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Local Generosity Nose No Limits

Barbara O'Brien
Eastern Caribbean

Ah, Callaloo! The quality of the callaloo is the yardstick by which some West Indians rate their islands. I learned this soon after my arrival in Dominica. Callaloo is a thick soup, made of dasheen, onions, carrots, coconut milk, and other exotic tropical delicacies. Thus challenged, I vowed to create some callaloo that would raise my status in the eyes of the women in my village.

Dasheen, the main ingredient, is a plant with large, heart-shaped leaves. The edible tuber that grows underground is four to five inches in diameter, and may be a foot long or even longer. I was told the vein in the dasheen leaf must be peeled out or the soup would be scratchy. And only the young, new, center dasheen leaves could be used. I had no problem finding a bundle of fresh leaves at the market on Saturday morning. Everyone in Dominica goes to the market on Saturday morning, to sell their food or to buy it -- and, of course, to keep up with the latest news.

One evening after work, I was ready to try my cooking skills. I peeled the veins from the dasheen leaves. About a cup of chopped leaves was enough. The tuber has a rough, hairy outer surface that must be carved off before the vegetable can be diced. Mix a cup of diced dasheen with several cups of diced carrot, sliced onion, green banana, and chopped garlic. Place these ingredients in a heavy pot, cover them with water, and cook until they lose their identity.

Getting the food ready to cook took more time than I had anticipated, so I was glad to take a break when my neighbor, Medita, dropped in on her way home from church. We shared rum punch, discussed the fishermen's catch, then got around to what I was doing.

"I'm trying to make callaloo," I explained, and told her what I had done so far. I was chopping the dasheen when she came in. She was just in time to show me how to peel green bananas. Nothing is easy in the Caribbean. First, use either lime juice or cooking oil on your hands to avoid staining. Carefully slit the skin of the banana lengthwise on the outside curve. Cut the tips from both ends. Use your thumbnail as a wedge to separate the peel from the banana. I learned in my early school days that the purpose of skin is to protect what is inside. The fruit of these green bananas is well protected.

The bananas were finally peeled and were cooking gently with the vegetables in the iron kettle that rested on a coal pot, which I had borrowed from a neighbor. A coal pot is a charcoal burner that comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. Mine was round, about fifteen inches in diameter, and was insulated with three inches of fire brick. A wire rack several inches above the bottom held the charcoal pieces. Lighting the charcoal is another native skill that required practice -- at least for me. The charcoal is not the uniform round black lumps we use in the United States; instead it looks like chunks of wood, except it is black and much lighter in weight.

Back to the bubbling, smooth callaloo.

"What do I do next?" I interrupted Medita's description of family structure, how Sybar and Lista were brother and sister by their mother, but Gertrude and Lista were sisters by the same father. They all lived with their mother and their own children in a tiny, three-room house with a minimum of friction.

"Now it is time to put in the meat," Medita told me after she removed the cover, stirred the pot, and inspected the contents.

"I don't have any meat," I told her. Whereupon she laid down the knife she was holding, fished in her pocket and pulled out a small packet of what was once white, now gray butcher paper. She placed it on the counter and carefully opened it. "What's that?" I asked of the round, hard yellow something with two holes.

"It's pig snout," she told me proudly as she picked up a sharp knife and cut it in half. I didn't know what to say. I wasn't sure I wanted pig snout in my callaloo, but I knew she was sharing half her family's provisions with me. I mumbled some kind of comment that I didn't want to take away from her family, but she insisted. The pig snout was rinsed in the pan of water kept in the sink for rinsing everything and placed lovingly into the soup pot.

Medita yelled to one of the young boys running past the house to fetch a coconut. A few minutes later he was back, and with his machete made quick work of chopping the green husk from the shell and carving off the top so the coconut milk could be drained into the soup.

The proof of the pudding (or callaloo) is in the tasting. Guardedly, I took a sip. It was smooth and tasty, and it didn't even need salt.

Barbara O'Brien (Eastern Caribbean)

Barbara "Penny" O'Brien was a science resource development Volunteer working with teachers to develop new methods of teaching science. O'Brien has an M.A. in Early Childhood Education from the State University of New York at Binghamton, and a B.A. in Zoology from the University of Iowa. She is the author of "How to Select the Best Child Care Options for your Employees." She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and co-edits a newsletter for Dominica RPCVs.

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