Saturday, November 25, 2017

I Failed The Oil Down

WE were warmly greeted by Nikki upon arrival
I thought I could do it.  I was wrong.

Here we are out here in the world, trying to soak up the "real" Caribbean Experience.  We love nothing more than to shed our American-ness and feel our minds expanding as we absorb and mentally process our experiences with other cultures.  With that frame of mind, the Oil Down was our first true Grenadian experience!

As with most things... there are two distinct camps when it comes to the art of the Oil Down.  There are the Purists who stick to the traditional ways using only the historically authentic ingredients learned through generations of family history.  Then there are those who would rather spruce up the experience to make it more palatable for the delicate sensibilities of the tourist...  I thought I preferred the former... Continue on and see how that turned out for me!

I vaguely remember turning it down during our Charter here back in 2004... Since then I've had a somewhat negative mental image about the Oil Down, but thought it had more to do with my dislike of the green leafy vegetable used in the dish called Callaloo.  So when I heard about the event and questioned the recipe, I was surprised to hear that it was full of all sorts of vegetables plus chicken, pork and maybe seafood...  Sounded great to me!

Plus it was not just a dinner, but a whole "event" in which participants could help chop vegetables and learn how to make the dish from scratch by Sperry and Slum.  This would also be a special event as it was being held up in the hills at The Real Jab Jab Camp and not down on the beach at Hog Island as I understand previous Oil Downs have been located.  The price of admission included a bus ride through the lush hills, music, dinner and lots of fun!

We threw ourselves whole-heartedly into this event with visions of a nice "Caribbean Stew" swirling in my brain at the end...  And for a while, it was wonderful.

The bus ride was, as most island bus rides are, an event in itself.  After about 20 thrilling minutes of careening through steep and narrow streets, we were deposited safely, if somewhat breathlessly, at the end of a narrow sloping drive with a commanding view of the valley below.  I'm not sure exactly where we were... Story goes that this is the location where the Jab Jabs gather to prepare themselves for the parade during Carnival celebrations.  One of the men did don a horned hat and dance around a bit, but that's about as close as we got to the mysterious activities of the Jab Jab.  Another day perhaps!

Spiced Rum using local ingredients - DANGER!!!

Bruce mingled while I got to work scraping and cutting carrots, then moved to mincing garlic.  There were three people working on garlic and I cut so much of it my fingers literally burned!  I've never experienced this before... That'll tell you how much garlic we used!

We cut up bunches of carrots, onion, little sweet peppers, scallions, okra and herbs...

While many of us were busy chopping and cutting, another group went off on a foraging adventure.  They combined a hike to the peak with an ingredient gathering expedition and brought quantities of Callaloo and it's root called dasheen, breadfruit and small unripe bananas called "figs" back from the jungle.  It just doesn't get any more fresh than this!  Thing were going along so well...

I would have liked to do the hike as well, but you can't be in two places at once, now... can you?

Similar to our Elephant Ear plant, it has a slightly different shape to the leaf and a reddish vein in the stem

The entire plant, leaves and stems were diced and sliced into strips.
Hope none of these people are in the Witness Protection program... 

Breadfruit were halved, then quartered and peeled in preparation of being the first ingredient to go into the pot.

We learned about other ways to cook the breadfruit as well
These men have such pride in their heritage and we were honored to learn from them

The party was BYOB but they also served beer and ice at the rustic bar.
As the vegetables piled up, Niki got started working on preparing the meat... so far so good!
Not everyone had a job!  Quite a few people kept up the gab!
Seasoned chicken wings!  I can do chicken wings!!!

Add a little seasoning, some onion and garlic...

The fun part!

This could get messy...

Then I found this going on in the back.  Salted pork and Saltfish were soaking to remove some of the salt...  
Lambi (conch) prep lessons

I'm good with conch!  I love conch!
So up until now, I had been happy-go-lucky... soaking it all in, rejoicing at being a part of this history-laden cultural event.  So far, everything had been OK.  The salt pork and saltfish were explained away to me.  "They're really just more like seasoning".  Mmm. OK.  I can do this.  I can!

