Photo by Jeffery Cross
AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent food writer Francis Lam on a spontaneous journey to St. Vincent.
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When I’m traveling, what matters—what really matters—isn’t that the food be the fanciest or even the best, but that it tells you that you can be nowhere else but here. Those meals have their own deliciousness: Nothing locks in the memory of a place like a taste of something real, a taste that connects me to the person who made it.
That’s the kind of eating I was hoping when I emailed a Trinidadian for restaurant tips on nearby St. Vincent. Like every Trini I know, this friend is fireworks-proud of his people’s food—its mix of indigenous, East Indian, African, European, and Chinese flavors. But it turned out that pride stretches only so far into the rest of the Caribbean.
“St. Vincent’s just a big rock,” he scoffed, probably while munching on a life-changing curry-stuffed roti. But his wife, sweetly annoyed, told me to go prove him wrong. I was headed to the Caribbean on short notice, and so her command became my mission. It pursued me through my flight from New York, prodded me out of my hotel, into the streets of St. Vincent’s tiny capital, Kingstown, and up to the national tourist services office.
There, I asked about local specialties, and a delightful young brochure-slinger named Whitney whipped out a notepad and started on a playlist of old-school Vincentian culinary hits: breadfruit with jackfish; dried blackfish; and salt fish with “bakes”—buns that are, charmingly, fried, not baked.
But then she said, “Well, honestly, I prefer KFC.” Tapping her pencil, she waited for a fourth iconic dish to occur to her before she basically gave up, adding “banana.” Which actually was a great tip.
Back outside, at a proudly arranged table of peanuts, rice, and fruit on the street, I bought tiny bananas that tasted—I swear—like cloves and cooked pineapple melted into cream.
I hit some lucky strikes my first couple days. At a restaurant on the way back from hiking the magnificent volcano La Soufrière, my guide steered me to camouflage-colored callaloo, an earthy stew of greens, goat, and smoky charred breadfruit (think plantain flavor in a potato’s body). And back in Kingstown, out of the back of a car, I bought a great bake with salt fish.
As I ate it—first chewy and sweet, then chewy and salty—I watched the rolling parties that are, technically, mass transit on St. Vincent. Vans painted with names like SWAGGA, Street Styla, and the Hard Knock Champion Squad blazed past coconut carts and buildings painted Caribbean blues, pinks, oranges, and yellows. Dancehall blared from their windows, the music shredding the cheap speakers: banging, hard and furious. Fare collectors, more like hype men, whipped open their doors and called out, “Where you gon’ to?” before getting back to the party inside.
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On my third night, I happened upon a restaurant called Aggie’s. It looked more like a house than a business, an impression supported by the fact that the two staff—the only people there—seemed unsure of what to do when I arrived. The man just disappeared inside. The woman said, “We have beef, pork, fish, and conch.”
I stared dumbly, until she elaborated on how she could cook them; I asked for the conch in souse, because I had no idea what souse was.
I sat on the porch to watch the daylight sink into the hills. In the kitchen, I could see the woman cutting vegetables in her hand, like home cooks do. When she came out, she brought a bowl of broth with the sea taste of conch, brightened with cucumbers doused in lime and candy-sweet onions. It was the cleanest, most refreshing soup; it tasted the way you want life to be on a sunny island.
Afterward, we talked at length about conch, unconstrained by other customers. The woman said this was Miss Aggie’s place, but that she, Eloise, was the second cook and supervised the younger ladies during the day. Eloise is tall and round, with a kind face and rough hands. I liked her instantly. We shook hands as I said good-bye, and she held onto mine for a moment longer than I expected as she told me her brother and I shared the same name.
The next night I returned, again to an empty restaurant. “I had to have more of your cooking,” I said to Eloise, and she smiled with just a hint of a flirt.
After another lovely dinner—whelks in silky Creole sauce—Eloise asked to have
a picture taken with me. I promised to print it out and bring it back to her, and, emboldened, I asked if I could go into her kitchen and learn to cook with her. I wanted to see her hands in motion, to see how she cooks such wonderful food for, apparently, nobody. She looked unsure, shying from the idea, until she eventually said yes.
I came back the next morning to a bustling kitchen with half a dozen women bumping about. Eloise wasn’t there yet, but I poked my head in and spouted the cheesy comment, “That curry smells terrific!”
A broad woman with a no-bullshit air looked up.
“That’s sugar, for stew pork,” she said. It’s not a curry, in other words. She shook the pot, the bubbling caramel dancing on oil, then dumped in a massive bowl of meat, sending a flurry of bay leaves into the air. This was Miss Aggie.
She hustled, giving commands that were direct, short, and sometimes expressed with an urgency that sounded like exasperation. But she welcomed me in and set me to work.
As I scrubbed green bananas and introduced myself to the other women in the kitchen, Miss Aggie found moments in between cooking and hectoring her cooks to talk with me about Chinese food, her distaste for big cities, and visiting her husband in Boston, where he lives.
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I asked Miss Aggie how she started the restaurant. “I always wanted to be a schoolteacher,” she said, “but I got pregnant along the way.” She spoke frankly during our short chats; it felt generous of her. When she left to set up the dining room, however, the other women seemed to breathe a little easier, all except for Shackie. A young, lean woman with sleek dark skin, Shackie moved with intense focus; she cooked like she meant it.
Finally Eloise arrived, her round face curled in a smile, and I gave her a hug. Miss Aggie called to her to fry some fish, and Eloise chatted with me as she first finished up a dough Aggie had started for bakes. Shackie walked up and talked to Eloise in dialect, their words sparring in jagged, teasing rhythm, until Eloise said to me, “Say no, Francis, just say no.” I looked at her, confused.
“She says she’s going to steal you from me,” Eloise said, and Shackie slipped away, cackling, as Miss Aggie came back in to announce that customers were arriving. Lunchtime proved to be much busier than dinners. “The fish!” Miss Aggie barked. “Eloise!” Things got frantic. Pots got stacked on pots, tilting precariously.
Eloise showed me how to roll the bake dough into round buns and fry them while she tried to get the fish going. She shifted beat-up pans on the stove, settling on one buckled beyond recognition and another that had long ago lost its handle. Guests were coming in, calling for rice, bakes, fish. Miss Aggie blasted through the kitchen again, grumbling something at Eloise, and Eloise shifted her body, blocking from Aggie’s urgent demands. I kept making bakes, trying to ignore the fact that Eloise’s face was pinching up, turning red. After a few more bakes, she handed her tongs to Shackie and left.
I found her a few minutes later on the porch, waiting for a taxi to take her home. I poured her some water, and she said something about not feeling well. I poured again. She seemed less ill than flustered.
As the cab arrived, Eloise asked for my number. I said I was leaving the next day, and she told me to take care. I went back into the kitchen.
The fish all done, I asked Shackie how long she’s been cooking. “Why, I look like a professional?” she asked. Just a few months, it turns out, but she added, “Miss Aggie,
she rough and tings, but it harder for you if she soft. This way you learn.” Sweat on her brow, fish in her pan, she looked proud of her work.
“OK, you’ve helped enough. I hope you learned something,” Miss Aggie said to me. “Sit down, have some lunch,” she invited.
I had one of my bakes, some green beans, and Miss Aggie’s stew pork, the one she was caramelizing sugar for when I arrived. It was salty, fatty, bitter, sweet—delicious and complicated.
I ate slowly, taking in the room and the sounds coming from the kitchen, and I thought about what I would tell my Trini friend about life on this rock.
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