Cé lang gwan gwan mama nou
Ay i bien dou
Eben anou palai Kwéyòl-la
Me’n pa abizai Kwéyòl-la
Non-plee pa ma-pwe-zai Kwéyòl-la
Kwéyòl-la cé un viay papa
Kwéyòl-la cé lang Dominik
Kwéyòl-la cé lang Martnik
Kwéyòl-la cé lang Scent Licci
Kwéyòl-la cé lang Scent-Vincent Occi
Kwéyòl-la cé lang Ahiti
Kwéyòl-la cé lang Guadeloupe
Kwéyòl-la cé un go soup*
A poem, called “Creole,” which I copied from the notebooks of one of the Junior Youth. A rough translation is available at the bottom of the page, but for now, please note that the last line reads “Creole is a big soup.”
They say hunger is the best sauce…but, here, I would modify that a little. In the Carib Territory—where one can virtually never go hungry due to the abundance of natural edibles—sharing is the best sauce. And as a general rule (whether one is cooking in a kitchen in Gaulette River, Dominica or Brooklyn, New York), I believe that innovation can be a rather good sauce as well.**
Finding myself with a couple of free hours on Monday afternoon, I decided to cook supper, so that when we returned from the evening activities, all we’d have to do is a bit of re-heating. I stood in the middle of the kitchen for a moment, pretending to weigh out my options…knowing all the while that my culinary M.O. tends to be “When in doubt, make soup.” Gosh, how I love making soup.
I surveyed the contents of our cupboard and fridge. Kitchen inventory-taking always happens in two stages. At first glance, the rations seem pretty low. By the second glance, however, one remembers that our “inventory” here includes the resources of the whole neighborhood…and this neighborhood contains generous souls, and a generous jungle.
The first glance took in the remainders of last Thursday’s shopping trip: a small bag of lentils, a few onions, salt, some oatmeal, and a bag of vitamin-C gummy bears sent from home. As much as I enjoy gastronomic experimentation, I wasn’t quite bold enough to try out oatmeal and gummy bears in soup. But I deemed the onions, lentils, and salt a good base from which to work. Oh, and there was also Strega Nona’s bag of Guyanese Curry. Did you ever read the story of Streg Nona? It was one of my childhood favorites: the tale of an Italian granny and her magical pot, which was able to produce an unending supply of pasta. The bag of curry I speak of is much like Strega Nona’s pot. It was given to Roushy and me during the Caribbean Initiative training in Trinidad***, from two dear Guyanese friends who’d brought the curry from home. This was back in November, and, since then, we’ve used the curry in almost every dinner. Yet the bag—impossibly—remains more than half-full! I just know Strega Nona has her hand in this, somehow.
Now, as soup-worthy as the curry-lentil-onion-and-salt combination may have been, I knew we could do a lot better than this. So I glanced again, taking into consideration the gifts of the neighborhood. First and foremost, there was the bag of Grafted Mangoes (yes, they merit capitalization). I think mangoes have been mentioned in the last two or three blog entries, but I don’t know that I’ve detailed the different types of mangoes proffered by the trees here. Even though I’ve lived in a couple of other tropical places, I always assumed that a mango was just a mango. Life on this island, however, has taught me that mangoes come many forms, each with a unique color and texture. And they don’t all ripen at the same time. First came Mango Was, then Mango St. Lucia, then Mango Bitterskin, then Mango Long…and now, the grand finale of mango season: the Grafted Mango. On the morning of the soup-making Monday, our 7-year-old neighbors, Keesh and Romeo (who are blessed with a Grafted Mango tree in their backyard—we have only Was trees and Long trees), brought over a gift akin to a pot of gold: nine Grafted Mangoes. Of course, they had to go in the soup (well, the ones that hadn’t already been devoured for breakfast).
Next ingredient in the Neighborhood Soup: a papaya or two from the tree beside my bedroom window. Both green and ripe papayas are actually quite good in soup, so I aimed to pick one of each. But picking a papaya—whether green or ripe—is a bit tricky. You see, the ripe ones are very soft and smooshy, whereas the green ones are tougher, and stubbornly cling to their stems. The best papaya-picking instrument I’ve encountered thus far is the handle of a broom…but more often than not, I end up stabbing it right through the center of a ripe papaya, or swinging so wildly at a green one that I nearly lose my balance. The act is much like hitting a piñata, sans the blindfold (Lord, can you imagine if I were to attempt this blindfolded?). Unfortunately, several good papayas are usually sacrificed in the process…and Monday afternoon was no exception. Eventually, though, I knocked down my sought-after two, and wobbled dizzily into the kitchen to deposit them with the rest of the ingredients.
While we’re on the subject of smashing fruit: our next ingredient is a coconut from Ms. Belle. Actually, I’m not sure if a coconut is considered a fruit, but I am quite sure that the best way to open it is a good hard smash. Dear Ms. Belle had handed us three lovely coconuts as we passed her roadside craft stand earlier this week, and one of them remained—just the right amount to grate into the soup. But first I had to smash it. This is how it works: you take the coconut out to the front porch, clearing a space of dog toys, mango pits (courtesy of Capacity and Shaloop), and flip-flops. You hold the coconut high over your head, take a deep breath, and hurl that thing onto the ground with the full force of your strength. If you’ve given it enough oomph, it’ll burst open, spraying you with coconut water, and spraying the porch with fragments of coconut shell. Good fun. You then break off grate-able chunks with a butter knife (or a cutlass), and grate it finely into the soup, making the broth creamy and coconutty.
