Sometimes if local doesn’t come to you, you just might have to go looking for local! At least that’s my wishful thinking here in this Pit O’ Winter: Ice and snow, freezing rain, high winds, freaky lightning and claps of thunder, icy sidewalks, flu germs, cabin fever... the most optimistic thing that might be said is... well, I forget!
Oh, right! The light’s coming back. The other evening it was almost when we walked into a friend’s house for a dinner visit and she exclaimed, “Oh my, it’s still light!” And the days are just going to get longer and longer until June. Excuse my exuberance.
We sat down, that evening, to glasses of wine and a little bowl of guacamole. As I scooped some up on a chip, my friend said, “It’s all local, too – the tomato is hydroponic, from
...sleuthing for local food...
Because, it so happened, a couple of years ago on one dark-of-the moon, just-before-dawn morning at the end of February, with the thermometer shuddering at 1 degree Fahrenheit, I flew out of the Rutland Airport on my way to a little island seventeen miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, in search of local food. Friends who have been visiting Culebra for twenty years or more, and who have even built a house there with other congenial couples, had told me that Culebra did not grow any food at all, that all of it was imported from the big island, the water piped undersea, and that the fish they ate were not caught in the warm turquoise waters surrounding the island but were shipped from Boston. Of course, I was aghast! If rocky and cold little
The first morning I was there, the women drove into Dewey, the main little town, to do some grocery shopping. At the first store there were four or five aisles of canned and boxed goods that were not so very different from the cans and boxes in our own stores in
And then, off to the side, I found a couple of flats piled high with oblong and ovoid green things which I realized were large avocados. Huge, in fact. The kind of bland tasting avocados that I never buy in
It took me a while to realize that I had stumbled upon the only fresh and wonderful produce from anywhere near. My excitement rising, I added another avocado to my basket and, noticing that some of the green ovoid things were a bit smaller and smoother skinned – that they were, in fact, mangos – I picked up a couple of them, too. In the next grocery, the realization still seeping in that these avocados and mangos were straight off the trees, if not from Culebra then at least from the big island, I went a little crazy, filling up my basket with both items. A man came in the back door with a new shipment of fresh stuff and said, quite proudly, “We have green onions,” so I grabbed a couple of bunches of scallions. If my excitement at these humble examples of fresh produce seems a little disproportionate now, imagine what it seemed to my shopping partners then.
We made one more stop, at a liquor store and deli named El Eden, owned by Luz, a beautiful large-eyed Puerto Rican woman, and her partner Richard, who had been a dairy farmer in Plainfield for most of his known life, where we bought a couple of pounds of tuna. From
For supper that night, I made a dressing of lots of chopped ginger, garlic, and scallion, along with olive oil and soy sauce and the juice of a lime or two, salt and pepper and hot pepper flakes. I picked up one of the avocados with some trepidation, because they should be softer, and sliced it in half around the pit.
It. Was. Perfectly. Ripe. Perfectly! I had never handled an avocado so shortly after it had reached its peak of ripeness. A shoot was already curling out of its pit and immediately went into a glass of water on the windowsill.
I alternated great thin slices of avocado and mango on top of greens, split the scallions lengthwise in four parts and crisped them in a glass of ice water, then piled them upon the slices of fruit and drizzled the whole with the dressing.
We grilled the tuna on as hot a fire as we could make – which wasn’t, of course, hot enough – only minutes upon each side so that it was caramelized outside while leaving the middle red and warm, or at least that was the aim. We grilled thick-sliced red onion until it was still crispy but warm and caramelized; and then we sliced the tuna as thinly as we could and piled the red onion on top and drizzled the dressing over that, and we ate. Everything was good, but the mango and the avocado were outstanding. And that dressing... I’m going to make that tonight!
We ate those local avocados for several following lunches, halves of them, drizzled with garlic and olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper, and with tiny shoots of cilantro that my friend was growing in flats on the porch. We ate them with spoons from the shell.
Of course, those were the most delicious avocados I have ever eaten or probably ever will, and that is because the search for them, their serendipitous appearance, my relief at having recognized them, the fact that they turned out to be ripe in spite of my initial doubts, made them food hard-gotten, almost missed, therefore precious.
...roosters, wild cats, and bombs...
I continued my sleuthing for local Culebran food, but to little avail. I picked up some island literature and read that the island had been predominately agricultural in the 1800s and that wood, turtle oil, turtle shells, salted fish, tobacco, cattle, pigs, goats, country cheese, sweet potatoes, plantains, pumpkins, beans, yams, garlic, corn, tomatoes, oranges, coconut, cotton, melons, mangrove bark, charcoal, and turkey had been produced and exported in 1800.
