Excerpt: 'The Spice Necklace'

The Spice Necklace
The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life
By Ann Vanderhoof
Hardcover, 480 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $25

Preface: The Spell of the Spice Necklace

This time, I bring my rolling pin to the Caribbean.

I also bring my rat, Ramon T. Raton (made from a small coconut), and my elderly stuffed monkey, Curious George, a companion since childhood; my best pots and knives (and a proper sharpening steel); more baking pans and serving dishes; my trusty pressure cooker; two dozen tea towels; six stemmed wineglasses; three of my favorite silicone spatulas (all the same size and color); a digital kitchen scale; and one lonely electric appliance, a wand hand-blender with attachments that whisk and chop.

Of course, my husband, Steve, comes too. He calls himself my official taster and, aided by a lightning-fast metabolism, he's an unstoppable force when it comes to food. West Indian market women adore him — setting commerce aside to chat, tucking an extra piece or two of fruit into his bag, routinely giving him big hugs hello and goodbye — and cooks can't resist spoiling him, especially since he looks like he can use a few thousand extra calories. Inevitably, he 's the one who's given the largest fish, the plate with the scoop of the extra something, the invitation to "take a taste" of whatever's in the pot.

This is Phase Two.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

***

In the late '90s, when Steve and I were in our mid-forties and living in Toronto, we quit our jobs — I was a magazine editor and he was a magazine art director — put our careers on hold, rented out our house, moved onto our 42-foot sailboat and sailed south to the Caribbean on a two-year midlife break. Of course, it was nowhere as straightforward as that one sentence makes it sound, and we needed a five-year plan — which stretched to seven years — to cast off the lines that held us to land.

Our new floating home was elegant, graceful, fast . . . and small, sort of like a walk-in closet with windows: only 12 feet, 3 inches across at her widest point, with most of her — from pointed bow to pinched stern — much skinnier. The U-shaped galley had a miserly 2 by 2 feet of floor space; I could reach the fridge, freezer, stove, sink and all the cupboards without moving my feet. Luckily, Steve was willing to leave the meal prep to me: two cooks squeezed in here would definitely spill the broth long before they spoiled it. No dishwasher, no microwave; actually, not a single electric appliance for two whole years.

Stowage space was at a premium, requiring a back-to-basics approach, with no duplication allowed. Every kitchen item brought aboard had to earn its keep by being used almost every day. My rolling pin didn't make the cut, and was left behind in our storage locker. When I rolled pastry, I did it with a wine bottle. I crushed garlic without a garlic press. On the upside, my arm muscles got a workout whipping cream and beating egg whites by hand.

We called our sailboat Receta — the Spanish word for "recipe" — reflecting our more-than-moderate interest in food. Reinforcing the point, we named Receta's 10-foot, 15- horsepower dinghy Snack. But despite that, we apparently left Toronto with no expectations of the food we'd encounter. In fact, we arrived in the Caribbean provisioned to the gills, somehow having overlooked that people actually ate in the islands, that we would find places to buy food there. We had crammed every spare cranny with long-lasting, North America–bought edibles, the sort of canned and packaged stuff we never ate back home: losers, like gray, waterlogged asparagus and rubbery canned chicken chunks.

Never mind. The cans languished as we became devotees of island markets, seduced by glistening fish just out of the ocean; luscious-looking, new-to-us fruits that begged to be sliced open; fragrant nosegays of herbs; bundles of fresh greens with ordinary names like "spinach" but an entirely different look and taste; and, especially, tables overflowing with spices — seeds, roots, stalks, barks, buds, leaves, flowers and aromatic powders. Each time we dropped anchor, we headed to shore to investigate what delicious surprises the island held in store.

And we quickly learned that food launched conversations with strangers. "How do I know when this is ripe?" I'd ask, hefting, say, a breadfruit. "And how do you cook it for your family?" Or, pointing to a bunch of mysterious leaves that looked and smelled like thyme on steroids, "What do you call these? And what should I do with them?" Pleased by our interest, people were invariably eager to help. And we were encouraged by their warm response.

