A Word about Eleuthera Cooking

Wondering what he was going to do when he reached Boston’s 24 snowy degrees still wearing his shorts and sandals, Ken boarded the plane home on Sunday morning. I will miss him: visitors show me my world through new eyes. And besides that, he’s a great cook—to get a compliment from Miss Brenda on somebody else’s mac and cheese is indeed a badge of honor.

One of my frustrations with Eleuthera has always been the limited diet that seems to be available here: mostly carbohydrates, sugar, and fried meats, it seems to me. (With a little conch salad, of course.) But Ken showed me otherwise—he found vegetables, fruits, fresh tomatoes, and herbs and combined them with rice, lentils, and non-gluten pastas: we ate like kings!

However, I have to admit that today I just had to go to Miss Barbie’s for conch fingers and guava duff. That’s what Bahamas eating is all about—and I’m not a flour-avoiding vegetarian, though I must admit the last week of Ken’s cooking has made a partial convert of me.

Like all the other places on Eleuthera, the recent hurricane damaged Miss Barbie’s Take Away. It’s still spotless inside—even more so than before, I think. There’s fresh white paint and dark red trim that’s coordinated with the five booths, new tiles on the floor, and an added refrigerated display case filled with cakes, tarts, and guava duff. Miss Barbie’s daughter Beryl was wearing a chef’s hat and looked so professional I had to take her picture.

Miss Beryl

I was compelled to bring home a container of the Bahamian national dessert, Guava Duff. Guava Duff is a steamed pudding made with sieved guava fruit. It looks like a jelly roll, but is served warm with hard sauce (butter, confectioners sugar, vanilla and rum). It’s my absolute favorite dessert: one year I asked Miss Barbie to make some and freeze it so I could bring it back home and share it with the poor folks in Northern Michigan who have never had the joy of tasting this concoction….maybe I’ll do that again this February.

Generally speaking, Bahamian cuisine isn’t a primary incentive to visit these islands, but a good cook is really a special treat. The food heritage here is a mixture of Dutch, English, Asian, French, and native cooking. Curries are common, as are chowder and stews. Fish and chicken are staples, of course.

One of my favorite Eleuthera restaurants (beside Barbie’s Take Away) is the Northside, just a couple of miles outside of Rock Sound, and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I took Ken there before he left, knowing that if anybody could meet his dietary restrictions, it would be Miss Rose.

Miss Rose is a lovely Bahamian woman. A widow, she manages Northside’s restaurant and charming resort cottages by herself. As we bounced down the partially paved two-track that leads to Northside, Ken remarked on the lack of signage and paving. “Well,” I said, “The important folks know where Miss Rose is. She caters for some very significant dignitaries on this island.”

It didn’t take him long to understand why everyone loves her.

“I can’t eat gluten,” he explained.

“Oh, don’t you worry at all! I’ve got peas (beans) and rice, vegs, plantains, and salad. We can make you a real good meal. I just finished cooking the peas and rice—that’s the hard part. Everything else can be prepared in no time at all.”

And our lunch was indeed splendid! Even better, Miss Rose came and sat with us as we finished our meal and explained how to cook plantains, what ‘brown sauce’ was, and when to use limes in chowder and stews. Rose also told us how difficult it was to repair her business after the hurricane: “The Prime Minister came to see the damage here,” she told us. “He gave me a certificate so I could get supplies and make repairs without paying taxes and import fees. I gotta get all that done before my grant time runs out.”

“It’s hard to believe you had any damage,” I said. “Everything looks perfect.”

“Oh, lordy, I had to get a whole new roof, and windows, and chairs. My children and grandkids came home from the US and from Nassau for Christmas, and I just had them to help me all they could.”

Miss Rose at Northside

As we bumped our way down the two miles of trail from Northside, Ken and I congratulated ourselves on our good fortune to have visited Miss Rose on a day when she could not only cook a delicious meal for us, but also provide a special insight into island life.

We had her all to ourselves. It’s a good thing Eleutherans don’t invest in paved roads, directional signs, and flashing neon lights.

(PS: as I write this, there’s a light tap at my front door. It’s Kervin’s grandson, Po, carrying fresh, hot conch fritters wrapped in foil. “Grampa made them for you,” he says.

Oh, heaven.)

The Adventure of The Glass Window Bridge

Glass Window Bridge

“Now you be careful,” Miss Brenda tells me. “That car don’t got windshield wipers. They be broke.”

“And,” offers Kervin, “Y’all check the oil and water each time you gets gas.”

