There’s a point when driving across the St. Mary’s River from Georgia into Florida when the sky suddenly spreads out across the marshes and the air becomes faintly scented with cocoa butter and orange blossoms and I realize that I am home. Never mind that I still have another three hours on the road to get back to my actual home — Cocoa Beach — but hurtling down I-95 past the clumps of palmettos and Ron Jon’s Surf Shop billboards (“World’s Largest”), I feel that lift in my spirits that tells me that I am back where I belong.
It is funny that I feel that way, because I have no desire to live in Florida again, but I am living proof that once a beach girl, always a beach girl. No matter where I live, I always feel somehow most like myself when I have sand between my toes and a slight crust of salt on my skin. This feeling goes back to when I was 5 years old and my mom packed me up in the dead of a frigid New York City winter and bundled us onto a plane to the West Indies. I remember pulling on heavy tights and a wool jumper and a sweater in the pre-dawn chill and a few hours later I was blinking in the raw sunshine of Barbados. My mother bought me a pretty flowered sleeveless shift dress in the airport and, as I stripped out of my winter woolens, I remember that sudden sense of total freedom, the silky feel of the breeze on my bare arms, the Crayola box kaleidoscope of colors — sky, water, plants, people — that seemed to wrap me up in a new kind of warmth.
We ended up eventually on the tiny island of Bequia, after another plane ride to St. Vincent, and then a mailboat trip across the Caribbean Sea to Admiralty Bay (which my mother still describes as a terrifying journey, mainly because I clambered all over the place like some monkey escaped from the zoo). From that point, it was a short walk along the beach to our hotel, but it felt like we were a million miles from anywhere. Life suddenly felt as slow as maple syrup drooling down a stack of pancakes, yet each moment was more intense, as if I had been sleepwalking and was now wide awake in Paradise.
The flavors of the Caribbean are notably intense and are a perfect melding of many cultures: African, British, French, Dutch, South American. At that time, the cuisine was the essence of what we call today “slow food”, which is to say that most everything was local because it was too difficult to transport food from one place to another. The only thing I really ever remember eating that wasn’t something that could be caught from the bay or picked from a tree was sweetened condensed milk, cans of which would be tossed out to all of us kids as we ran barefoot across the island together each day. We’d crack the top open and crouch in the shade of crabapple trees, dipping our fingers into that creamy sweet goodness and noisily slurping in an ecstasy of delight.
I spent portions of three years on Bequia with my mother and the food of that time permeated our meals forevermore, in one way or another. My mom is an amazing cook and would often become fascinated with certain cuisines, especially French, Greek, and Italian, and her Caribbean cookbooks are well-worn and filled with her pencilled notations regarding proportions or possible substitutions for ingredients not easily obtained in the United States. So, on my recent Spring Break visit to my folks’ house in Cocoa Beach, I found myself pouring through the old cookbooks and thinking with great fondness of callaloo.
Callaloo refers to the dark green leaves of the taro plant — imagine collard greens or swiss chard in texture. The flavor is somewhere between spinach and mustard greens, smooth with a slightly peppery undertone. Callaloo soup is a true Caribbean staple, although it can be made a hundred different ways, depending upon where you are and what ingredients are available that day. It might include ham or crab or both, it could have coconut milk and conch, or it might have okra or tiny potatoes or even rice. In general, it is light and refreshing, even on the hottest day close to the equator.
I was challenged to figure out how to make this vegetarian version — if you want to try something more authentic, you can find many recipes on the internet, along with the complete lyrics to the Jimmy Buffett song of the same name. No matter what version you make, you might want to try spinning a little calypso on the CD player during your meal and maybe topping things off with a can of sweetened condensed milk. Just wash your hands first.
Mock Callaloo Soup
Yes, I call it “mock” because callaloo is just not readily available in the U.S., but if you are lucky enough to find the real thing, then go for it! My version calls for delicate nutmeg-scented dumplins (that’s Caribbean for “dumpling”), which give the soup just a bit more substance for dinner.
for the soup:
One pound swiss chard, stems and leaves roughly chopped
One onion, sliced
6 ounces vegetarian “ham” or “Canadian bacon”, diced
10 okra, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds (if okra isn’t in season, try using fingerling potatoes instead, to give the soup a bit of starch)
6 cups vegetable broth
1 cup white wine
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 springs of fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1 TB butter
Heat 2 TB of olive oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the “ham” and stir well. Reduce heat and allow to cook for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the okra (or potatoes) and garlic and stir well, then add the stock and wine. Bring to a boil, then add the chard and reduce heat to simmer. Add the parsley and thyme and allow to simmer for 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir the butter in until it melts.
for the dumplins:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated would be perfect, but it’s okay to use ground)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 TB butter
1 egg yolk
3 TB milk
Mix together dry ingredients, then cut in butter with a fork or your fingers until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Beat together the egg yolk and milk and mix with the dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Drop into the simmering soup by the spoonful — you should have enough for six decent-sized dumplins. Cover and allow to cook for 10 – 15 minutes, until firm on top. These dumplins are quite delicate, so spoon them carefully into each bowl before ladling the soup around them.