Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why I Eat Locally and In Season- or- Why I’m not Just Totally Bananas

When I leave Dominica and get back to Chattanooga I am going to give up bananas .  I have never been a huge banana fan but you know how they are- they’re cheap, they’re easy to eat, they taste good (to some), and they’ve got SO much potassium.  Of course, the more I learn about food and the more I am around people who grow it, I have learned to be suspicious of the first part of the banana campaign- the cheap part.  Cheap food is to be suspected, and looked into.  Every time we eat something that seems “cheap” we should ask ourselves, ‘why exactly is this so cheap?  Is it super easy to grow, nearing the end of it’s season and massively abundant, or is something amiss?”  If you really sit down to think about bananas in Tennessee they seem totally ridiculous.  Don’t even think about all of the moral strings tied to bananas, we’ve all heard about the horrors of the big banana distributors.  Even the Buendias and their village in One Hundred Years Of Solitude know about what banana farming and distributing means.  Think just now of where bananas belong in Tennessee.  For one thing, the whole ‘taste good’ myth is just that- a myth.  Compared to the bananas that grow in tropical countries they are large bright yellow hulking slime machines.  They don’t have the delicate fruity tastes, the varying colors from yellow to red, and the different creaminess that the bananas here do.  It’s like trying to eat a tomato in winter from a big grocery store and expecting to meet the warm juicy sweet acidic flavorful burst of a summer heirloom.    So why do we even try? 

I’ll tell you why I tried and it’s the honest truth.  First off, they were cheap snacks.  If I couldn’t eat anything else for breakfast I would force down a banana (seriously, I have never liked bananas but truly believed they were ‘good for me’.  I thought maybe they were some kind of bright yellow hulking slime machine multi vitamin).   Secondly, I had never had REAL bananas so I had nothing to compare them to.  I didn’t know I was getting fed rock hard red tomatoes.  And the third, and very sad truth, is that although I have been aware of the horrors of banana production pretty much my entire conscious life, I just didn’t really think about it.  It is certainly not that I didn’t care..  I bought fair trade when it was available (not often in Chattanooga, I know a grocery store manager who won’t let her produce manager buy fair-trade bananas because they look “icky” and people won’t buy them ), and always have bought organic.  But as we know, what does ‘organic’ even mean anymore?  If you can’t see they farmer or meet the person who knows the farmer, don’t trust a word.  Of course that sounds terrible and cynical but it is true.   

So why care now?  Of course they grow bananas down here, that is why I know what they actually taste like.  Dominica is not like the South and Central American countries who are ruled by cheap bananas but they are effected.  The way it started was this: Dominica is a very rich and diverse land, they are basically self sufficient, especially in the fruit and veggie world.  When England colonized Dominica they said to themselves, well we love bananas and bananas love Dominica so let’s get the farmers to grow our bananas.  And so many farmers left whatever wonderful sustainable crops they had grown for generations to go full-time into producing England’s bananas.  Which was hunky dory with everyone because England had a steady supply of bananas and Dominica had a steady export.  But then Dominica gained their independence and the WTO (World Trade Org) stepped in and said, hey wait a minute England, you can’t just buy from Dominica, you have to buy from everyone else, meaning the poor Central and South American banana farmers, but actually their massive distributors.  Of course, those bananas are cheaper anyway because of the vast ocean of a market and so Dominica got cold dropped.  As Isoline, our co-worker/housekeeper/boss of the house said about banana farming “A lot of work, no money!” (which was followed by her laughter- a kind of reflex that she seems to have after ever sentence, but in this context it just sounded eerie as though it were echoing around the walls of empty banana storage huts).  Fortunately Dominica ain’t countin too hard on nobody.  They don’t have much of a tourism market and the banana market is nothing that they can’t work out of.  It hasn’t taken over the entire country because the landscape just can’t hold up to it.  Of course, the farmers here have some hard hard times ahead but hopefully someone will suggest to them that they just forget about the western buying powers and continue to putter around this gorgeous relatively untainted island in all it’s splendor.  I don’t see that happening but it is ok to dream I guess.  Really, why I care now has not a whole lot to do with the “lot of work, no money” joke, although that is very important to me and should never be the definition of a farmer.  Why I care is because I now see no reason to eat such a morally charged fruit.  I am pretty sure I am not going to develop a raging potassium deficiency if I give up bananas.  I would assume that the lush lands of Tennessee carries all the nutrients I need if I just know where to look.

