Origins: The Bahamas - #124

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The early maps of the New World show the islands of the Bahamas as a chain that runs in an arc from the east coast of Florida to the top of Hispaniola.  Hispaniola is the island which is now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

When the first Europeans arrived here with Columbus in 1492, they found a group of people called the Lucayans.  The Lucayans were members of an Arawak tribe from South America and had been living in the Bahamas for about 500 years.  They’d learned to make large canoes and used them to cover the distances between the seven hundred islands that make up the Bahamas.  Most of their food came from the sea.  Fish and shellfish.  Turtles.  And lots of conch which is a local shellfish.  They made a primitive form of bread from the roots of plants and tried to practice a little farming.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  People have been practicing a little farming in the Bahamas for over a thousand years, but unfortunately this is one of those situations where practice does not make perfect.  The Bahamas are made out of limestone with a very light dusting of soil on top.  Not the ideal place to start an economy based on agriculture.  As a result, there were no huge plantations and no huge slave populations to work on those plantations.  And that affected the history and the gastronomy of the Bahamas.  When you look at the history of the Caribbean islands that had those plantations and the large slave populations, you see the development of foods that were chosen purely because they were the cheapest and the easiest for feeding those slaves.  And that was never really the case here in the Bahamas.

The main source of protein in the Bahamian diet has always been seafood.  There’s usually just enough vegetation to support chickens, sheep and a few pigs, along with a vegetable garden and a limited selection of tropical fruits.  But that’s only the local stuff.  Being a British colony for well over two hundred and fifty years meant that British ships would be importing the traditional ingredients of the English kitchen whenever possible.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  While I was researching the history of the Bahamas I came across a book by Shelley Malone and Richard Roberts.  It contains picture postcards that were produced during the early 1900’s.  Picture postcards just came into fashion at that point, and most of them were made by local photographers who really had a great understanding of the area.  Today, a book like this will give you great insight into what was actually happening.

This book is called Nostalgic Nassau.  It has cards that illustrate the important buildings of the time... most of which still look they way they did in these pictures.

There are beach scenes... the local inhabitants... the churches... the grand hotels... and the ship you came in on.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But in amongst these traditional views are a couple of postcards that will show you how people were eating and drinking and how they were cooking.

This card shows a vendor who is offering oranges on a stick, all you can eat for what would be about a dollar at today’s rate of exchange.  The oranges appear to have been peeled and are ready to eat.  This was obviously unusual enough to warrant a photographic card.

The fruit stands in this photo are on Market Street, which is still an important shopping area in Nassau.  Bananas.  Watermelons.  And oranges.

The next photo shows seagrapes at threepence a heap.

Some stands had a large variety but a limited stock of each in a rather informal display.

Others put a considerable amount of effort into their presentation.

Produce came in on one side of the market by donkey cart.

Fresh fish arrived at the back on small boats.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When the United States government outlawed the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages many people in the Bahamas made great fortunes as bootleggers.

The text at the bottom of this card reads... “Evil Spirits - A consignment of booze - Nassau, Bahamas.”  Under close inspection the two fellows at the dock appear to be men of the cloth, undoubtedly there to advocate moderation.

This card shows an outdoor oven.  And it’s the same type of oven that’s been in use throughout the world for thousands of years.

Wood is burned in the center of the oven until the interior is hot.  Then the coals are pushed to the side and the bread to be baked is set in.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It was an effective and safe system.  It made efficient use of the fuel, and it was far enough away from the house so that it wasn’t a fire hazard.  And to tell you the truth, the last thing you want in your kitchen in a climate like this is a hot oven.  It was used for baking bread, but it was also used for making casseroles.  The ultimate one-pot dish in the Bahamas is peas and rice.  It’s made over a series of days, with new ingredients going in each day.  Eventually, a cake-like crust forms in the bottom of the pot, and it’s fed to the neighborhood dogs.  Even today, a Bahamian dog without pedigree is known as a “potcake.”

It is amazing that in spite of the fact that the Bahamas were a colony of the English for over two and a half centuries, they’ve managed to maintain a love of good food.  In many other parts of the world, colonization by the English meant certain death for good dining.  But not here.  Bahamians are good cooks and good eaters.

This is Arawake Cay -- a collection of food stalls and restaurants that have turned themselves into an ongoing party for both the locals and the tourists.

Arawake Cay is a strip for eaters, but the place for ingredients is Potters Cay on Nassau’s West Bay Street.  It’s a row of wooden stalls that sell fruits and vegetables and locally caught seafood.

BURT WOLF:  Tell me about the fish...

WENDELL HEASTIE:  These ones are called jacks...

BURT WOLF:  Jacks?

WENDELL HEASTIE:  Uh-huh...They’re nice and early fish... you know they’re nice and fresh.... we tell the people -- like the fresh ones, the inside in here is red...mostly still has the blood circulating inside of it...

