Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Dish That Almost Got Away

We arrived at Cane Garden Bay, Tortola by 8AM. The beach was virtually empty of visitors. There were workers setting up chairs and umbrellas, bartenders stocking up coolers, and a few locals taking their morning walk. We set up our camp by the shoreline, the small waves hitting our feet, and the bright sun on our face. We all settled in and started to enjoy the hot Caribbean morning. The first thing I like to do is walk the beach. I like to see if someone is cooking up something different or something local. I walked by small cantinas, big outdoor bars, and a few beach cabanas. As I stroll by I glance at the menus. Most offer the typical fare of burgers, fries, and sandwiches. Some have grilled fish, and conch. As I run out of beach I noticed my lunch options are getting sparse. I turn around and start walking back, and then it hits me. A unique and wonderful smell. I wasn't sure what it was, but I was sure that I would be eating some of it. So, I followed my nose. It led me to a busy section of the beach. It had a lot of little shops where locals were selling t-shirts, carved coconuts, trinkets, and the such. There was a taxi stand and a large outdoor bar that was starting to get very crowded. Typically, these are the places I try to avoid when I'm looking for something unique. But, that smell was coming from this area, I just needed to find it. I walked over to the bar and looked at the menu: it was all drinks, no food. I walked through the little shops: nothing. Then, I noticed something. A makeshift tent over by the taxi stand. Under that tent were a few tables with a coffee maker, and two chafing dishes. Taxi drivers and beach workers were gathered around, talking, laughing, and eating. I stared for a few, and then slowly started to walk over.

"Can I help you, sir?" A big man, who was clearly in charge, appeared in my line of sight. Blocking me from the taxi stand.

", yes." I start to point at the tent. "I'd like to buy.."

"That's for the taxi drivers, not for sale." He said as he walked back down to the beach.

I stood there confused for a few seconds and then walked a little closer to the tent. Every time someone opened one of the chafing dishes I would try to figure out what was in them. One had chicken wings gently simmering in a thick liquid. The other had big chunks of fatty ham that were bathing in a thin juice. The smell coming from this area was intoxicating. I needed to try this food. I started to walk back to the beach to look for the man in charge. I took some cash from my wallet and folded it in my hand.

"Are you sure I can't buy some of that food?" I pointed to the tent with the cash.

"Sorry, sir, that is for the taxi drivers." And he walked away from me again. I knew right there this guy was not my in to try this food.

I walked back to our camp and sat on my chair. Waiting for me was a nice strong rum drink. I took a sip and started to accept that I was not eating something special today.

"Do you smell that?" Kris asks me. "Where is it coming from?"

"Over there." I pointed. Then I explained to her why I was not eating any.

"You like making friends." She said.


"Make friends with a taxi driver."

"Brilliant!" I said as I jumped out of my chair, almost spilling my drink.

I found myself walking near the taxi stand. Pretending to be interested in all the trinkets at the shops. Going through the t-shirts, trying to be inconspicuous. But, I'm sure I appeared out of place. Clearly I was only interested in the food. My eyes on it the whole time. I was walking closer to the tent. I was scanning all the taxi drivers, gauging the friendliest one. The next thing I knew, I was amongst them.

"That smells great." My opening line.

"Taste good, too." One taxi driver said. All his friends agreed with nods and happy grunts. I started to tell them how I would like to buy some. Before I could get the sentences out, one had made me a small plate. I thankfully accepted and tried to hand him some money. He refused and I persisted, then I just slipped it into his shirt's top pocket. He continued talking to his friends and I headed back to my beach chair.

The plate he had made for me consisted of the chicken wings and some coconut bread. Noticeably absent from the dish were the chunks of ham, but that's okay. The last thing that I was going to do was place a special order for some ham. They were nice enough to share their food with me, I was not going to push my luck. The chicken tasted great. It was briefly grilled, then braised in a sweet and spicy sauce. It also had a nice citrusy aftertaste to it. The coconut bread was thick and dense and had a subtle sweetness to it. It was perfect for wiping up the sauce off the plate. I was very happy, and very satisfied. I sat back in my chair, sipped my rum drink, and enjoyed the rest of the day. Most of my thoughts were filled with images of the ham that I never tasted. But, it didn't matter. Because I knew that someday, somehow, I would be back in Tortola, back on that beach, and eating that ham.


pigtrip said...

Good story and good persistence. I was expecting you to take an actual taxi ride. Now you know what it's like to have that so-close-yet-so-far feeling that the public at large has at a barbecue competition.

Jon in Albany said...

That's a good story. When we were on our honeymoon in Hawaii, 2 of the best meals we had were served off of trucks. Can't beat local food.