I've been keeping my eyes on everything that's going into this meal.  The things I've questioned have been downplayed, minimized, made light of.  I'm thinking "I can really eat this!  It's going to be delicious!".  As long as I stayed well away from the saltfish pan, everything smelled divine!

BUSTED!  Whatcha doing over here???  Why, slicing up pig snouts and faces, of COURSE!!!

This is where things began to get wobbly for me.
No really!!!  The actual SNOUTS.  From PIGS!  
I come from Texas.  Many of the cultures that make up our history use parts of the animal that I find to be repugnant.  While I've tried a few of them, I have been able to studiously avoid most of the more macabre types of animal parts.  We use pork skin or rind to flavor stews and soups... Ox tails and chicken necks can be easily picked out and wiped from memory, allowing the otherwise delicious dishes to be enjoyed.

But when I saw the pig snouts, I began to have my doubts.  Again my weak objections were smoothed over with promises of how much flavor the pork brings to the dish.  "Anything that comes from a pig has GOT to be good, right?"  Yes.  Right. Sounds reasonable.  I've got a place at a table with good lighting so I can just pick around the parts I don't want to eat.  That's my plan.

Fire is almost ready for the chicken wings!

Little ones watching the chicken wings sizzle
By this time it was getting dark.  We had been at this since 3pm and those extra chicken wings over on the BBQ pit were smelling really good right now.

My stomach lurched.  The rum drink went to my head.  My energy began to wane.  The smile on my face became more difficult to sustain.  It's way past our bedtime and I need some FOOD!
Mmm chicken wings.  Look at that FACE!!!

Though it may sound like it a bit, I'm NOT complaining!  I was just becoming increasingly uncertain about some of the ingredients going into this dinner...  Niki and Jamie, along with Sperry and Slum, who collectively threw this shindig, had done monumental amounts of preparation and because of the crowd-participation aspect of it, there was no way to make this go faster.  If you're going to literally go out into the jungle and gather ingredients, it just can't be rushed!  Oil Down takes time and this is a new location, so there were a few kinks to work out.  We were just honored to be among the lucky group of test cases for today's feast!

View of the building from outside

Really nice little outhouse

Breadfruit sliced and ready to go in first!

The Pot stands ready by the fire pit.

Just when I thought we were in the final stages, more ingredients would appear and further preparations would commence.  The small, unripe bananas (called "figs") they picked today had to be peeled and the Tania root chopped.
Figs and Tania, another root harvested earlier in the day

That's a LOT of figs
Not sure what's happening here...

Watching and waiting...

Hey bring me a beer!
While all of this fig peeling was going on, one of the last remaining ingredients yet to be prepared was getting some attention.  Much of the liquid in this dish comes from the vegetables themselves, but the source from which the name of this dish is derived - the Oil - is actually created from delicious, oily coconut milk.

I've never seen how coconut milk is made... until tonight!  Sperry has a special tool - a scraper - essentially a long metal piece with a curved end lined with "teeth", used to scrape out and grate the coconut meat from the halved nuts.  The white, oily flakes fall like snow into the bowl.

Suddenly the cauldron was produced and things started to move quickly.

There is a particular way in which the ingredients are laid into the pot.  First the starchy breadfruit go in, lining the bottom and providing a sort of "crust" that keeps the other ingredients from being scorched by the fire.

Figs come next, not all but some... then the other vegetables go on, followed by the meat.  Then the whole process is repeated, layering the ingredients and spreading them so that their oils and juices can run together during the cooking process.

The dark pieces are dried fish heads that pretty much did me in!

It looks BEAUTIFUL at this point!
Once all of the veggies and meat were layered on, the Callaloo is spread over the top.
While all of this was going on, the coconut was soaking, creating the coconut milk.  A big bucket of it was poured into the pot!
A second batch of coconut milk goes in to bring the liquid up to near the top of the layers

The fire is started...

Several men try lifting the heavy pot!  How will we get this onto the fire???

