Before the big-box and mega-store era, a Caribbean island shopping excursion often resembled an Easter egg hunt. Several times a week, list in hand, hope in heart, I would set off in search of everyday items, knowing my inquiries for tomatoes, coffee or something I sorely needed might be met with, “Nah today.” I tried timing my food forays with the arrival of the supply ship or by being first in line, if and when the store miraculously opened. I made special requests- even tried sweetening the deal, only to hear, “Soon come.” I finally figured it out – a menu comes to life according to what sits on the shelf.
Some years ago in Jost Van Dyke I waited for days to catch a store open. When one finally did, I darted toward it, elevated by a sign out front proclaiming FRESH FOOD. On the porch, two ladies engaged in hair braiding, while a third shelled a mountain of pigeon peas. “Good afternoon, ladies,” I greeted.
“Afta noon, madam. How you?” replied the pea shucker.
“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”
“Blessed muh dear. Blessed today,” she answered as she followed me into the store, taking her place behind the counter.
Seeing nothing but a sea of canned food on the shelves, I announced, “I’m looking for fruits and vegetables.” She pointed me toward a wall of deep bins. Peering in, I saw one onion. Nothing more. “Anything else?”
“Yeess, madam. We got plantain,” she said as she hauled up a hefty stalk. “Wha’ you wan’?”
“Well,” I began, “I’d like some to eat today; some tomorrow; and I’ll take some for later!” It was crystal clear … plantain would float to the top of our menu.
She pulled out a rough cutlass, whacked off a couple clumps, explaining, “I cook sum today. On me George Fohman grill. Dey vera sweet.”
I pulled out cash, taking note of her ‘Mister Credit is Dead’ sign, wondering how in her world of so little she had scored a George Forman grill. But smartly, I didn’t ask.
Decades earlier on Bequia, if you wanted anything that grew from the ground, finding it meant a raucous ride to St. Vincent on the schooner, Friendship Rose, often in company with goats and chickens. At the big island’s market, a few lucky shoppers scored prized tomatoes or melons but most of us heard the dreaded words, “It finish.”
On Carriacou in the ’90s, shopping held a similar twist. The Marketing Board, stocked one day a week, required enduring a sweaty line for hours, all with the hope of a handful of callaloo and the occasional breadfruit. After too many weeks of disappointment, I sailed off to a more abundant island.
That’s all in the past and now you can fill your lockers by visiting one of the newly sprouted jumbo stores. Saint Martin has Super U; Sint Maarten has Carrefour and Cost-U-less. Antigua’s gem is Epicurean; in Grenada it’s Food Fair. Even petite Marie Gallant has U Express, packed with all things fresh and French. I’m delighted to captain a cart through the wide aisles of a super store in search of specialty items. It’s where I stock up on marinara sauce and salsa, giant containers of nuts and hard to find happy hour treats.
One stop shopping is speedy and efficient; everything under one roof. But I still prefer a local-store crawl for the permeating aroma of salt fish and an element of surprise. It’s part of why I sail the Caribbean; why I love these islands so.
Recently I popped into a road-side box for okra and scallions but I couldn’t pass on a jar of local honey, replete with the comb. I’ve scored homemade seasoning sauce from the tiniest shops, ginger beer and succulent chutney. Local means the eggs are fresher and the bread came from a nearby oven.
It takes time to comb the over-crowded aisles of a real island store but the rewards are beyond belief. Imagine finding canned tapioca, a bottle of communion wine or toe-curling pepper sauce. I’ve found cocoa balls and canned ackees; nutmeg jelly and dasheen chips; off label rum concoctions and specialties spanning the chain of islands from Jamaica to Trinidad that all feed the culture of the West Indies.
Inside those one-off establishments, don’t forget to check in those long box freezers, usually marked with a hint of the contents: pig snout, fish, mutton and goat galore. There’s usually a medley of chicken parts, which can include beaks and feet, though I’ve yet to figure out why.
Provisioning isn’t just about bringing home the streaky bacon. It’s a challenge, an adventure, and it opens possibilities that along the way, you’ll drag home something edible and enjoy a hearty laugh.
Writer, photographer, sailor, Jan Hein calls the Caribbean home when she’s not on a boat in Washington State