“OK,” I promise, and Ken and I drive one block to the gas station, get gas, and the attendant fills up the car with a couple of jugs of water. (Gas station attendants do that here in the Bahamas. “That’s their JOB,” sniffs Miss Brenda. Of course, for $5.50 a gallon, they ought to do something….)

My visitor Ken and I are headed for the Glass Window Bridge, the one site in Eleuthera that Ken wants to see. On this two mile-wide island, ‘The Bridge’ is at the narrowest part: underneath its arch, the indigo Atlantic Ocean and the turquoise Caribbean meet. On calm days, it’s a beautiful and strange experience to see; on stormy days the bridge is closed because the waves will sweep away cars and pedestrians. The Bahamians call these ruthless waves “The Rage”–and while I’ve never seen the oceans like this, being on The Bridge even in the most calm times is a fearsome experience.

Now the sixty or so miles from Tarpum Bay to The Bridge ought not to be a major trip, were we on the mainland. In Eleuthera, however, a two lane road is often 1.5 lanes wide, and the word ‘shoulder’ is not in the roadbuilder’s vocabulary: there’s usually a sharp drop-off, sometimes into cypress swamp or rocky shoreline. There’s one road going north and south, and most of the locals have traveled it all their lives: they know every curve and pothole. Intersections are marked not by signs, but by crosses adorned by dusty garlands of plastic flowers. And the traffic often consists of large diesel trucks, a few tractors, and lots of old pickup trucks carrying several passengers in the back bed.

Ken asks, “Are there speed limits on this island?”

“Do you see any signs?” I answer. “Or any law enforcement?”

And so we’re ready: plenty of gas, oil, water, soft drinks, snacks, and money. We pass through Palmetto Point, Governors Harbour, and points north—one small, colorful town after another. We drive along the ocean’s rocky shore and smooth sand beaches, marveling at the lack of people and cars. Ken practices pot-cake spotting and rooster sighting opportunities: stray brown dogs and iridescent birds populate every village.

We don’t stop until we reach Gregory Town: there is a charming gift shop there, and then we have lunch at Monica’s Dis and Dat Carry Out and Grocery Store. Monica remembers me from last year and asks after Miss Lynn. Vegetarian Ken does a little hiking around the village while I eat a gloriously sloppy Bahamian hamburger and sip some Goombay Punch.

Then, on to The Bridge.

The Bridge is one narrow lane. It is in a constant state of repair, due to the endlessly beating waves—but today it is quiet. Ken hikes up to the top of the ridge and takes the awesome photo in this blog, and we head south again, thinking to find a tranquil sunbathing beach on our way home.

The car, however, has another notion: it seems to understand that its job was to get us to The Bridge, but not home again. Its red temperature warning light flashes on, and it gets to the gas station in Gregory Town and then abruptly stops—three feet short of the gas pump.

Fuel is not the problem. “Bad news,” says a local mechanic who appears from the house next door. “Engine’s blown. She ain’t gonna go further.”

He explains that he could fix it, but it will need an engine from Nassau. He estimates an astronomical price and a couple of weeks wait. When I call her, Brenda advises, “You all just come home. We worry about it later.”

The mechanic proposes a solution: he will find a wrecker who will take us (and the car) back to Rock Sound. “Wrecker?” I say. “In North Eleuthera?”

“Sure,” he says, wiping his oily hands in his tee shirt. “There be TWO wreckers on this island—one in the Nord and one in the Sout.” And an hour later, we meet Big Chuck.

Big Chuck, it turns out, is a Nassau native who has been to ‘Ford School’ in Detroit, and so he knows Michigan—and is a good mechanic as well. Big Chuck, Ken and I (who are, by contrast, little people) squeeze into the cab of the huge, spotlessly maintained wrecker, and head for Tarpum Bay at a speed which would put even Kervins driving to shame. We roar through villages and pass moving cars and trucks as if they were parked. Big Chuck waves at everyone, talks on his cell phone, and gives us his thoughts on Eleuthera business and banking, tourism, and the current government.

“We just gotta get WID it,” he says of Eleuthera businessmen. “We gotta get to the twenty foist century, make it com-for-table (four syllables) for the tourists.

In about half the time it took us to get to The Bridge, we arrive home. Big Chuck expertly backs the car into Kervin’s parking place.

“How much?” I ask.

“It’s a long way from Gregory Town,” he replies, gazing into the clear blue sky. “A real long way.”

Yep, it is that. About $7.00 a mile, it would seem. And a dead car. And a day’s adventure in the Bahamas.