I am truly humbled.  I have fallen off the high horse of going around saying things like “how can a person be a vegan for moral reasons concerning the animals and then turn around and drink mass produced soy milk from god knows where and eat conventional or organic lettuce mix potentially grown by neo-slaves?, how can someone KNOW how factory farmed meat is raised and continue to eat at fast food restaurants or order a steak at a fancy hotel?,  how can people eat processed cheese, baloney, margarine, white bread,  da-de-da-de-da and not care it is killing them and their grandchildren a little more every day?, how can people expect their food to be cheap cheap cheap and feel totally fine about paying the hospital and medical bills that come as a result from eating the cheap cheap cheap?”.  I fell right off that horse into a pile of rotting bananas that were cheaper for the farmer to waste than try to harvest and sell and when I stood up I realized- whoa, I am one of those people

The reason is not because I don’t care, as I said, or that I don’t try.  It’s just that after one thing there is another to learn.  I hope I never stop learning til the day I die (and who knows what will happen then).   I will never be ‘right’, I can only strive everyday to learn about my impact on the world around me.  As the butterfly effect says, every tiny movement we make impacts something somewhere.  Every article of clothing we buy, the roofs over our heads, and the bananas we grab as an on-the-run snack mean SOMETHING and someone is affected by it.  In Tennessee there is a whole lot to learn.  Not because it is “backerds Tennessee” but because it is quite the opposite- it is the “civilized” world.  We are constantly being bombarded by huge decisions everyday.   To me of course knowing our farmers is one of the most important.  If we don’t know where the fuel with which we feed ourselves is from- if we don’t REALLY think about it- then we really can’t move forward. 

Just one last thing about bananas.   Because bananas are so cheap it is like free advertising for grocery stores.  People love cheap things, be it food, kitchen ware, clothes, shoes, or toilet paper.  Value packed doesn’t actually mean it has any moral value.  Anyway, the most advertised “sale” items in grocery stores are bananas.  Come right in, step this way, bananas for only 39 cents a pound (you might get a free turkey with that if you hurry)!.  So we have been trained to walk in a store, look at the banana prices that greet us at the front door and judge the entire store by this one display.  The cheaper the bananas the better ‘deals and steals’ you will be getting in the store.  A “steal” is a perfect description, just think of who and what we are stealing from- it‘s not the grocery store, I can tell you that.    But this  free advertising is on who’s dollar, livelihood, and actual living life?   

So, now, in conclusion, I am preparing to march back to Tennessee with a gentler, more thoughtful way of looking at things.  Unfortunately we humans “don’t believe it til we see it” and I am very heavily guilty of that.  But seeing doesn’t have to be the whole reason for believing and believing doesn’t have to all come from what we’re told.  It is important to please pass the bananas with open eyes, but they better at least be fair trade, and we better have a dern good reason.

P.S.  If you are really interested in bananas and what they mean I would suggest looking into the book "Bananas!: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World" by Peter Chapman. Here is an interview with him from NPR, there is also a link that will take you straight to Amazon, where you can buy or at least check out his book.  I would.  I haven't read it yet but I aim to now....

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Recipe- Fish Cakes

At the Saturday Market there is a booth that sells fish cakes and bakes.  I have no idea why bakes are called bakes because they are fried.  Bakes are just a dough of eggs, flour, shortenin, baking powda, and maybe milk or something.   They are alright but the fish cakes at this booth are the best thing to have for breakfast at seven o clock in the morning.  Mike has convinced himself that the fishcake booth and Ray's Roti's are the two best 'restaurants' on the island (Ray's Roti's is a shop that sells fried chicken and rotis (curry chicken or other meat or lentils stuffed in indian flat breads)).  He could be wrong and I don't eat chickens I've never met so I wouldn't know about the rotis because Ray only makes the chicken kind.  But I am inclined to agree with him on the fish cake stand.  So I tried to make them at home.  These don't quite make it up to the glorious heights of the Portsmouth Market but they are pretty good.  Maybe we need to start eating them at seven o'clock in the morning....  I found some recipes but I didn't really think I needed to follow one so this is a combination of all of them and is based on whatever you happen to have in the kitchen at the time.  I think the market women might use some kind of salted fish-cod or something.  I just use fish scraps or fish that I don't really like a whole lot (we got some teeny red and pink ones that were nothin but bones but made nice cakes)

