leftovers and fat from any chicken dinner and boiling hell out of it, cooling it, skimming off the solids and freezing it. I usually always have some in my freezer, and I thaw it near the stove to add as liquid after I have browned my chicken, sausage and such. It is super easy to make and tastes about 100 percent better than the old stuff that comes in a can or box. Try it and your soups will thank you.

I dump all of these goodies into a large gumbo pot (Mine is 16 quarts large) and let it simmer while I make my roux. I will usually throw in my okra at that point too. I like fresh okra when I can get it, but I am not averse to frozen sliced okra. It tastes fine and adds the right amount of slime to make the “gum” in gumbo actualize. Okra makes some folks’ hands itch when processed fresh. Wear gloves or deal with it.

The roux is the piece de resistance of the soup. Seasoned flour, whisked into cold water, slowly poured into hot grease and stirred furiously to keep it smooth, then cooked to whatever shade of brown tickles your fancy. I find my roux takes 15-20 minutes to make. My dad has always had the impression that one cooks a roux lovingly all day long. Utter nonsense that, but it is a romantic thought.

I like a mahogany roux but others prefer a more savory burnt flavor and go for walnut hue. Once the roux is the right color and consistency, I pour it into the huge pot, let the whole soup simmer for 20 or 30 minutes or so, cool it overnight and serve it the next day. This allows the flavors to marry instead of just having a one-night stand.

I do the same steps for a seafood gumbo, except I will thicken the broth with cans of white crabmeat and I will boil in white fish fillets to make a fish based broth. I won’t add the fresh seafood until the next day 30 minutes before I am about the serve the dish, so all fresh fish, crab ,shrimp, and squid go in at the last minute to keep all the little sea creatures from turning into rubber bands. If you like living dangerously, throw in some fresh oysters too, especially if it is the right time of year and you trust your source. I eschew the tomato and use file spice instead in seafood gumbo.

This is finely ground sassafras leaves and it has an earthy flavor that marries well with the seafood and turns the soup gray green. Zatarain’s is a fine brand for this and for some other Cajun spices, like crab boil.

Serve over rice and experience a little piece of southern heaven!

Now, I have quite a collection of hot sauces that have come my way over the years. I have the whole collection of Tobascos : traditional pepper, Chipotle (which I hate) the garlic tobasco I am most partial to and the mild green tomatillo type sauce. I also have habanero tobasco for the more daring, and some hotter than the hinges of hell scotch bonnet and piquin stuff called “Submission”, given to me as a joke. Word to the wise: Don’t even touch that stuff! Not only can it burn skin I had to suck an ice cube for 30 minutes to get the pain out of my mouth and it wasted a heavenly dish of soup. I can take stuff plenty hot, but that is ridiculous.

If your mouth heat receptors are that fired up, you aren’t really going to enjoy that sneaky bacon flavor so carefully crafted into the gumbo. Plus if you get macho and eat too much hot sauce, you will feel like you have been smoking menthol cigarettes with your nether parts the next day. I know of what I speak. I’ll write about trying to get on the “Wall of Flame” at the Prince of Wales Pub someday, but that is still a tender subject.

Laissez Les bon Temps Roulez!