But WAIT!  There's one more thing!
After several batches of coconut milk are poured into the pot bringing the level of liquid to just below the top layer of veggies, there is one more thing missing...  While the fire is being stacked and started, flames fanned to glowing perfection, Sperry throws flour, water and salt into a bowl and kneads the dough to form small dumplings that will go on top of the pile!

Throwing dumplings on top while the soup boils!
These dumplings are very dense and will soak up the flavors and juices of the rest of the ingredients.  You might think that making dumplings is woman's work... but traditionally the men are in charge of this final step.  

It's ON!  We have some chicken wings while we wait.  
Finally!  After more than an hour, maybe two, it is done!

The end result!
Dumplings are removed to serve separately

Niki has the honor of stirring the pot.  All of the layers are mixed together after the dumplings are removed to serve separately.  A line of hungry Cruisers forms and a hush falls over the crowd.  It looks delicious and, in theory, it MUST be.
Generations of Grenadians have been eating this amazing dish beginning back in the days of slavery.  That is the reason the meats used to make the authentic version of the Oil Down are not the finer cuts.  They are the "scraps" not used for the master's table.  After the abolition of slavery, the tradition continued, not necessarily by choice, but because the finer cuts of meat all went to the tables of the rich, leaving this meal to the poor folk who still cook the Oil Down the same way their ancestors did for generations.  

With all of the events happening back in the States, it seems that we are worlds away here in the islands.  The shadow of slavery from days gone by has a different presence here.  It's not some abstract concept that white's try so desperately to understand... It is a real history that is much closer here.  We can feel it as it shapes the lives of people here still.  And because it's almost a tangible thing, it has a more profound effect on us that makes us want to storm the gates and knock down the barriers.  It makes me want to take up my bowl and fill it with Oil Down and eat what generations past have eaten out of necessity while it is a privilege for me today.

My turn came and I stared down into that pot.  The scent of the saltfish rose with the steam and touched my face.  I stepped back one step and asked if Niki could spoon me up a portion that didn't include the fish.  She looked doubtful but gave the pot a stir and tried.

Taking my bowl back to my seat, not the brightly lit one, but the dark corner we ended up in because I was so busy taking pictures my seat got taken.  I knew there was a good portion of pig snout in there and the saltfish smell was so strong... by the time I reached my table and sat down next to Bruce, I could feel my stomach launching a revolt.  

Seconds later I lost the battle with my will to participate in this important bit of history.  I left my bowl for Bruce and bolted to the fresh air over where Lacy and Hans were by the bar.  I told her I couldn't do it.  She is a vegetarian and she commiserated with me...  

Later, Sperry came over to see why we weren't eating.  Lacy answered him, then he looked to me, asking if I were also vegetarian...  My reply:  "I am now"  

I need to learn to be a better liar.  I didn't want to hurt his feelings.  I didn't want to confess my failure... my inability to take that final step in this event that took so much work, that represents so much history, and so much of the spirit of community.  

I had my chance to become a part of this island and I let them down.  I guess I'm one of those watered-down types that can't let go of my "American-ness".  But I did take part in it.  I did help and had the experience of a lifetime.  I had a chance to learn about another culture in a way so basic as to see the difference of what "we" eat, as opposed to what "they" eat.  It has been an unforgettable experience that has given me a lot to think about.  The final takeaway has been what a joyous event the Oil Down is.  How it celebrates that history, and that difference, and that community, and in appreciation of that, I did not fail.  

Oh, and how did Bruce do?  Only marginally better.  He couldn't really enjoy it either but most of the other Cruisers did, even going back for seconds.  So all of the hard work was appropriately appreciated.

Thank you SO much Niki, Jamie, Sperry and Slum for the enormous amount of work and planning that went into making this event the success it was!


  1. You are an awesome writer! Thank you for capturing this first attempt honestly and beautifully. We all learned a lot!

    1. Oh thank you for the kind words. I was very nervous about it and didn't want to take away from the awesome job you and the guys did to put this all together. Thank you SO much for doing this! It was unforgettable.