I enjoy making really stupid jokes about how I eat too much and may look like I’ve swallowed several whales. Of course, I haven’t actually swallowed several whales. Just one, really. And not the whole thing. And maybe it was a dolphin. I don’t know. I was bad at Biology in high school.
On a gorgeous fall afternoon, I attended the annual Saint Lucia Jounen Kweyol (Creole Festival), which was held this year at The Pacific BK, an event center in Crown Heights. In case you’re not familiar with Saint Lucia: it’s a small, independent island nation in the Caribbean, somewhere between Martinique, Barbados, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Saint Lucia has a population of around 174,000, and the island is petite enough to make Puerto Rico look like a freaking sumo.
My favorite fun fact about Saint Lucia: it has more Nobel Prize winners per capita than any other nation in the world. That might be because there aren’t all that many capitas – whatever those may be – in Saint Lucia. But still.
The other fun fact about Saint Lucia is that Saint Lucians – at least the ones that reside in New York – are really fun at parties. When we first arrived at the festival early on a Sunday afternoon, there were several hundred people crammed into a smallish, enclosed parking lot; the perimeter of the lot was completely filled by six food vendors, a makeshift bar, and a stage with steel pans and a DJ. The food-to-space ratio was magnificent, and so was the hospitality of the Saint Lucians we met.
When we arrived, the three of us – a wise Canadian journalist, a globetrotting Bangladeshi investment banker, and this weirdo – might have stuck out just a little bit in a crowd of Saint Lucians. But that might have been a good thing. The event was emceed by a charismatic, dapper middle-aged fellow in a hat and jacket, speaking in the Saint Lucian dialect of Creole French as he meandered through the crowd with a wireless microphone; I had no idea what he was saying, but he and the audience chuckled at his jokes every few seconds.
As all three of us non-Saint Lucians chowed down on our second courses, the dapper emcee suddenly switched to English and apologized for mostly speaking in Creole, but said that he was very excited to see friends from other nations and that he really wanted everybody from every nationality to feel at home at the celebration. I had a feeling that he was looking at us. I looked around, and finally saw him.
Yup, staring right at us.
I looked up from my feast, wiped some avocado off my chin, and grinned broadly. He came over, repeated his gushing welcome, and said that he really hoped we were enjoying the Saint Lucian food and culture and music. When he said “food”, my ears involuntarily twitched, and I involuntarily grinned even more broadly. He then came over with the microphone, asked where we were from, asked if we were enjoying our food (duh), and then continued to remind us that we were heartily welcome to enjoy the celebration and that we should ask friendly Saint Lucians for translations of his Creole. And he also said that we should definitely try the excellent Saint Lucian rum. (Yes, sir!)
The emcee wasn’t the only Saint Lucian to go out of their way to welcome us. Several people approached us, just to ask if we were enjoying the food and music. One food vendor asked if I came last year, because I looked familiar; another gentleman came up to me, and asked if I’d attended his church, because I looked like somebody who did. Apparently, my doppelganger also loves hanging out with Saint Lucians.
And then there was the food, which was hearty, interesting, and delicious. We started with dumplins with red beans and turkey neck, stewed dumplins with pork, and a plate of bakes (fried dough, roughly the size of a small, flat hamburger bun) with saltfish. None of those dishes were exactly light, but we kept going, and each of us ordered full entrees “with provisions” – the magic phrase that yields big chunks of avocado, green plantain, ripe plantain, breadfruit, and yucca with your meal. One of my pals opted for stewed pork with his provisions; another chose creole fish, consisting of a large, gorgeous chunk of flaky whitefish, stewed in a deliciously garlicky sauce with a full complement of peppers.
I ordered a plate of smoked herring, partly because I still owe herring an apology for being afraid of it for all of those years, and partly because it looked really interesting, with multicolored flecks of peppers and onions, along with some feathery white bones. It was a fantastic dish – peppery and charmingly salty, and a perfect accompaniment to a nice chunk of breadfruit with okra.
After each of us had eaten a hearty appetizer and a hefty plate of protein with even heftier provisions, we really didn’t need to eat anything else, but then we spotted a woman eating a small dish filled with a greenish-black substance, dotted with chunks of what looked like red meat and cartilage. Our Canadian pal asked what it was. The woman hesitated, then sounded slightly apologetic: “Um, that’s called blackfish. You might think this is weird, but it’s actually dolphin. In our culture, that’s normal – it’s something we eat all the time.”
Well, when in Rome: let’s eat dolphin! (Cue the hate mail.) A tiny bowl of the stuff was relatively expensive ($10) and not terribly photogenic; the sauce was incredibly rich, with an amalgam of peppers and spices that I couldn’t quite place. The lean meat itself could easily be mistaken for a piece of dark meat, perhaps lamb or roasted pork; the blubber was firm and chewy, and actually pretty tasty in the greenish-black sauce, not too dissimilar from the texture of a nice piece of roasted pork skin.
Another friendly Saint Lucian bystander struck up a conversation, and explained that the blackfish was made from pilot whale – which is actually a member of the dolphin family, and not technically a whale. (Cue more hate mail.) And it turns out that the pilot whale is NOT a threatened species. (Thank you to Wikipedia for making us feel slightly less evil. But cue the hate mail, anyway.)
As soon as the three of us finished devouring our dolphin/whale snack, yet another smiling Saint Lucian woman approached us. The conversation went something like this:
Friendly Saint Lucian: Ah, you’re eating the blackfish! How do you like it?
Me: We love it! There are some great flavors in here.
Friendly Saint Lucian: Oh, I’m so glad you like our food! I made that, you know.
Me (swooning): It’s fantastic, I love it! What else is in here, besides the fish itself?
Friendly Saint Lucian: Peppers, bay leaf…
Me (rudely interrupting, and poking at a different leaf that remained on the plate): What’s this other leaf?
Saint Lucian: That’s the leaf of the cinnamon tree. You can’t eat them, though.
Me: I already ate three of them.
It’s totally possible that chomping those cinnamon leaves made me see double later in the afternoon. That, or it was the homemade rum drink (loosely translated as “hardwood”) that we purchased from another gregarious pair of Saint Lucians who staffed the indoor bar. “Hardwood” is rum infused with a variety of Saint Lucian herbs and roots; it has a pungent herbal taste, with a pleasant dose of bitterness, a hint of sweetness, and plenty of fire, vaguely reminiscent of a stronger-flavored version of Campari. I was an instant fan.
The warm, talkative pair behind the bar served the “hardwood” with a strong warning: “This makes the ladies get pregnant right away!” Fortunately, our wives were out of the country. And that’s good, because our wives might have totally hated us for eating a member of the dolphin family.
And if that wasn’t enough, we couldn’t resist trying a Saint Lucian dessert called pami, a dense, delicious bundle of cornmeal and coconut, wrapped in a banana leaf. We washed it down with some bay leaf tea (interesting, right?) and… well, more “hardwood.”
So yeah, all of those Nobel Prize winners from Saint Lucia? There would be even more if somebody gave out a Nobel Prize for food and hospitality. My doppelganger’s doppelganger will be back next year, friends.
St. Lucia Jounen Kweyol
2015 event held on October 25
The Pacific BK
1065 Pacific Street, Brooklyn
This post was not sponsored by the Saint Lucia Tourism and Visitors Bureau, but I really wish that it was. Hint, hint?