Fish Cakes for Two People

-Enough cooked fish to make about 3/4 a cup- broken up
-One big potato or a hunk of yam or some tannia- nothing too terribly starchy
-Herbs- parsley is good, thyme is great, I love rosemary in everything, basil kind of works, sage might work if it grows in your yard- maybe a tablespoon, depending on the pungency- chopped
-One egg-beat up
-1/2 a cup or so of diced onion and/or sweet pepper
-A squeeze or so of lime juice, plus the zest of the whole lime
-Maybe some flour or finely ground cornmeal
-Salt and pepper
-Maybe some hot pepper
-oil (coconut, vegetable, or olive) for frying 

If you don't have cooked fish lying around cook some and shred it up.  Boil the starch (I really love tannias because they are less starchy than yams or dasheen; they are closer to a potato but they taste even better) peeled and cut into bit chunks in salted water.  When it is soft take it out and smash it up.   Fold everything else in with a fork.    If the mixture is way too soft add a little flour or cornmeal to stiffen it up a wee bit.  It is ok if it is not firm enough to pick up and form into a cake- I just let it drop off a spoon into the pan.  But if it is way way too wet it just won't get dry in the center and that just won't do.

Heat a little bit of oil (a 1/2 inch or so) in a skillet til super hot.  You can deep fry these just fine, it's not that I don't like deep frying, I'm just not set up for it or rich enough.  Too much oil seems like a massive extravagance that even my extravagant self can't seem to muster up the courage to do.  So pan-frying works just as well as deep.

When the oil is hot just get a spoonful of the 'batter' and slide it off the spoon into the pan.  I like to squish it out a bit.  Cook a few minutes on one side and then flip.  If it is not nice and brown and has soaked up all the oil the pan is not hot enough.  Fry all the cakes, drain on paper towels or bags, and serve hot.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Boilin Lake

I would have never gone if it hadn’t been for Bruce.  Well, I might have gone, it was something I wanted to do when I first came here but I’d heard stories since then- most of which were partially true.  They involved boiling streams, wandering from the path and getting blown up by exploding ground swells, steep cliffs, hot sun, and something called the Valley of Desolation.  But Bruce REALLY wanted to go.  The week before was filled with Boiling Lake talk such as  “If we go up and down this path forty times (a steep path down to the ocean- maybe a fifteen minute walk) it will almost be like going to the Lake, Well bye guys I’m off to the Lake (really the village)”, but mostly it was just the words “Boiling Lake!” thrown in every conversation or quiet moment.   I think this is a great way to prepare oneself for things and I plan to take it up for the next big thing I do in my life.   Bruce has got some years on me and also didn’t have the ‘leg up’ Mike and I have from walking the huge guard dog Eevie twice a day like we have the past month or so.   I swear I’m in better shape now than I have ever been in my life but still the Boiling Lake was daunting.  But Bruce was so enthusiastic and brave about it that we all jumped on board and followed him to the city to prepare for the next day….

I’ll skip the city and the cruise ships docked there and plunge right into 5:45 the next morning when we woke up after (some of us had) a rough night with a crowing rooster and barking dogs; Dominica city sounds.  We met our guide Haigan and packed him into the car.  We then drove (he said) twenty minutes, although it felt like at least forty-five, up and down and around on roads paved, gravel, and half paved half gravel.  We finally arrived at the trail head feeling rather ill.  And off we were on a rather gentle little trail up through the forest with giant ferns and lizards and thousands of prehistoric looking trees.  Gradually we began to slope down towards the Breakfast River- watching for parrots and listening to Hagian tell stories of trips he’d taken before.  Recently he took three men who were heading towards sixty up and it took them from eight o’clock AM til eleven o’clock at night to get back- which set the fear of Boiling Lake afire in us skeptics (everyone but Bruce) once again.   But by the time we had gone down the steep trail to the ravine where the Breakfast River flowed, drank from it (yes Grandmama I did drink from a river and I hope to God it doesn’t kill me eventually), and ate some peanut brittle we were ready to roll.  It was about eight o’clock and we were an hour in.

So back up the other side of the ravine we went, heading towards some now hidden peak that shadowed our destination, the smell of sulfur creeping around in the air. When Ann, Bruce’s wife, asked how long and how far away we were Haigan replied- Don’t think about that, think about NOW.  See where you are now and enjoy it.  We will get there when we get there and you will enjoy that then.  I decided right then and there that my new policy would combine both Bruce and Haigan’s wisdoms and I would begin shouting Live in the Present, Don’t Worry about the Future, Notice the Beauty of Now so the Future may be Just as Beautiful! at random intervals.  

