“The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.” ~Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
“Eat ye, O People, of the good things which God hath allowed you, and deprive not yourself from His wondrous bounties. Render thanks and praise unto Him, and be of them that are thankful.” ~Bahá’u’lláh
The Purpose: Teach “the white girls” how to make a traditional Dominican meal: Figue and Saltfish (by the way, I’ve learned since my last posting about bananas that what I was calling “figs” are actually spelled “figues.” That looks a little more sophisticated, doesn’t it?)
The Place: The woodfire kitchen next to the yellow house on the curve of the road in Gaulette River (remember, we don’t have conventional addresses here)
The Professors: Yvette, age 18, and Minkila, age 10, her assistant
The Pupils: Roushy and Denali, who have never before felt so laughably inept in a kitchen
This posting is about a cooking lesson.
But first, please permit me to share a sweet little aside, which I’m reminded of from the quote above, “Eat ye, O people…” This passage exhorts us to, if I’m understanding it correctly, eat good food, and give good thanks for it. Yet, it doesn’t seem like “saying Grace” is really part of the Bahá’í culture. We pray in the morning, we pray at night, we pray at the beginning and end of every gathering (shoot, some of even pray for divine assistance before beginning a crossword puzzle)… but, as a collective, at least, we don’t seem to pray before meals—except maybe during the Fast. Why is this, I wonder?
Well, inspired by the example of 13-year-old Rampakash, I’ve been making an effort to—at the very least—take a moment to appreciate “God’s wondrous bounties” on my plate, before stuffing my face with them…even if the wondrous bounties happen to be stale bread with a smear of corned beef. This is what was served during the social portion of the last Nineteen-Day Feast. Now, at this particular Feast, we had really prayed it up. And when it came time for the social portion, our voices were hoarse from so much prayerful singing. Plus, most of us hadn’t had dinner, and we were hungry! One of the dear friends began to serve the bread and corned beef, and we all started chowing down. Rampakash looked around in confusion, and leaned over to me. “Aren’t we going to give thanks before eating?” he asked. I reminded him that we had already said a considerable amount of prayers, and suggested he eat up. “Well,” he responded thoughtfully, “I think I’ll still pray.” And he bowed his head over his paper napkin of food, and murmured a quiet prayer of gratitude.
The sight of him there, that tough junior youth with the dragon tattoo on his bicep, offering prayerful thanks for a slice of stale bread with corned beef, melted my heart. And, of course, after witnessing that, I couldn’t eat another bite without closing my eyes and giving thanks too. The first words that came to me were those of my Great-Grandpa Mort, who offered the same marvelous prayer before every meal: “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.”
So, dear reader, let us eat. Well, let us talk about eating, at least. But, in order to get to the eating part, we have to begin with:
Step 1: Chopping the wood.
Most families in Gaulette River have both a gas stove and a woodfire kitchen…but almost everyone seems to prefer the latter. It’s a little more work, but, they say, gives the food a special flavor (extra effort and extra satisfaction usually seem to go hand-in-hand, don’t they?). Yvette, our neighbor and cooking instructor, was determined to coach us through every step of the lunch-making process, and she was such a thorough and patient teacher. Now, having grown up with a woodstove, I’ve had a bit of experience starting fires, but cutting kindling with a cutlass is another story. Roushy and I provoked endless giggles from our cooking instructors as we feebly tried to chop small pieces of wood. After many repeated attempts, we finally managed to amass a small pile of sticks (narrowly avoiding slicing off our thumbs in the process!), and felt quite proud of ourselves.
Step 2: Peeling the figues.
Unripe bananas are sticky things, and peeling them can leave your hands feeling like they’ve been dipped in a vat of superglue. The trick for avoiding this, Yvette explained, is rubbing your hands and arms with cooking oil first. It deflects the stickiness nicely (but just be careful of the figues slipping out of your hands!). The best way to peel them, we learned, is to slice them vertically down the outside with a sharp knife. You gotta be sure not to cut to deeply into the banana—as I kept doing—or else it will fall apart. Just insert the knife deep enough to penetrate the peel, and then slice downwards. From just one slice, the peel will come off with relative ease. (This pile of figue peels became lunch for the two pigs in the backyard, as did the saltfish broth. Nothing went to waste; everything had its special purpose).
Step 3: Starting the fire.
Once we’d peeled all the figues, we put them in a large pot of water, to boil over the fire. But first we had to start the fire. Yvette showed us how to make a little tee-pee out of the kindling, and how to help get the fire going by lighting a plastic bag and holding it over the wood.
Step 4: Washing the hands (with coconut fiber).
