There were six of us holed up in a luxury three-bedroom condominium resting at the top of a hill. From our lofty perch we overlooked the most beautiful turquoise water of the southern Caribbean Sea that surrounded the Island of Tobago with a fine-grained sandy beach that stretched in both directions as far as any of us cared to look.
We sat on cushy cloth-covered deck chairs at our swimming pool, sipping our second or possibly third cup of strong coffee sweetened with rock-hard clumps of brown sugar, discussing our dinner plans.
On this day, we decided we would go “native.”
We would wait by the dock in the late afternoon, like so many others we had seen, for the boats to come in loaded with their catch and buy what excited our taste buds.
In preparation we spent the early afternoon at the open-air market purchasing a couple of dimpled tomatoes, the firmest cucumber we found after handling all six in the basket, a lettuce that we hoped could be revived under cold water and a small, sweet – or so we were told – onion, for a large salad. We picked out a handful of limes to squeeze over the fish, a couple of large pawpaw melons, some odd-shaped guava and two fully ripened mangos for an exotic fruit salad dessert. We purchased a mesh bag of grapefruit for next morning’s breakfast as well.
At the downtown indoor grocery store we found a bottle of a creamy-colored salad dressing with a label that looked somewhat familiar and hoped that it tasted equally familiar. We scooped a half bag of rice from a barrel that was parked at the end of one of the aisles. When I asked one of the young clerks, dressed in a sparkling white shirt and dark trousers that was covered by a faded-looking apron, where I could find the bread, he took us to the front door and pointed up the street. “About two blocks on opposite side” his hand signals indicated.
At four-thirty we were standing on the dock with a few locals when the boats arrived.
The fish, in various sizes and shapes and colors, were hoisted out onto the dock, some of them still flapping. For a brief moment my stomach flapped along with the fish and I wondered what we were doing there. A makeshift wooden table, with slats so the blood and guts could run off, was put together near a barrel of water for easy cleanup.
When the first in line pointed at one of the big gray things flip-flopping on the dock, it’s mouth yawning open like a giant cave then snapping shut silently, it was heaved up on the table with a gaff and a machete hacked off the hunk that was indicated by the buyer’s outstretched hands. It was dropped unceremoniously into the waiting sack and paid for with coins carefully counted out. The next in line pointed at a different fish and that too was taken care of efficiently and swiftly. The lopped-off fish heads were tossed into a bucket and the guts were flung into the water where swarms of gray-and-white birds swooped in and squabbled raucously over the stringy tidbits.
Sitting on the bed of crushed ice were delicate-looking fish, no more than four inches long. They were silver but gave off rainbow colors that danced in the setting sun. I couldn’t resist asking what they were.
“They are flying fish,” the old man, sitting next to the barrel of water, told me. “Good to eat,” and promptly showed me how to slit open the bellies and spread them apart.
“You cook in butter two, three minutes and turn over. That is all.”
He put his gathered fingers to his mouth and kissed.
We took home about three pounds of the little beauties.
While the two other couples opened wine bottles, set the table and sat around talking I put the rice up to boil, knowing it would take the longest, and started preparing the salad. My husband, Paul, butterflied the fish and pan-fried a half dozen at a time and put them in the oven to stay warm.
Needless to say it was our turn in the kitchen.
It was just about the time that the salad, draped with some paper towels to absorb some of the moisture, went into the refrigerator for cooling that the smell became apparent.
I cocked my head in bewilderment wondering if the smell was coming in from outdoors or if something had suddenly died in the kitchen.
I sniffed the air like an animal checking for its offspring…or for an intruder. Paul sniffed as well. I called the others into the kitchen. They all sniffed. It definitely wasn’t my imagination.
Paul checked the garbage.
I opened the refrigerator.
Elizabeth opened a few of the cupboards.
Joan sniffed down the sink. We stood in the kitchen wondering what to check next when I did the unthinkable.
I lifted the lid to the rice that should have been just about done.
I didn’t have to sniff. The odor jumped out of the pot and battered my sniffing device like Mohammed Ali battered a punching bag the day before a big fight.
It smelled like horse piss and I cannot for the life of me remember why I know what horse piss smells like.
We stood there looking at each other in total disgust. I felt it was my job…no my duty… to salvage this major portion of our meal. I drained off what little water had not been absorbed and some of the odor went with it. The rice was soft and fluffy and didn’t clump like I would have expected.
I put a few grains on a fork and put it in my mouth. It tasted okay. The others stood around the kitchen waiting for me to either keel over dead or double up writhing in pain. When neither happened I knew I could fix it.
Over the rice I poured a cup of tomato juice and put it back on the stove. I sprinkled salt and lots of pepper over the top then squeezed a little lime juice into the mixture. Silently, I prayed for a miracle. Every plate got a spoonful. If you held your nose it was really quite edible and it was at that dinner table that evening that my friends, Owen and Elizabeth from Toronto and Hugh and Joan from Calgary realized how much my husband loved me.
Because I had cooked it, Paul was going to eat it.
Thankfully, he lost the vote. Paul did the honors and scraped every grain of rice off each plate directly into a plastic bag. He tied the end of the bag in as tight a knot as he could and put it in the garbage container outside our back door. We went back to our dinner.
The meal consisted of crispy flying fish in a buttery sauce, which was delicious with lime juice squeezed over the top, a large helping of salad and the entire bread supply in the house.
When our maid arrived the next morning I had to ask that burning question, “what do you do to get rid of the smell of the local rice?”
To which she promptly replied, “We don’t eat that crap. We buy Uncle Ben’s.”