Now this path was a little steep but there were still nice broad steps and every time my legs began to burn the path would even out for a bit.  But we were gradually crawling higher and higher.  Every now and then there would be a breathtaking view of surrounding mountains, the sea, valleys,  and birds soaring through the sky.  It was a clear day and even as we ascended into the peaks the clouds only blew through and did not stay.   This country is truly so beautiful that it makes my heart beat a little harder and sometimes I want to sing as loud as I can.  Fortunately I am not a cartwheel turner because I would not longer be here to tell this tale if I were.   After we had climbed up for another hour or so we came to a little path on top of a ridge.  I still can’t grasp the fact that that is actually all it was- a little path on top of a ridge.  It was a small dirt path lined with beautiful waist high moss that was covered in teeny flowers, ferns, and bushes.  I swear I saw a little fairy wink at me from behind a plant that looked like seaweed rooted from the sea and set atop this mountain.  But on either side of those lovely mosses there was nothing- just a straight drop down into the gorge.  I have this awful fear of heights that makes my toes tingle and my stomach churn when I stand on a third story balcony.  But for whatever reason I had no fear on that path- even with Haigan’s stories of the man he was hiking with who bent over to take a picture and slipped and Haigan had to grab him by his boots and pull him back up (this story was much more involved and horrific but I won’t get into it as it ended well and that’s all that counts).  I think it must have been the ferns, moss, and Haigan’s sure expertise (he was in his own sixties at least I think but I had faith he would get us back before eleven o’clock pm).   We walked along this trail for awhile and then came to a large clearing/overlook where we took pictures,  drank water, and (I) relieved ourselves and prepared for the straight downhill path from there. 

The trail should have been a ladder, it would have made as much sense.  When I stood on one step the previous steps were just behind my back.  And these steps were logs set into the soggy ground, some missing, some leg-lengths apart, but still steps.  They were an addition of seven years ago.  Before that Haigan said he would help each person down this slope (which curved on and around much farther than I could see) and go back up for the next.   Going down is rough on the body and I was carrying a backpack which somehow threw off my center of balance.  This trail was cut into the ridge side with the bluff by my left hand and nothing by my right.  I felt like I was tipping forward at every step and was glad when both feet met the slippery rounded stair each time I went down.  When I wasn’t worried about somersaulting down the stairs I wondered what it was going to be like going back up.  

We spent about forty-five minutes on that section of the path before we rounded the corner and came out into the Valley of Desolation.  We had to clamber down a few rocks and into a smoldering sulfury valley where a yellow boiling stream wound it’s way back into the woods below.  There were spewing holes of water, gurgling white ponds, iridescent yellow rocks streaked with blue, and a bubbling pit of grey clay where we all had our volcanic face masks applied from the tip of a stick, still hot from the ground.

Once we were through the valley we went back up on the mountain trail, it was hotter and drier here but still wooded.  We walked along a milky white hot sulfur stream and back up and down and around til we came out once again in a rock valley where the Boiling Lake’s steam loomed ahead.   We walked along the trail through the heath-like plants and came around the corner to behold the Lake in the cater of this mountain we had traveled and it was truly Boiling.  A huge steady boil rose out of the center and could be seen when the mist blew away for a moment.  I asked Haigan how many times he had done this hike because it seemed to me that he still looked at the land around him with awe and true love and he replied, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were thousands.

We sat down to eat our hiking snacks, the usual sugar, fat, salt crowd that hangs around backpacks hoping for a ride to boiling lakes.  Our collection included the much sought after Cheetos- a force that helped drive Bruce through some of the steeper uphill climbs as he shouted The Cheetos! much like he had chanted the lake’s name the week before.  Also, as I have promised to mention in my Local Food Letter, we had Ginger Nut cookies with peanut butter.  Ginger Nuts are a British cookie in those long cylindrical packs that have a gingersnap flavor and texture and no sign of a nut.  We fixed that by adding our own peanut butter.  It you ever go to the Boiling Lake this is a must in your snack collection.   So we ate these things and drank water and ate candied coconut and salted peanuts and Ann lay on the rock with her legs up in the air to prepare for the return journey.  She was the most skeptic of us all but lead the pack the whole way there and back and I think the leg trick may have something to do with that (not to mention her true energy and joy in every moment the whole trip). 