We began poking our noses into kitchens on shore too, whenever we had tasted wonderful island cooking. And when my experiments in our own galley afterward brought less than four-star reviews from the resident food taster, we went back to those who'd helped us — and asked more questions. Food became our route into island life, and strangers turned into friends.

Far too soon, however, it was time to sail back to Toronto. Our two-year break was ending, and we needed to restart our land-based life. This was like leaving a dinner party after the first course. While we were still in Grenada preparing to point Receta north, one of our new friends issued an invitation. "I want you to come for an oildown," Dingis Naryan said. She had taken us under wing when we anchored in a bay close to her home, teaching us island ways and showing me how to cook a few dishes "like you born Grenadian." Food, of course, had first brought us together; we met when she caught us admiring her mango tree and gave us a bag of its fruit. Oildown is Grenada's national dish, and it's synonymous with "party." "But we can't make an oildown until deh breadfruit on my tree are full," Dingis said. "How long can you stay?"

Not long enough. We had to leave with the invitation, like the breadfruit, still hanging in the air.

***

In the cool shadows of the outdoor market in Grenada's capital, St. George's, women sit holding long, fragrant strands of the island's spices out to passersby. "Spice necklace, spice necklace, you want a spice necklace?" they call. One slender young woman, with close-cropped hair, a high-wattage smile, and an array of elaborate necklaces draped on one arm, was bolder than the rest when I paused one day to look and breathe in their scent. Introducing herself as Adonis, she said, "I'll string some special for you. What do you want on them?"

Everything, of course. Nutmegs, the rough-ridged nuts hidden in polished mahogany shells under lacy scarlet corsets of mace. Spiky, pungent cloves. Slices of saffron-colored turmeric root and chunks of pale-gold ginger. Rough curls of cinnamon bark. Cocoa beans, fermented and roasted to a deep chocolate-brown. Bay leaves folded into tidy squares that give off a whiff of balsam forest. Small dark disks of tonka bean, which look like exotic beads and smell like the best vanilla. She'd fill the space between the spices with egg-shaped ivory river seeds, she said, and tubular golden beads cut from stalks of young bamboo, and tiny red-and-black jumbie seeds, which look like devilish glittering eyes (they're sometimes called "crab eyes"). They're said to ward off evil spirits — a "jumbie" is a spirit — and protect against spells. But they certainly didn't help us. The entire Caribbean island chain was a spice necklace to us, and we had fallen firmly under its spell.

***

Back in Toronto, we moved off Receta and back into our old house. After two years of living on a boat, I had looked forward to having space again — and a dishwasher. But soon I discovered the house felt claustrophobic, despite the square footage. We had grown happily accustomed to living on the water under vast skies, to thinking of whatever island we anchored near as an extension of our tiny living space, to taking our chances on what the market (or our fishing lines) would yield fresh for dinner. I chafed under the supposed comfort of predictable routine, and predictable ingredients.

We hung our spice necklaces in almost every room, their sight and smell reminding us of the islands. On cold evenings, I pulled out the recipes I'd developed in my galley and put a big pot of a Caribbean curry or rice pelau on the stove. Steve, meanwhile, cranked up the heat and the music — steelpan, soca or calypso.

As the aroma and sound of the islands floated through the house, we began to plan a return to the Caribbean, to pick up where we had left off. I wanted to learn to cook not only like I was born Grenadian, but like I was born Dominican, Trinidadian, and on all the islands in between. As the West Indians say, I wanted to have "sweet hand."

I'd already learned one lesson: forget the canned asparagus and chunked chicken. This time, I would use the extra space to bring along more kitchen gear. This time, our foodie bent would guide us from the start. Since spices and herbs are the heart and soul of Caribbean cooking, and the foundation of almost every dish there, we would also start with the spices. The trail would lead us to new islands, as well as back to old friends. And as we followed our taste buds farther off the beaten path, joining islanders as they gathered ingredients and set to work in their kitchens, I would jump right in and lend a hand. It's what friends do. Besides, as one cook said to me while a crowd sat at her table awaiting lunch, "You're makin' the soup today, darlin'. And the dumplin's. That's how you learn."

Excerpted from The Spice Necklace by Ann Vanderhoof. Copyright 2010 by Ann Vanderhoof. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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