BURT WOLF:  Check for the red... shiny eyes...

WENDELL HEASTIE:  Uh-huh... this type of fish is more like a softer fish...

BURT WOLF:  How do you cook it?

WENDELL HEASTIE:  It’s a snapper... you could fry it, steam it, stew it, boil it, you know, it’s your choice of taste.

BURT WOLF:  But the most famous thing here is the conch.

WENDELL HEASTIE:  Oh yeah, they’re nice.  I’ll give you a demonstration of one of them.  Okay, you’ll see like how they live inside.  We’re going to break the shell, right?

BURT WOLF:  Right...

WENDELL HEASTIE:  With a chippin’ hammer... that’s because the shell is hard... use a pointed knife... see?  And you do this like a flick of the wrist, see the flick?

BURT WOLF:  Right...

WENDELL HEASTIE:  And you pull him right out.  He comes right out.  See, now you get two eyes.  Here’s the eye, right on the end there...


WENDELL HEASTIE:  Two eyes and this is his mouth.  The middle one is his mouth.  See, that’s his chest.  See like this here he use, that’s his foot.  Because he live on the ground like that, and he stretch out, and pull himself like that wherever he want to go.

BURT WOLF:  With that one big foot...

WENDELL HEASTIE:  One big foot, yeah.

BURT WOLF:  How do you cook him?

WENDELL HEASTIE:  Well to cook it, you have to beat it, see because all of this is muscle, it’s very tough.  See, like putting a line right in that’s so you could spread it out... you pound it with a hammer or with a bruiser and it’s come out... when you boil it or cook it it’ll be tender.  If you do it like that it’ll be tough, it’ll only draw up from the heat.  If you gonna eat it raw, you don’t have to cook it.

BURT WOLF:  You just chew it...

WENDELL HEASTIE:  You just cut it up in pieces and you could put some like lemon, pepper, onion, tomato, make it into a vegetable salad with conch in it.  And we call it conch salad.

BURT WOLF:  I always saw movies when I was a kid where somebody would play them like a horn.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Conch has a big reputation for being an aphrodisiac, but I can’t actually confirm that first-hand.  Here you go, thanks a lot.  These are the strong ones, right?  Okay... Some of us live in hope.

One of the few agricultural products produced in the Bahamas on a commercial scale is the banana.  Spanish colonists brought them to the New World in the early 1500s.  And though we think of them as a fruit, they are actually classified by botanists as the world’s largest herb.  They’re also one of our most nutritious foods.  They’re high in vitamins A, B, C, and contain significant amounts of iron, phosphorus, calcium and potassium.  And we’re still getting information suggesting that potassium helps control high blood pressure.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  There are a number of different types of bananas, but the two most important in terms of eating are the yellow- or red-skinned variety which is sweet and ready to eat, and the plantain which is much more like a vegetable, and is always cooked before it’s eaten.  Bananas appear to have gotten started in Southeast Asia and there is actually an ancient Hindu legend that targets the banana as the fruit in the Garden of Eden.  That particular kind of banana is known as the banana of paradise.

And speaking of paradise, it appears that everyone has their very own version of the place.  Which seems to be a theory that is being tested, rather successfully, on a small strip of land that is just at the edge of Nassau in the Bahamas, and known as Paradise Island.  In 1994, a South African named Sol Kerzner purchased 650 acres of paradise from a company controlled by Merv Griffin, the television star.  Kerzner spent 125 million dollars rejuvenating the place.  As a result, Paradise is now available in two formats -- Atlantis and The Ocean Club.

Atlantis is a hotel complex attached to a fourteen-acre waterscape with a giant aquarium and recreational areas.  A lazy river whose man-made current gently rafts you along for a quarter of a mile.  Five pools, some saltwater, some fresh.  Lagoons.  Waterfalls.  Grottos.  A suspension bridge over a predator pool.  Coral reefs.  An endangered species project that gives sea turtles a safe place to hatch their eggs before they return to the ocean.  And the truly amazing 3.2 million gallon aquarium that lets you walk through its center inside a Plexiglas tunnel.

STEVE KAISER:  Well, we try to really present our exhibits so that we’re really not trying to be an aquarium.  We’re really trying to have that experience of being underwater without getting wet.  And we do this by trying to really balance all our tanks from an ecological standpoint so we have enough fish that eat other fish and so we don’t get overpopulated and we have enough fish that eat algae and ones that stir up the bottom.  And so what we’re trying to really reproduce is what you see out in the wild while you’re diving.

This is a Paradise where children find bliss and families really get a blessed break.

Included in the heavenly aspects of this paradise are the meals produced under the direction of the Executive Chef Michael Cloutier.  Today he’s making a Bahamian Lamb Curry.