As we turned back I found myself caught between feeling tired and dreading the return and excitement at getting to do it all over again but backwards.  Haigan said he once had someone come back to hike with him because she could not stop dreaming about it.  I can completely understand the feeling and am certain that every one of our dreams carries of a little wisp of fog from the mountains of Dominica. 

And so we turned back.  We meandered though the dry brush and stopped to soak in a warm sulfur pool in the stream that ran alongside the trail.  The waterfall rushing into it served as a silky strong massage for the soles of our feet and our tight shoulders, calves and thighs.  The trail back up to the overlook was as steep going up as it was coming down but my center of gravity had returned and every step came as it came and we crawled slowly back up the mountain and slowly back down. We crossed over the Breakfast River and were back up on the now seemingly cushy path through the lush forest.  My legs were shaky but my heart was laughing.  I saw a sunlit leaf smile, nod, and wave to me as I passed by and if my toes weren’t so sore I might have skipped.  We had all stopped speaking by then and the birds were alone to sing their screeching, squeaking, soaring whistling songs.  As we got to the end we heard a new roar- the cruise ship crowd roar.

At the beginning of the trail there is a cold blue pool that comes from a cave in the mountains.  If you swim inside with rocks to the end you find a deep waterfall rushing down from it’s home up higher.  Back out at the pool there is a stream of warm water from the volcano above.   The pool was full of very white people tied to life preservers who were screeching and squeaking a new song.  But they soon left and we swam into the pool with our tired sore legs and back to the waterfall.  Mike and I climbed on a rock and looked at the ferns and trees looming overhead and then plunged back into the chilly waters and swam out into the sunshine and ate some chocolate on the rocks outside.  The whole hike was like a beautiful story that came and rolled with perfect tempo- ending with chocolate, cold blue water, and a great sense of accomplishment and strength.

The next day we had recovery yoga overlooking the ocean and didn’t do a whole lot of nothin’ else.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Recipe- How to Roast Coffee Like a Cowboy

I can buy green coffee bean at the farmer's market here for $5 ec a bag.  That's about $2 for a one pound bag.  I don't think coffee drinking is the rage here- there isn't enough need to be caffeinated.  I don't know what type of beans they are but I don't suppose cowboys do either.  They are local and shade grown and that's about all I care.  The first few times I roasted them they ended up tasting like somewhere between hotel coffee and gas station coffee.  But somehow I have perfected this make-do method and my beans are rich, dark, oily, and fragrant.  They aren't exactly evenly roasted but I've learned to live with that.

Perfect Cowboy Roast

-One cast iron skillet
-One wooden spoon
-One well vented kitchen
-Enough coffee beans to fill the skillet one layer high- they should not be too packed in because it will be impossible to roast evenly at all

Put the skillet on a burner turned on high (or you could use a fire if you are serious about the cowboy thing).  Add the green beans to the still cold skillet and let it heat, constantly stirring them.  You could also do this in a lighter skillet with a lid and constantly shake it over the flame- popcorn style.  I only had cast iron and have learned to make it work.  

Continue to stir until the 'first crack', meaning when they start popping like mad.  You will know you have reached the first crack by the huge amount of satisfaction you feel.  It is usually as the beans begin to brown.

After the first crack still continue to stir- making sure all the beans are getting evenly swished around the pan.  The faster and more thouroughly you stir the better.  You might want to turn the heat down a little by now.  I think it is supposed to be a steady 500 degrees but I never check it.

Once they start browning the husks will begin to come off and create a whole lot of smoke.  If there are other people around it is important to tell them what you are up to before you begin, just in case they think you are burning the house down.

Conitinue cooking and stirring.  When the beans are just about the right color (but a hair lighter), dump them in a collinder and immediatly start shaking it and blowing on the beans.  This cools them down and also allows the stray husks to fly away.  When they are cooled let them flow through your hands and make sure no papery husks still cling to the beans.  Just rub them off with a towel if they are not gone, but they should be.

You can let the coffee get as dark as you want- only remembering it will be a little darker after you take them from the pan because they are still hot and roasting.  A light roast is sometime after the 'first crack' and a darker one is right after the 'second crack' (guess what that means).  The second crack is hard to tell with this method though because the beans roast slightly unevenly.

Let the beans sit twenty four hours before brewing to release CO2.  I put them in a glass jar and leave it open til the 24 hours passed.

Grind them up and enjoy....

