Food is a wonderfully seductive entry into other places and other cultures. It gives us something tangible that we can connect with. It is endlessly fascinating to those of us who travel on our stomachs to look for the answers to basic questions, such as: What do people grow here? How do they process food or store it? What food is abundant? What is in short supply? What are the staple foods? What flavours, herbs and spices do cooks work with?
And so it is with Ann Vanderhoof, whose second book, The Spice Necklace, takes us to the Caribbean, picking up where her first book, An Embarrassment of Mangoes, left off. In the first book, Vanderhoof and her husband, Steve, leave their Toronto lives of magazine editing and art directing to travel around the Caribbean for two years on their sailboat.
Nine years or so later, in The Spice Necklace, they and their boat Receta ("recipe") return to the Caribbean eager to taste more of island life. This time there is no time limit to their travels, and so they are free to wander from island to island or to settle in for six months at one anchorage, as they please. They return to old stomping (sailing?) grounds, deepen their acquaintance with old friends and their understanding of island life and foodways, and explore new places.
The book is impressionistic and episodic, a mix of human stories; on-land travel adventures on rough roads (often in extremely marginal rented cars Vanderhoof refers to as "the SdJ" (shitbox du jour)); market encounters; eating and cooking experiences with friends and strangers; and a generous number of recipes (four to six at the end of each chapter). It's a complex mixture, often charming and at times overwhelming.
Interspersed in the mix, like the herbs and flavourings in oildown, a rich Grenadian one-pot stew, are facts and details. Some are presented as straightforward historical accounts (for example how nutmeg cultivation began in Grenada; the violent history of relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic; the history and importance of chilies in most Caribbean cuisines) or technical explanations (how cinnamon bark is rolled into quills; how bush rum is made; how vanilla, cloves, cacao and cashews grow and are processed). Vanderhoof tells us about the labour and tenacity and skill needed to fish for conch. She describes the Rastafarian approach to food, "ital" style, by recounting the making of a vegetarian stew high in the mountains of Dominica, and then giving us a recipe for it.
Other pieces of information are charming in their eccentricity or unexpectedness: "wining" and "chipping" are two different dance moves in Trinidad, essential for Carnival; "lambi water" means conch chowder in Grenada; "buss-up-shut" evolved from "bust up shirt," and refers to torn paratha-like flatbreads that are a common side for curry in Trinidad; the name for a widely used herb known as "chadon beni" comes from the French "chardon beni" or blessed thistle. A good cook is said to "have sweet hand" and a person enticed by the aromas coming from her kitchen might say "my mouth spring water."
The culinary traditions of the Caribbean are a complex and wonderful blend of local ingredients and the wisdom and traditions of people from many cultures. There are south Asian (Vanderhoof uses the term East Indian) elements such as the deep-fried breads that are known as "bakes" in Trinidad but as puris in Northern India. West African traditions, as well as necessity, are the origin of the technique of "seasoning up" meat and fish before cooking it. In the French islands such as St. Martin and Martinique, there's a strong taste of France, blended with local ingredients, in specialties such as boudin (sausage, made from conch or lobster or goat, as well as pork) and the tarts enticingly named "tourments d'amour" on Les Iles des Saintes near Guadeloupe.
The only difficulty with this rich stew of impressions and observations is that it has no story line, no temporal or geographical sequence to help guide us through the maze of islands, people and information. Some of the individual chapters read as if they were originally written as standalone pieces for a travel magazine, and the order of the chapters feels fairly arbitrary. Still, for the reader prepared to amble from place to place without a particular sense of direction, it's an interesting and engaging book either to read straight through or to dip into.
As a source of information or a cookbook, it has one serious flaw: If we want to go back and remind ourselves what buljol is (a spiced salt-fish salad) or the difference between Trinidadian curry stew and curry, or how a calabash is made or cassava processed, there's no way for us to navigate there. We need an index. Without it, we can't check what she means when, for example, her recipes call for "chadon beni" (sometimes called sawtooth herb, and also known in many parts of Mexico and the Caribbean as culantro), or when she refers casually to "provision" (a standard side of cooked starchy vegetables) or to "lumbi" (scallops) or "seacat" (octopus) or "christophene" (the usual Caribbean word for the fruit we know as chayote).
Naomi Duguid is co-author, with Jeffrey Alford, of six award-winning cookbooks that engage with food as an aspect of culture, including Beyond the Great Wall, Hot Sour Salty Sweet and Seductions of Rice.