I am a firm believer that any good soup needs a hearty dose of spice. Our neighbors Ennick and Aishema have several pepper plants in their yard, which look a lot like miniature Christmas trees, adorned with bright red bulbs. The red bulbs, in this case, are small but mighty “seasoning peppers,” which despite their diminutive size, pack quite the punch. I think you can see the pepper in the photograph above, bobbing inbetween the greens and shreds of coconut. And speaking of those greens: they’re called “callalloo” (that word rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it?), and they were a gift from our farmer-friend Tony in Laplaine, whose livelihood is the cultivation of all forms of greens: callalloo, lettuce, spinach, broccoli… We visited him and his family (who are relatives of Francillia) last weekend, and returned home laden with leafy vegetables.
With the addition of the callalloo, the Neighborhood Soup was nearly complete. It just needed a splash of citrus. Limes, my preferred form of citrus, are not as easy to come by here as one would hope, and the vendors in Roseau’s produce market are disinclined to barter (if Mango Longs could be used as currency, we’d be living the high life during this season). In lieu of lime, then, we must look elsewhere for our citrus. Fortunately, we don’t have to look far. The stretch of Carib Territory Road between Gaulette River and St. Cyr—which Roushy and I tread half a dozen times per day—is bordered on both sides with seas of lemongrass. Sometimes we rub it onto our wrists as a natural perfume, boil a few sprigs of it in a pot of hot water when we’ve run out of rooibos tea, and, of course, chop it up and sprinkle it into our bowls of Neighborhood Soup.
We’ll let the soup boil for a while, becoming more flavorful and peppery with every stir…and then it’ll be ready to eat, and ready to share.
Although English is the official language of Dominica, most folks also speak a French-based Creole/Patois, the language, as the poem says, “of our great great grandma.” The Grandmas (and Grandpas) do appear to be the demographic with the greatest affinity for the language, but even the toddlers mix in a smattering of Patois with their baby-speak.
This language, it seems, is much like Neighborhood Soup: a wonderful hodgepodge. Borrow some words and structure from French, add a portion of English, and season with some remnants of African languages and Kalinago, the language spoken by the original inhabitants of the islands (the Carib People!), mix it all together, stir vigorously and—voila: Antillean Creole, known by the locals as Kwéyòl–la.
Not until recently did I become enamored of this language. When I first arrived, I’d let the words swirl in the air around me without attempting to discern any of them. They formed a sort of blurry background tapestry, and though I may have noticed the vibrancy of its color, I couldn’t be bothered to take a closer look. I think my excuse was “Hey, almost everyone understands English anyway…”
Lately, though, I have been looking. Or tasting, as it were. And with each spoonful of this sweet mishmash of a soup, my delight increases. I just know the very basics of the language so far (“Where’s the coffee?”/ “Let’s sing!”/ “Walk well”), but am making an effort to learn a few new words every day. I’ve become really pestery about it, too (as in, interrupting people in mid-conversation to say “Excuse me, what was that word you just said?”, or pointing to random objects along the road and asking whomever happens to be nearby, “Now, how would you say that in Creole?”), but my neighborhood Patois instructors have been infinitely patient. Most of them, in fact, are more than eager to give lessons…especially the Grannies. They get an enormous kick out of my accent.
As I described above, making neighborhood soup necessitates a willingness to look a little foolish. I mean, it involves batting at a papaya tree with a broomstick, for heaven’s sake. Learning a new language, I feel, is not a whole lot different. You’ve got to approach it with light-heartedness and humor, knowing you’ll repeatedly make egregious mistakes, provoke outbursts of laughter in those with whom you attempt to communicate, and be forced to gulp down your pride when your grammar is corrected by a four-year-old. But exercises in humility are good for us, aren’t they? And it’s all totally worth it when you behold the joy on a granny’s face when you tell her, in stammering Creole, “Good afternoon, Gran. Would you like a bowl of Neighborhood Soup?”
* Translation of the poem from Marvis’ notebook:
It’s the language of our great great Grandmother
And it’s very sweet
Let us all speak Creole
But not abuse Creole
Or belittle Creole
Creole is like an old papa
Creole is the language of Dominica
Creole is the language of Martinique
Creole is the language of Saint Lucia
Creole is the language of Saint Vincent
Creole is the language of Haiti
Creole is the language of Guadeloupe
Creole is a nice big soup*
**Recipes are more fun, I think, when they’re regarded as suggestions, rather than directives. And the beauty of neighborhood soup is that it must, by nature, vary, depending on the neighborhood, and the resources available at any given moment. So, please, innovate! But for those who would like to try the Gaulette River version of Neighborhood Soup, here is the recipe in a more readable format:
About two cups of dry lentils
A few onions, chopped
Salt to taste
Curry to taste
A hot pepper (or anything that’ll give the soup some kick)
Greens (spinach’ll work just fine if you can’t obtain callaloo)
One coconut, grated (maybe about two cups’ worth?)
A green papaya and ripe papaya, chopped/scooped out/etc
Several Grafted Mangoes (or whatever the neighbors have on hand)
Mix all together in a big pot. Stir often. Enjoy.
*** Francillia, Roushy, Emelda, and I are headed back to Trinidad in four days (not that I’m counting down the minutes or anything)! I’m already starting to get fidgety and giddy with excitement. What a joyous reunion it will be—coming together with the other participants of the Caribbean Initiative to share stories and learnings and laughter and prayers. We’ll be there until June 8th, so the next two blog entries will be posted from Trinidad. Maybe I can find us a couple more guest writers there…it’s nice to hear different voices every so often, isn’t it?
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