Food and travel writer Ann Vanderhoof
was still riding the Caribbean surf aboard her sailboat, Receta
, when we chatted about her new book, The Spice Necklace
, and her upcoming June 24 Edible World visit
to Philly. By the end of our conversation, her island-infused accounts of curry-clouded hamlets and medleys of stewing fruits had summoned the steel-pan music in my head. In case you're not familiar with the Canadian's work, her story's pretty typical magazine editor and husband get tired of the rat race, drop everything, sail off to the Caribbean, eat, cook, eat some more and then write a book about it.
OK, so maybe we can't all go cruising the West Indies. But Vanderhoof's knack for sniffing out the quirky charms of Caribbean life ensures her books are a perfectly seasoned blend of escapist travelogue and original cookbook.
This Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market
(8229 Germantown Ave.), First Person Arts will serve up an open-air night of storytelling*
with Vanderhoof, as well as a menu of authentic Trinidadian food provided by Calypso
, chef Claudette Campbell's
stand at the market. Campbell will actually start up the festivities by sharing her own personal experience of immigrating here from Trinidad. Then it's time to eat Trinidadian "doubles," meaty stews, fried plantains and more will be on the menu. Vanderhoof breaks down her Caribbean experience after the jump.
* There's a special discount available just for Meal Ticket readers: Use the code "MealTicket" to get $10 off the list price.
You're currently in Grenada. What have you been up to?
This season, we were as far as north at Antigua and now we have been island hopping our way back to Grenada. Grenada is one of the places that we feel we are coming home to when we pull into an anchorage. But truth be told, there are a number of places like that now. Another place that immediately feels like home is, of course, Trinidad.
What's special about Trinidad?
Trinidad has stolen my heart. I was absolutely delighted to know that the food at Edible World
was going to be Trinidadian. ... The food in Trinidad is wonderful. One of the delights is the street food. In the book, I talk about a concoction called "doubles," which, in its simplest form, is a curry chickpea sandwich. But that does nothing to capture how wonderful the taste of these are. For me, as it is maybe for Trinidadians, it became an addiction they're breakfast food, they're snack food, they're late-night food. And they're many more dishes like that.
Do food and storytelling go together naturally for you?
What happens on every island is that food becomes the entry point, the route that takes us into island life, turning strangers into friends. Part of my passion is, of course, to cook food and to cook local food with local ingredients. But it became more than that it became a starting point for adventures that took us off the beaten path and to people who took us under their wing and showed us their island.
The title of your new book is The Spice Necklace what is that?
It has two meanings for us, really. First, Grenada is called the island of spice because so many spices grow here. At the big market in the capital, St. Georges, women string spices to form necklaces. They have this fantastic aroma. In fact, I picked some up today to bring home with me. It has nutmeg with the mace still around it, cloves, bay leaves folded into little squares, exotic beans, cocoa beans, cinnamon bark, all of it together. But also for me and my husband, the spice necklace became a metaphor for the whole island chain of the Caribbean. As we would sail from island to island, each place would have a different feeling, a different aroma or fragrance. So, the spice necklace is both for me the island chain itself, as well as these actual spices hung into necklaces. In the book, the chapters are woven loosely around this idea, using some of the spices as starting points for our adventures. We followed the spices.
What prompted to you write a second book?
What happened when we went off on our first trip what I record in my first book, An Embarrassment of Mangoes
we had planned that trip to be two years. At the end of two years, we had to turn our sailboat around and point her back north again. But, as soon as I got back, I had the feeling of having left a wonderful dinner party after just the first course. Things were just getting going there was more to eat!
When we got back to Toronto, I was looking forward to having space again, appliances, even a dishwasher. But much to my surprise, the house felt claustrophobic. Because we were so used to being outdoors with big open skies, whatever island we were anchored off of was an extension of our living space. I had become used to the unpredictability of everyday, the unpredictability of what ingredients I would have available to make dinner or what our own fishing lines would yield if we were sailing. All this to say, we wanted to go back.
There's a phrase in Trinidad ... they say if someone cooks really really well, so that people who are eating want to lick the plate, he or she is said to have "sweet hands." And I knew right away that I wanted to learn more about island cooking and to have sweet hands myself.
Do you think you have evolved at all as a cook or a writer since your first novel?