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker

Being here on this little island between the Atlantic and the Caribbean has taught me a lot of things.  I’m sure it didn’t mean to but it has done the job well.  I feel like I am have grown a lot being here and I think it is from the simple fact that I have plenty of time on my hands to just THINK.  For the most part this has been very positive and has made me so much more aware of myself and where I want to fit in back in my community at home.

Life on Dominica is actually pretty similar to the stereotypical life of the Southern US.  They have the small-town mentality in ways both good and bad; everyone knows everything about everyone else (this can be a great thing if you are a newcomer and make the right friends in the beginning, it is impossible to make bad choices about friends or employees if you have half an island advising you), most people don’t leave the island, much less their village, cooking is very steadfast and traditional, families are close, children run around in the street and play on the beach by themselves, religion is strong, and people throw trash out and let it wash back up on the beach.  If you went to a small town in Tennessee forty years or more ago this is pretty much what you’d find there (except maybe the trash, I think that is a more modern habit).  Most people have a garden or know someone who does, the men work hard and the women cook and clean (although many young people are leaving, especially the women, for overseas education and jobs)  But the two things that are the most like the stereotype of the Southern US is that the people are very friendly and hospitable, and the personal space is much smaller.  People just show up at each other’s house to sit on the porch and watch the cars drive by.    The way to announce you are coming over is to shout as you walk down the driveway.  The island is so small you can’t help but bump somehow.   But I really got to thinking about this space thing after I wrote my last letter about the Portsmouth Market.

I was trying to imagine a market like the one here (large, loud, bustling, hot, no clear signage, etc) working in Chattanooga for all different types of people.  The people I had the hardest time imagining fitting in were people from my own social class- the mainly white, middle class, educated one.     And I said to myself “why? Is it the heat, the loudness, the complete casualness (I’ve seen vendors sitting with friends who are taking nips of local rum), the fact that you have to actually stop and get to know the farmer in order to find out where their food is grown, how much it costs, what their name is, and where they are from?  Is it the amount of time you have to spend buying your weekly vegetables and fish? My class of people seems to think we no longer have time for ANYTHING- even feeding ourselves home cooked meals- something that I wasn’t even aware I actually believed until I came here and discovered that I have time for anything I want to have time for. Of course having nothing but time helps a good bit.

But then I got to thinking about how I started my last letter-  I started by saying that I don’t like crowds of people.  Really, if you forced me to admit it I would probably have said straight out that I-don’t-like-people.  Which isn’t entirely true at all and sounds horribly antisocial and I would never actually mean.  But when I thought about it I discovered that although I don’t NOT like people I don’t feel completely comfortable with them.  Which is ridiculous in case you hadn’t already thought that because I AM one of those beings.  Of course there is a difference between being somewhat self reliant and/or enjoying being alone (something that some people are almost incapable of for whatever reason and that I have defiantly never had a problem with) and actually not being able to socially interact at all because you are too timid or antisocial.    And then it struck me that THIS is why the market wouldn’t work.  Because people would be too intimidated to stop and go right in to a real social interaction with people they don’t understand or know (if you truly understand farmers then you are actually a farmer and don’t have to worry about buying your food)  It is strange to think that our society is pushing us two ways- in one way it has become hyper important to have lots of friends, be very outgoing and extroverted, and to socially interact in business and at work constantly.  The other way has pushed us straight out of interactions with strangers.  At home, if I wanted to, I could probably go for weeks and weeks living almost the same lifestyle I live now and never actually interact with another human I don’t know.  I could go to the grocery and get all my food and go straight the self-checkout without ever having to say hello or smile at a soul (actually I don’t shop at stores that have those so that’s a lie), if I needed to mail something I just have to drop it in the box (that is assuming I actually mail things like bills and letters still- something that is totally possible to avoid),  if I wanted new clothes, to go used book shopping, buy some nice chocolate, or to rent a movie I could do that all from the chair in my living room on my computer- I don‘t even have to talk on the phone.  The other day Mike made an interesting observation- he said that you can buy anything you could possibly want directly from the individual, but over the internet (I think he was looking at hand screen printed tee shirts on organic cotton or something).  So that means if I wanted a tailor to sew me clothes made from fibers that has been grown sustainably and bought fair trade, or a hat maker to make me a hat, or a handmade bagel with organic flour, or a bead making book I could order my clothes from the guy, my hat from the lady, my bagels from the fella, and my book from the author.  To find those things in Chattanooga might actually not only be impossible but also take days and days.  And who has time for that?  In fact, who has time to peddle their products to one measly town when you can go world-wide?    But I am veering from my point (although I totally am a humongous advocate for the good-old-days when you could walk down Main Street and find the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker (we’re just waiting on the ol butcher on our Main St)).  My point is that if you are like me and tend towards shyness that it is not only very possible to live a solitary life but also might even be richer in some senses than one you tried to support solely on human interaction- especially if you live in a small budding southern city.  But why did this happen?  People are not by nature solitary beings.  The only reason a strong culture and community exists is because of rather intense and regular social interaction.  Imagine a community where you don’t personally know the men and women who grew the food you are feeding yourself and children, where you’ve never seen the land the cotton for your clothes grew on, where the man who makes your hats doesn’t take a tape measure and measure around your head, where your doctor doesn’t have time anymore to stop and listen, where the teacher isn’t interested in the way your child thinks, where your children no longer play outside with other children but inside with devices you might not be able to explain how they work, where you and your brothers and sisters and children no longer spend time with your grandparents and listen to what they learned and have to share from their long lives on this earth, and where your own self is suddenly too busy to shop from all these shops, know the owners, talk to your neighbor,  or cook two solid (at least) meals a day and you can‘t figure out why. 