I talked to Luz, who murmured how convenient the big island was for food supplies. Culebra is not semi-arid, but ARID. It has NO water – no rivers, no lakes or ponds (but that had not stopped the folks in 1800). She talked about the awful, invasive, thorny acacia plants that were imported to feed the wild goats that used to roam the island, and how it glommed onto the gracious growing conditions and grew such large thorns that the goats couldn’t eat it, after all, and it took over the island. Fronds of acacia that are broken off into the roads are capable of puncturing the tires of those unknowing folk who drive over it.
“No one eats the goats,” said Luz, “and there aren’t that many left now.” And, “No one eats the chickens” that flocked everywhere, and “No, you can’t get fresh eggs – they all hatch into new chickens,” (which you could surmise by the cock-crows that filled the air before dawn each morning), and “no one grows vegetables because of the lack of soil covering the volcanic rock.” And then she said something puzzling – that “there was a
I had heard mention of the military base, and I had seen old rusting tanks decorated with graffiti, and I had seen artists’ renderings of the tanks that looked like protests, and they puzzled me. They were jarring next to the beaches of white sand soft as cream, and I didn’t know what to think of them.
And what could that have to do with two to three thousand people sitting in their little houses upon that rocky soil, upon the creamy sanded beaches that surrounded the fish-filled turquoise waters, not going outside and scratching little gardens into their earth and pulling fish from their waters, and preparing them in their kitchens and sitting down to eat them with their families? What was it that made an entire island of people give up one of the basic rights they were born with, that of feeding themselves with their own good food? The truth was dawning upon me, but I still had not connected the dots. I could not see the truth hidden there, just as I had not been able to see the avocados loaded onto the flats underneath the shelves of the grocery stores. I was looking too straight ahead, my peripheral, truth-seeking vision blinded.
But a pamphlet I read on the plane coming back to Vermont finally provided something to flesh out my poor, parched imagination; something to explain the inertia of the Culebraneses in the matter of food, and most things else. Its words were stark: “In 1901-1975 US military used the island for military exercises and a firing range. The destruction to the reefs and the psyches of the inhabitants will take decades to heal.”
Imagine! An invasive government (ours) had used that beautiful little atoll as target practice for 74 years, had moved the people out or resettled them between its ammo stash and bombing target, and inflicted the noise and the stench, and the fear of unexploded missiles upon them. It reminds me of the warning Ike – a Republican, let me remind you, and a military man – gave us when he stepped down from office, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Back home again I googled the matter and found that different forms of cancer are rampant on Vieques, Culebra’s larger, neighboring sibling island, where the military only recently pulled out, and also on Culebra. The cancers are linked to depleted uranium poisoning, which is linked in turn to the bombing and artillery exercises which took place on the islands. The cases to have both Vieques and Culebra declared super fund sites are still pending.
Nice that we live in
On top of one of Culebra’s steep mini-mountains there is a restaurant known as Juanita Bananas. Upon grinding to a stop at the restaurant, the visitor is met with astonishing sight – ripe tomatoes hang from vines under a greenhouse overhang, grow from white pvc piping all sheltered and overhung with big leaves of oregano, and wide-leaved trees hang with the green fruit of mangoes and papayas, plantains and bananas, lemons, limes, guavas. There are small red fruits with tiny question marks attached to the hanging end of them that prove to be cashews, one to each fruit. In the ground and in planters and growing from the pvc piping are sage and basil, small and fresh growing lettuces and cilantro, green peppers and chilis and long, blue eggplant. Parked nearby is, incongruously, a motorcycle. Chef and owner, Jennifer Daubon, with her husband, Javier Cabrera, have created this little paradise, growing real, indigenous, fresh food, straight from the soil (and water), preparing it in Jennifer’s kitchen and serving it onto our plates.
Culebra is a beautiful little island with stretches of the most exquisite beaches you’ve ever sunk up to your ankles in. The people are friendly and outgoing, with a culture that is almost expatriate, and an inimitable loyalty to their damaged island. With people like Jennifer and Javier to repair it and bring it back, I think it will survive. And on days like this – is that sleet pinging against my windows – I think they might need my help! Add to that I’m developing a real itch for local avocados. Can’t get local avocados around here. LocaVocaDo!
this column was first published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on 02/19-08