Of Flavors and Family

By staff March 1, 2004

We used to have a rule on family vacations that we had to eat at as many locally owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants as possible. For years my kids would gripe and grumble as we'd pass by one set of golden arches after another, each glowing with the promise of familiar food in high-tech American containers, only to pull up in a crowded little parking lot next to a homey café, where, sullen and starving, they'd search the menu to find something-anything!-besides exotic atrocities like fiery Louisiana gumbo or fresh-caught rainbow trout. After my boyfriend, George, and I took my teen-aged daughter and her best friend to look at colleges in Miami, I overheard the girls telling some classmates how we went to a horrifying restaurant on Calle Ocho, where none of the servers spoke English and they didn't even have Diet Coke.

My daughter is 23 now; and with that stupefying-and only occasionally satisfying-way young adults have of rewriting family history, she recently told us that meal is the main thing she remembers about our trip to Miami, and she'll never forget how cool it was. As you'll read in a number of stories in this food and wine annual, a culinary adventure can live on long after the meal is forgotten, and food does indeed have the power to summon up memories of family and far-off places.

I know that thanks to George, who was born in St. Lucia, and his mother, Euphita. I was introduced to Euphita's cooking even before I met her; one of her sons works for the airlines, and she'd occasionally send us home-cooked meals by same-day service. Sometimes it would be a chicken curry, fragrant with cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Another time it might be silvery little flying fish, which she'd chosen from the fresh-caught piles at the outdoor market that morning and sautéed in a Creole sauce of onions, peppers, tomatoes and thyme.

When George and I made our first visit to St. Lucia together, she was standing at the door of her house to greet us, a broad smile on her face. At 76, she is a woman of immense dignity and vitality. Brought up in the country, she came to Castries as a young woman and got a job working at the only hotel in town, where she learned to prepare classic Eastern Caribbean cuisine, which combines the natural bounty of the islands with influences from India, China, England and more. In those days, many islanders didn't have indoor kitchens, and at home, she cooked outside on a brazier heated by burning coals. She raised George and two other children, imparting to them all her fierce conviction that hard work and education would lead to a better life. At one point, she worked at the hotel all day, came home to clean and cook for her own family, then went back out to prepare dinner for a wealthy couple, climbing the steep hill home by moonlight.

At first, I found her accent almost indecipherable, and she must have been just as mystified by me, a privileged American who clearly knew little about thrift, housekeeping or hard labor. But we shared a love for her son and for food, and over the next week, I sat in her tiny kitchen, where songbirds dart in and out and baskets are heaped with papayas and mangoes, watching her prepare one magical dish after another. As I helped chop vegetables, I peppered her with questions about the food-and her life. She was a vivid storyteller, full of quick wit and dramatic energy, and I was soon spellbound. We cried together as she recounted how she carried her sick baby daughter to the priest and begged for help just hours before the child died, and we laughed uncontrollably over island scamps and scandals. By the end of the week, we were family, part of the ever-evolving island stew of people, experiences and flavors.

She came up to see us last year, her suitcases stuffed with Caribbean vegetables, spices and an entire kingfish packed in ice, and we invited some friends for dinner. We spent two days in a frenzy of cooking, and George greeted the guests with rum punch while Euphita fried salted codfish cakes outside in a coal pot she'd managed to cram into her luggage. Then we loaded down a long table in the yard with dishes-pumpkin soup, stuffed plantains, baked fish, curried beef, beans and rice, "ground provisions," as the islanders call the various tubers that grow there, green banana salad and more. The stars blinked on and the moon came out as we savored each new dish, talking, laughing and toasting the chef. We were anything but elegant, sitting on lawn chairs and serving ourselves from mismatched platters. But the candles glowed, the banana trees rustled, and each new taste took us to a faraway island, fruitful, rich and joyously alive.

Here's hoping this issue sends you on some culinary adventures of your own!

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