Here in Dominica people have plenty of time for all those things but the sad truth is that the clothes are from sources unknown, the candles are not so nice- and certainly not local, the bakers have dwindled to a few large companies, and the butcher with his cleaver at the open air market is being pushed over by imported meat products.  Of course, as I have written before, the poorness and isolation of this country protects it from the true horrors that might be lurking around trying to consume innocent communities and cultures.  But maybe this is a small part of why no one has jobs.  The largest amount of jobs here seem to be either in government or farming.  But everyone still visits with their brother, buys food from their farmers, shops at the small village grocery (where you know the owner and his family by name),  and has time to sit around and laugh. 

Although my social life here has dwindled from hanging-on-by-a-thread to almost non-existent I have learned that if I plan to survive in this community I have to look people in the eye and interact directly with them, something that is surprisingly hard for me.  I  can’t just read the signs, follow the directions, and feel my way around (whether it be hike, beach trip, carrots, or a paintbrush I want).  I have to meet a real live person and ASK; what is a good trail to walk here, how do I get to a beach, how much do these carrots cost, or where in this dimly lit rum bar/grocery/hardware store/pharmacy do you have paintbrushes?  And as terrifying as it may seem to ask such a simple question of a complete stranger from a culture unfamiliar to your own, the answer is more often than not even more helpful than you expect.  I might learn about a BETTER beach than the one I knew of, or a new way to cook carrots, or that the paintbrushes are right THERE, in between the lentils and the screwdrivers! (by the way, would you like a shot of rum with those brushes?).    And nobody reacts the way I’d expect, which is to laugh in my face and tell me that I am extremely stupid.  I have been ignored but you learn to not let that hurt your feelings, you just move on the next person.  Of course, I am not a super pro at this bold human interaction and if the opportunity is there to pass it off to a fellow human I will do it.  But I am much less timid than I was when I came and I am beginning to wonder what it was that made me uncomfortable in the first place.  And what is it that makes us as a society so shy of our communities?  I am sure it came about from lack of “time” but where did all that time go and what is it going to give our culture?  

Now that I am aware of all these things I know what I am going to give to my culture and community.  I am going to give myself and not be so unsure that anyone will want it. I am going to explore our community and go out of my way to meet groups of people I have never ventured to spend time with, people who share a similar mindset but have slightly different driving passions. I am going to invite more people to my house and get to know the people I interact with everyday a little better.  Because there is nothing to lose and only a whole lot to give.  And I am going to find someone who is interested in making me clothes.     

Recipe- Yellow Fin Tuna with Mango Salsa and Babaganoush and Carmelized Onions and Tomatoes

Tuna is the most common fish to be found lately.  They sell it by the whole fish and you tell them "I want five pounds (or whatever)" and they cut you a hunk with a cutlass and throw in on a scale in the back of the truck- this whole thing happens on the back of a truck on wooden planks.  There is no loin, side, or belly- it's just the whole round of a tuna- they start at the top and work down to the tail.  So I have little cleaning up to do.  I just cut it into steaks and throw most of it in the freezer.  I know that tuna is being wildly over fished and I hope that I am not doing too much damage by supporting its capture.