He starts by pouring an ounce of oil into a sauté pan and letting it warm up.  While that’s happening, four cups worth of lamb, which have been cut into 1-inch pieces and trimmed of fat, are emptied into a bowl.  A little salt and pepper goes on, followed by three ounces of curry powder and three ounces of flour.  All that’s mixed together until the lamb is evenly coated.  Then the lamb goes into the hot oil and is browned on all sides.

CHEF MICHAEL CLOUTIER:  The French islands use lamb, okay, just because that’s what’s more plentiful there.  The, uh, a lot of the other Caribbean islands use goat.  And I kind of think goat’s probably a little bit better, a little more authentic actually.  It’s a little more tender and it’s not quite as strong as lamb, believe it or not.

BURT WOLF:  I never see it in my market.


BURT WOLF:  And I bet you if they had it, it would never be on special...

CHEF MICHAEL CLOUTIER:  It probably wouldn’t sell too well...

Three cloves of chopped garlic are mixed in, and one tablespoon of tomato paste.  Two ounces of chopped celery and two ounces of chopped onion are added.  A little more stirring and cooking.  Then three cups of chicken stock go in.  Two cups of peeled carrots and two cups of peeled potatoes cut into small pieces are added.  And now it’s time for a little thyme and a bay leaf.

CHEF MICHAEL CLOUTIER:  You want to cover that, turn the heat down, just a hair, okay, and you let that cook for about 45 minutes to an hour.

BURT WOLF:  Just simmering.

CHEF MICHAEL CLOUTIER:  Correct.  Until the lamb is fork tender.

At that point, the Bahamian Lamb Curry is served on a bed of rice.  Paradise enhanced.

Michael’s second recipe is for a traditional French Red Onion Soup -- Bahamian-style.

CHEF MICHAEL CLOUTIER:  Okay, first you add about four ounces of clarified butter...

BURT WOLF:  Would you like to clarify that?

CHEF MICHAEL CLOUTIER:  Clarified butter is butter that has been melted where all the fat solids and the waste settle to the bottom, and you just want the stuff off the top.  Okay?  If you were to cook with the fat and everything in there, it would burn.

BURT WOLF:  So you melt the butter, and you just take the butter off the top with the solids settled to the bottom.

CHEF MICHAEL CLOUTIER:  With the solids settled to the bottom.  Correct.  Then we add about three cloves of sliced garlic, and the reason for that is we don’t want a real strong garlicky taste.  The more you cut garlic, and the more you mince it, chop it, it gets hotter and more bitter.  Okay?  So we want a nice mild garlic flavor, so you want to slice it real thin on an angle.  Okay.  Add that to the butter.  And you want to let that cook -- do not let it get any darker than a real light tan brown.  Okay?  If you go past that point, it’s going to burn and it’s... you might as well just start all over again.

The garlic gets cooked for a few minutes at which point two pounds of sliced red onions are added.  A little stirring.  A little cooking.  Cover goes on and the onions sweat it out for fifteen minutes.  Then two ounces of white wine are added.  And two ounces of Balsamic vinegar.  A little more of the melted butter and two ounces of flour are stirred in.  That cooks together for two minutes, and the stock is added, which consists of three and half cups of beef stock and three and a half cups of chicken stock.  A few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf.  Then the cover is put on and everything simmers for 25 minutes.  When the cover comes off, Michael adds a half cup of cream, but we both agree it is an optional ingredient.  The soup is ladled out into single serving terrines.  A round of toast goes on top and a few slices of cheese.  The cheese is melted under a broiler and the soup is ready to serve.

The second form of Paradise lies about a half mile down the beach  -- an elegant hotel called the Ocean Club.  Huntington Hartford was the heir to the A&P Supermarket fortune and this was his private estate.  It still has much of the original feeling.  A garden based on the classical design used by Louis XIV at Versailles.  A 14th century cloister brought from a monastery in France to Florida by William Randolph Hearst.  Hearst seems to have forgotten about this little purchase, and he left the stones in a series of crates until Huntington heard about them.  Huntington bought the stones and had the cloister reconstructed stone by stone.  It took over a year to do the work because someone had lost the instructions for reassembly.   Alongside the cloister... tennis courts... and a golf course.  A version of heavenly paradise, with individual areas for rapture... and delight.

Between the Ocean Club and the Atlantis Hotel, there’s plenty of good cooking on Paradise Island.  Today Chef Alfred Williams is going to souse a chicken.  A souse dish is a recipe where the main ingredient is submerged in a cooking liquid -- like “boiling” or “poaching.”  My old Aunt Harriet was a soused dish too, but her liquid was gin.

ALFRED WILLIAMS:  We souse a lot of other stuff, you know, we souse the pig feet, the pig ears... we have the mutton souse, we have sheep tongue souse, it’s every, everything, we souse basically everything here in the Bahamas.  We even souse the scrap from the conch also.