Again, everything had its special purpose—even the fiber from a coconut casing. It may be hard to see in this little picture, but the coconut fiber is the material under the blue soap, and it makes the perfect natural sponge. We thoroughly washed the fig and oil residue from our hands, and rinsed them in a bowl made from a hollowed out gourd. Many of the materials utilized in the preparation of this meal came from “the bush.”
Step 5: Making the salad.
Guided by Minkila, we made a simple salad by chopping carrots and cabbage, and garnishing it with sprigs of parsley. Minkila showed us the most efficient way to peel a carrot—just scrape the outside of it with a knife, which takes off only the very outer layer (using a peeler tends to take off thicker slices).
Step 6: Greasing the (good) pot.
Yvette explained that most families here have two pots: the old one, and the good one. The old one usually looks like the pot in the third picture—it’s great for boiling figues and things, but you wouldn’t wanna serve saltfish from it…especially, Yvette said, if you have company. They way to preserve the good pot from becoming blackened and old-looking, we learned, is to pour oil over it, and let it soak up the oil for a period of time before putting it over the fire. This layer of oil acts as a protective coating, and keeps the pot nice and shiny.
Step 7: Making the sauce.
The saltfish was to be seasoned with celery, onion, parsley, and garlic. I have been chopped a fair amount of onions over the years, but had never learned a way to slice them without the onion falling apart in my hands. The secret, Yvette showed us, is to cut the onion in half, without cutting off the ends. You then begin slicing from the middle (the wider part) down, and the onion remains intact, resulting in nice circular curls of onion.
Step 8: Slicing the garlic.
An easy way to chop the garlic, without needing a cutting board, is—after peeling it—to slice it in a criss-cross pattern almost all the way down to the end of the clove, and then chop it horizontally. Hmmm…this may be hard to explain without a diagram. But most people already know this chopping technique, I think. The garlic peels were to serve their special purpose as well: Minkila tossed them over the fire, to infuse the kitchen with a nice garlicky aroma.
Step 9: Spicing it up.
This is the spice we used. It not only added some nice flavor, but gave the saltfish a deep orange hue (which made me very happy. I love it when food is colorful).
Step 10: De-salting, de-scaling, and de-boning the saltfish.
This was the most exciting part—we were finally gonna learn to make the the saltfish that Harry Bellafonte sang about in the “Sounds of laughter everywhere” song!!! Saltfish is, as its name indicates, rather salty. So we first had to boil it (in the old pot) to get some of the salt out. We then drained it, and poured cold water over the fish so as not to scald our hands while de-boning and de-scaling. There were a lot of little bones in there, but with 8 hands working, I think we managed to get them all out. We then mashed up the fish in bite-size morsels, and scrubbed our hands with more coconut fiber and a slice of lime.
Step 11: Mixing it all together.
It was now the good pot’s moment of glory. We carefully placed it over the fire, and filled it with the saltfish and veggies. We gave it some good stirs, and let it cook for 20 minutes or so, while we went out side to drink some jellies.
Step 12: Jelly break (and Cutlass Wielding 101).
Jellies, as I may have explained in an earlier posting, are young coconuts, filled with very little flesh, but a whole lot of water. Delicious, slightly sweet, nutrient filled water…and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything more refreshing. The good people of Gaulette River regularly bestow upon us gifts of jellies (sometimes we come home after a long, hot day to find a pile of them on our front porch)…but we usually run next door to ask Titus or Dante to open them for us. Yvette, however, was determined for us to learn to do this on our own. As you can imagine, more giggles ensued. We were ridiculously clumsy with the cutlass…mainly, I think, out of fear of slicing off our fingers. Finally, Yvette took over, and effortlessly sliced open the jellies for us. She made us promise, though, that we would continue to practice.
Step 13: The art of orange peeling.
I wish I could say I produced this beautiful spiral of an orange peel. This handiwork, though, is Yvette’s. Isn’t it pretty? This is something else I need to practice: slicing an orange in one long peel. The key, Yvette showed me, is turning the orange as you cut, rather than moving the knife. I’ll keep working on it.
Step 14: Juice making.
Once the oranges were peeled (these were special “Bosco” oranges, slightly tangy, from the tree in Yvette’s backyard), we squeezed them into a pitcher to make juice. Just add water and a bit of brown sugar.
Step 15: Eating up (and giving thanks)!
And culminating moment….three hours later. But what joyous, learning filled hours they were! This Figue and Saltfish ranked among my top five meals of all time, partly, I think, due to the sweetness of the preparation. We filled our plates, filled our cups, situated ourselves under the coconut tree in the yard, and feasted. And, of course, gave thanks.
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