Tuna Steak Topped with Mango Banana Salsa

For two people

-Two 6-7 ounce tuna steaks-as fresh as possible (if you aren't by the ocean you shouldn't be eating fish anyway unless you have some serious hook up- like a friend who drives from the coast with fish in a cooler full of ice)
-A smidgen of Coconut or Olive oil
-Some kind of juice for marinating- orange, passion fruit, sorrel (hibiscus tea- a holiday (and my own) favorite here.

Marinate the steaks in the juice while you make the salsa (recipe below).  Heat a skillet with the smidgen of oil til smokin hot.  Take tuna out of the marinade, dry it off, and throw in the skillet.  Brown on either side and then turn the heat down to medium and let cook til you like it.  I like it a little rare- it will still be bouncy when you touch it.  As it cooks it becomes more flaky feeling to the touch.  If it is actually fresh and has been marinated for a minute it will take a while to dry out and become unbearable so don't worry if you cook it past your desired temp.  I just say cook it til you think it's ready, poke a knife into a piece if you have to to check out the inside and serve it up.  Top with thinly sliced avocado if you wish and Mango Banana Salsa

Mango Banana Salsa

-One banana- ripe but not too soft
-One mango- very ripe
-One small tomato
-One small onion (or half a large)
-Juice of half a lime
-Hot peppers if you so desire and have them on hand (I didn't)

Dice the banana, mango, tomato, and onion.  Mix in the lime juice and a pinch of salt to begin.  Taste and add lime and salt if needed (if it tastes bland and flat add a little of both.  If your fruit is not local there is a good chance it will taste bland and flat forever so a bit of hot pepper and more tomato might be in order).  The mango does not need to hold its shape because it should be so ripe it's smooshy.  Don't over mix though because you want some chunks for interest (unless you don't- in which case do over mix)

I can't really remember the last recipe I've seen for babaganoush- I just use what I have on hand and blend it to a paste and call it babaganoush.  I do always roast the eggplant and garlic but sometimes I also roast some red peppers or onions with that and I've even roasted hot peppers.  More often than not I also don't have herbs to go in or I don't have parsley....  If I have paprika I add it, as well as cumin.  I use lime juice if I don't have lemon....  The main ingredients I stick to are:

-Three medium eggplants- any kind works
-Four cloves garlic- whole, skin on
-3/4 cup tahini
-Juice of half a lemon (or lime)
-Olive oil 
-And any of the above- raw garlic (this I usually add),cumin, paprika, herbs (oregano, parsley, basil, and thyme all work well), onion, roasted peppers... if you are not worried about tradition anything will be wonderful

Cut the eggplants in half and put them on an oiled pan with the garlic and into a hot oven- 400 degrees F will be just fine.  Roast until the eggplants are shriveled and squishy- you could broil them to blacken the skins.  I personally like the skins in the dip so I prefer not to burn them.  I think it is more traditional to char them as they usually have been cooked in a fire- it does add a nice smoky flavor.  Put the eggplant in a food processor- you can slip it out of the skin or not.  If they are big and have tough skins I would take it off but usually I just leave it on.  Squeeze the garlic from its skin and add it to the eggplant.  Add lemon juice, a clove more raw minced garlic, tahini, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of oil- and anything else you'd like- remember to roast all the vegetables if you are adding new ones.  Blend it til smooth and taste.  Add whatever you need.  Sometimes you can make it perfect first try and sometimes you have to add things several times before it it right- just follow your taste and be careful.  Add more garlic for zing, cumin for earthiness,  tahini for another earthy taste and creaminess, oil to thin it out (or even water is fine), lemon or lime as an acid, and especially salt to enhance everything.  It is a true miracle when you reach that perfect point where the salt itself brings out every flavor- too little and there will be dominate tastes and too much and all you taste is salt- just go slow but don't be shy.

Caramelized Onions And Tomatoes

-2 onions -sliced thinish
-2 tomatoes- sliced
-pinch of sugar 
-pinch of cumin
-1/2 pinch of coriander
-drizzle of coconut oil

Heat the oil in a skillet on medium heat.  Add the onions and cook til soft and wilty.  Turn the heat up and  add cumin, coriander and tomatoes.  Sprinkle on the sugar and a little salt.  Cook til tomatoes release their juices and everything gets brown and yummy smelling.

Serve everything with fresh handmade pita- or other flat bread (although pita is nice because you can make little pockets with both ingredients in them).