Jun 23, 2012
After work Thursday, I headed over to the Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street, to eat a turkey burger from the Only Burger truck, drink a Fullsteam lager, and listen to food writer (and director of the amazing Southern Foodways Alliance) John T. Edge talk about his new book, The Truck Food Cookbook.
I sat next to Claire Cusick, whose article about the closing of Magnolia Grill in the Independent nicely captured the local food community’s deep admiration for chefs Ben and Karen Barker.
After the reading, Claire introduced me to local cookbook author Nancie McDermott. Nancie is spearheading a local group called Culinary Historians of Piedmont, NC, and she told me that she was a Peace Corps Volunteer, in Thailand in the 1970s. We shared a laugh about the recent NPR story about coconut water, Is The Coconut Water Craze All It’s Cracked Up To Be?, since we’d both drank our healthy share of fresh coconut juice straight from the round shell during our respective PC experiences.
“The best part isn’t even the juice,” I said. “It’s the sweet gel inside.”
Here’s a photo of me drinking from a coconut on Paama Island. This was early in my time in Vanuatu, and recently I’d lost nearly 20 pounds after a bout of giardia. After I finished drinking, I smashed the shell into pieces and then used a piece of the green outer skin — which Terry or Noel had hacked off with a machete before cleaning the coconut and handing it to me — to scoop up the gel.
By the way, the name of my blog here on mistersugar.com? The Coconut Wireless. I’ve written of coconuts often. Coconuts are an important part of our daily life in Vanuatu, and made my Peace Corps service very memorable. Whenever I think back on those two years and those good friends, there’s nearly always some form of coconut in the memory.
But, when I first arrived in Vanuatu, I was a bit blinded to that. Having grown up with a plan to be a Peace Corps Volunteer — my father served in the Dominican Republic and inspired me (read about that in my introduction to his memoir) — I had huge expectations by the time I set foot on Paama Island: I wanted to learn a language I’d use the rest of my life, master a martial art, make music and cook delicious foods.
For some months, I was pretty down on Vanuatu being able to give me that ideal PCV experience. Bislama was a simple pidgin language. Most meals consisted of rice and canned mackerel, or roasted taro and baked yam pudding wrapped in leaves. Music echoed the Presbyterian missionary past.
Eventually, though, I opened my eyes and ears to the delights of the Melanesian culture, village life and South Pacific environment all around me. Listen to Chief Louis Obed singing a custom story, for instance.
Here’s one set of entries from my journal that nicely captures my frustrations and an epiphany:
Friday, March 5, 1999 – Chief’s Day holiday
Yesterday, as we dedicated the library (a testament to Erin’s persistence and vision), we were requested to attend a 5:30 p.m. meeting in Voravor … which turned out to be a 6:30 thank-you dinner in which the Asuas/Voravor women offically accepted and affirmed Erin’s work for obtaining sewing machines and a volleyball net. In Voravor, the men shared with us a dish new to us, rolled breadfruit with coconut milk, flattened onto the bark of a natangura palm tree, cut with bamboo, and eaten off of small wooden paddles. Custom, and glad to see it. It’s sad to think that Liro Village is so far removed from many of its customs — Voravor isn’t that much different, but at least they still take the time to prepare their breadfruit this way. As the church bell clanged forever this morning, I lamented how religion is so clearly guilty of the dilution of culture, here and everywhere.
I should have waited, for in the last 4 days I’ve witnessed many groups making ‘huhoi’, the mashed breadfruit with coconut cream. Even Noel called me to his smokey kitchen to watch him pound the steaming breadfruit into a dough using a greeen coconut, speared with a stick to create a handle. So, culture is alive.
This morning, on my run through the neighborhood still damp from yesterday’s thunderstorm soaking, the smell of wet leaves and undergrowth reminded me of fallen breadfruit leaves outside our home on Paama.
Anton Zuiker ☄
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