Bahamian tomato sauce – it’s not what I often think of as tomato sauce, the rich Italian sauce that Mama Pignotti used to brew up, with lots of garlic, oregano, and red wine. No, Bahamian tomato sauce is thick and chunky, with peppers and onions. In Eleuthera, you see it in groceries, gift shops, and specialty stores. It’s recognizable by the fact that it’s produced in small cottage industries and bottled in used bottles. If you find it in one of the tourist shops, it’s usually in a Kalik bottle (Bahamas best beer) and has a cute little raffia bow or ribbon around the neck – and costs 3 times as much as as at at a roadside stand or neighborhood grocery.
But the Bahamian tomato sauce is used throughout the islands as a base for stew fish and soups, or a condiment for baked fish, chicken, or ribs.
There are, however, few commercial tomato processors in the Bahamas any more, and those that remain are Chinese. Eleuthera, the island where I live, was once known as “the breadbasket of the Bahamas”: the northern third of the 100-mile long island still is marked by huge crumbling stone silos populating the countryside. In the 19th and early 20th century there ws much agricultural activity on the island, due to the climate and the red lateritic soils. Eleuthera was a major supplier of US pineapple until 1900, when Hawaii became a US territory and the object of US economic support. Both politics and increasingly intensive modern farming practices contributed to the demise of large farms as a mainstay of the island. Currently agriculture here exists primarily as small-scale operations supporting local demands and subsistence living.
I mention that background because I’ve always been amazed at the lack of produce-growing that I see on the island. Most food is imported from the US and South America, and there appear to be few back yard or container gardens to supplement the food supplies of the residents. Bahamians don’t eat much in the way of fresh fruits or vegetables, much to my frustration when I try to find lettuce and other produce in the grocery stores.
So I was pleasantly surprised when my phone rang the other day and Miss Brenda announced, “Miss Judith, Barbie is putting up the tomato sauce. Come and see.”
Sure enough, out behind Miss Barbie’s Take-Away I found Brenda, Barbie, and Barbie’s husband Peter—busily ‘putting up’ a huge quantity of beautiful, fresh tomatoes. They had a regular production line going: Barbie was washing the tomatoes, quartering them, and squeezing out the juice and excess water.
Peter was taking the tomatoes from Barbie, adding fresh tomatoes, and running the vegetables through a food processor. Barbie then added salt and spices, and Brenda filled sterilized beer bottles with the thick paste.
“You gotta know the secrets,” Peter told me. “First, we don’t add any coloring, like they used to use at the big tomato plant in Rock Sound. We are all organic! Second, you gotta get the extra water outta those tomatoes to make the sauce just right.”
I tasted it: delicious! Barbie knew just the right amount of seasoning to add. “Tip the salt box,” she instructed Peter. “I’ll tell you when to stop. There. That’s it.”
Brenda fills two kinds of bottles: the Kalik bottles which are clear glass, and dark green Heineken bottles “We puts the clear bottles in the shops for the tourists,” Peter says, “so they can see what they’s getting. We uses the green bottles for our own recipes.”
Peter is most proud of his newest acquisition, a bottle capper. “Used to be real tough before this technology,” he says. “We used to grind up the tomatoes with one of them meat grinders. You know, the kind you had to crank by hand? Now that was a LONG day.”
Of course, even though there are several hundred bottles that have been ‘put up’ and capped, the day isn’t over. The capped bottles must still be placed in huge metal tubs and boiled over an open fire to complete the process.
Then the clear glass ones will be decorated, probably with raffia bows, and placed in shops and stores around the island. The green bottles will be stored in the restaurant pantry, waiting to be served up as a part of the delectable food offerings at Barbie’s Take-Away.