BURT WOLF:  Everything can be soused.

ALFRED WILLIAMS:  Everything can be soused in the Bahamas, yes.

BURT WOLF:  I’ll remember that.

A quart of chicken stock is heated in a sauté pan.  A chicken that’s been cut into parts is salted and added to the stock.  Two ounces of whole allspice is added.  All that simmers together uncovered for 10 minutes.  Then a cup of chopped celery is added and a cup of chopped onions.  A little hot dried pepper goes in.  Finally, two cups of peeled potatoes cut into small pieces.  Twenty minutes more over the heat, and it’s ready to serve.

ALFRED WILLIAMS:  We use a lot of hot pepper here in the Bahamas, we like a lot of spice so if you want to you can have a lot.  It’s up to you, you know?  It’s like the Cajun-type cooking...

BURT WOLF:  You take as much as you can...


Finally, Alfred is going to prepare a Bahamian favorite -- peas and rice.

A little vegetable oil goes into a sauté pan.  A half cup of bits of bacon are added.  A little stirring.  A little cooking.  And then a quarter cup of tomato paste.  A cup of chopped green peppers are added.  A cup of chopped onions, and then a cup of chopped celery.  Everything brightens up when a cup of chopped tomatoes arrive.  A little more sautéing.  Then it’s time for the thyme.  Then two cups of pre-cooked pigeon peas or black-eyed peas are added.  A little stirring.  Then two quarts of chicken stock go in followed by four cups of rice.  Cover goes on and everything cooks for 15 minutes.  At that point the cover comes off, the rice and peas are stirred, and it’s into a bowl for serving.

And now that we’ve eaten -- let’s do junkanoo!

BURT WOLF:  Tell me about junkanoo -- what is it?

STAN BURNSIDE:  Well -- Junkanoo is... Junkanoo!

STAN BURNSIDE:  Junkanoo is the festival, the major festival of the Bahamas.  It combines sculpture, fine art, dance, performance, theater, all in one.  There are two parades.  One parade starts the morning after Christmas.  Remember that these parades go from midnight until six in the morning.  The other parade is the morning of New Year’s Day.  Junkanoo, we believe, is a festival that was brought here by the Africans who were brought here as slaves.

The Africans of course had certain restrictions on their culture, and when they had the opportunity to gather together they really celebrated their culture and Junkanoo is the one part of their culture that they kept very intact.  And over the years, in the New World, it’s developed and it’s evolved right here in the Bahamas so that you have the link with Africa but now it’s shaped into something entirely different.  Because each time a Junkanoo group goes to Bay Street and it develops a theme, all of the art systems of that theme.  For example,  if they have a theme on Great Britain, for example, the Junkanoo artists go and do the research on Great Britain and in the process they get all of the art systems and the design systems of Great Britain and they put that as a part of their presentation on Bay Street. 

And each time a presentation is made on Bay Street all of those art systems become a part of the whole body or visual vocabulary of Junkanoo.  So that at this stage you can say that while Junkanoo at the root is a very very African experience, it’s an amalgamation of all of the different cultures of the world.  When you really think about it, Junkanoo is very modern.  You know when you talk about modern art, nowadays you talk about the hip-hop culture, the whole idea of sampling, and that’s what Junkanoo is.  Junkanoo samples a little bit of everything and it pulls it together and stirs it in a pot and makes a stew, called Junkanoo stew.

Normally the groups start in the neighborhoods.  You know they’re very provincial kinds of gatherings.  You know, I’m from this neighborhood, so naturally I’m associated with this group.

WOMAN 1:  I happen to like the Congos.  They’re not entering this year, and so I guess I’m pulling for the Valleys.

WOMAN 2:  The Saxons.  Yeah.

WOMAN 1:  I think it’s going to be a tough competition between the two.

STAN BURNSIDE:  And the process of that competition of group against group, you have neighborhood against neighborhood, community against community.  So it really starts as a very local thing in each neighborhood where the young kids, as soon as they can get permission from their parents to join a Junkanoo shack, they look forward to being able to go and participate and represent their neighborhood.  Many consider, when you look at some of the pieces, you’ll notice how large they are.  And when you consider that originally these pieces were just masks and each year one group would try to outdo the other and the masks just got larger and larger until we have masks that weigh three hundred pounds.  And that is exactly what happened as a result of the competition.  Everyone wants to be bigger and better and more extravagant and it’s really enhanced and helped the artform to develop very rapidly.  It’s an incredible opportunity for the entire Bahamian community to come together during the Christmas season around this festival.  So you have family reunions and communities getting together around this parade.  So you could say that Junkanoo really is the festival of the Bahamas.

Well, that’s a brief look at the folklore and the food of the Bahamas; I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.