Certainly as a cook. The first time in the market, every ingredient was strange to us. Now there are certain ingredients that we have fallen in love with. Right now, it's mango season, which I love. In the first book we were just eating them as fruit. Sometimes, I would bake them into a crisp or in muffins. However, now I've learned that in Trinidad they make a fantastic mango chow with unripe mangoes. It's a simple combination of the unripe fruit, salt, lime juice, hot pepper and an herb called "shadow benny," which is related to cilantro.
How are the two books different? If at all?
The first book was really about getting to the island and taking this break in our lives ... the second book is really about being on the islands. It's more of our adventures. We had a bit more confidence in getting further off of the beaten path, especially in terms of what we do on land. In The Spice Necklace
, the first couple chapters are set in the Dominican Republic during the hurricane season. We had heard that goat was the popular meat there. One day, I was exclaiming to someone about this fabulous goat dish we had eaten and he just poo-pooed it, saying, "That's not the best. The best is at the other end of the island where the goats graze on wild oregano and because of that the meat comes to the kitchen pre-marinated." So, this time, [my husband] Steve and I looked at each other and said we need to taste that. We left the boat, rented a car and headed off to the other end of the island to find these goats, which feed on wild oregano. And, not only did we find them, I can report that the meat really does taste of the herb.
Another example was in Trinidad where we had heard about this town called Tunapuna. It's home to a large East Indian population and it's also where a lot of curry powder is made. So, we thought lets go and see for ourselves because it sounded absolutely delicious since the air supposedly smells of curry. Well, when we go there, we found that it wasn't just that the air smells like curry, but there was a visible ochre haze in it there was actually curry in the air! In my second book, we have just let ourselves follow our noses and taste buds further off the beaten path.
How do you go about developing a recipe after sampling it from the locals? Do you stray from the traditional recipes you learn?
When I get recipes from people, they are not neatly written down or a precise list of ingredients it's usually from just watching people cook. If they're describing a recipe to me, they'll often say: it's a tip of this, or they'll cup their hands together, meaning a handful of that. Then, the first thing for me is to go back to my galley and experiment. It's always great to go back and try it out myself. ... If something is not quite right, we'll go back to the people who told us and sometimes I'll bring a sample and ask them what'd you think? It's hard to get an honest reaction, but if I push I often can. Then I experiment some more. By the time they reach the stage of my book, I also work out substitutions so that if you can't get some of the ingredients these are substitutions that stay true to the spirit of the dish. One thing for instance is the West Indian pumpkin, which is closer to a squash than what we call a pumpkin in North America. So, you can use a butternut squash, which mimics the taste quite nicely.
Any favorites out of the recipes in your new book?
I have a recipe for a mango and pineapple gazpacho. At this time of year, it's fantastic cold and refreshing. That's a favorite. Another is pepper shrimp. It's easy and takes hardly anytime at all. ... There's another Trinidadian recipe that uses jira, [the] East Indian term for cumin seed that has been roasted and ground. They make jira pork. I don't eat pork, so we did it with a lamb. First, you caramelize sugar and oil till it's almost burnt dark, dark brown. Then, you put the meat in so that it sears in the juices, and next you add the jira, salt and the requisite hot pepper sauce. It's fantastic.
I should mention something on the sweet end of the spectrum, too â¦ there's a recipe for ginger spice cookies that I worked out because they use a lot of Grenadian ingredients: nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and they have fresh ginger, so these cookies have a real spicy bite.
You talk a lot about spices. Do you have a go-to spice?
One spice I use a lot more now than I did before traveling in the Caribbean is nutmeg. We often think of nutmeg as the pumpkin pie spice or dusted on top of a rum punch. But a little bit of nutmeg when I make mango or papaya muffins is fantastic. A bit of nutmeg on greens like spinach just gives the flavor a little kick.
In what ways do you find that the culture surrounding food differs in the island lifestyle?
The big change
what is important to me is that, like the people who live here, we eat what's local, what's in season, when it's in season. In other words, when mangoes are in season, you eat them in abundance. Then, you switch to another fruit, and by the time mango season rolls around you are looking forward to them again.
Are mangoes still your number one treat?
During mango season, absolutely. I do love mangoes. One that we had for lunch today was called a peach mango. The gentleman in the market, who sold them to us, said, "Try these, they're sweeter than Julies," which is another kind of mango we like. He was absolutely right.