The Bahamas, so recently the source of terrible headlines after Hurricane Dorian, form a set of Caribbean islands that are not in the Caribbean. They are in the Atlantic. Yet the same smoldering mix of sugar, rum, pirates and slaves that formed Caribbean culture (and cuisine) over four centuries formed these 700 large and small islands to exist as a world apart.
Glittering highrises from Fort Lauderdale down to Miami may be the Bahamas’ closest neighbor but the food you eat there, the music you hear there and the people you meet there live much closer to their roots far away in West Africa. Slave ships from England, and indeed from New England, gave a gingerbread swirl to the larger Victorian homes that survive from colonial days, but not to the miles of small houses the hurricane scattered across rock, coral and the clear blue-green sea.
Many islands played matchmaker in my lifelong love affair with the Caribbean and its people, but the Bahamas inhabit a unique space. As early as the 1980s, their tourism industry launched an often-copied initiative called simply Meet the People. Yes, most Americans still booked rooms in the luxury resorts of Nassau, Paradise Island or the Abacos, if they weren’t showing up for only a few hours aboard a cruise ship. But Meet the People was different.
It was like any tour of a mountain, a rainforest or a waterfall, except the natural wonder being toured was… human. In the program, we were taken to regular houses, not the “great houses” of long-gone sugar barons or the mansions inhabited by Britain’s governors before Bahamian independence in 1973. We shared mugs of coffee, maybe a rum-laced planter’s punch or a few bites of conch fritter with a real family who lived there. And while the experience surely was choreographed, it was light years better than dining on fancy French or northern Italian classics at some resort’s flagship restaurant.
In the end, Bahama’s Meet the People campaign wasn’t the least bit like buying a ticket to meet the gypsies who allegedly lived in caves above Barcelona years ago, complete with dinner cooked over an open fire and an “impromptu” flamenco performance. I returned to the Bahamas many times over the decades, most memorably flying low from the Florida coast in a legendary Chalk’s seaplane, another piece of the experience that’s now gone. I always tried to Meet the People in the spirit of that campaign. And because of it, I try to Meet the People everywhere I travel.
One evening in the Bahamas, on that very first visit, I had the impulse to ask our waiter a silly question that has since become part of my reporter’s repertoire. After the tall, graceful, white-haired and very dark-skinned server in a tuxedo had described the specials from places like Tuscany and Umbria, I asked him what he loved to eat.
“Dis food, mon,” he replied. “It’s real good.”
“I know that. But I mean, you. You don’t eat this. Maybe ever.”
“Dis? Oh yah. No, I don’t eat dis.” His glance bounced around the plush red dining room from chandelier to chandelier, then lowered toward the floor. “I can’t afford to eat here, mon. No way.”
The end result of this conversation was the equally dark-skinned chef coming to our table a few minutes later, saying that while he was trained by the resort in northern Italian cuisine, his favorite thing to cook was not on the menu – Bahamian minced lobster. Even that struck me as too highbrow, until he explained that claw-less Caribbean lobsters could be pulled from practically every square foot of ocean surrounding the islands.
We were invited into the chef’s kitchen to watch him prepare our dinner. Bahamian minced lobster is the best northern Italian cuisine I’ve ever tasted.
BAHAMIAN MINCED LOBSTER
This is pretty much the recipe we watched the Bahamian chef prepare, as though for his own dinner at his desk among the purchase orders and overtime forms, that long-ago night in his fancy resort kitchen. He used Caribbean lobster, of course, because it was plentiful and cheap. But unless you have a connection in the Bahamas, the Maine lobsters they’ll steam for you at the supermarket will work just fine.
3 (1-pound) lobsters, steamed
¼ cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped green pepper
¼ cup diced bacon
½ cup Mom’s brand Special Marinara
½ teaspoon fresh thyme
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 Scotch bonnet or jalapeno pepper, diced
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon water
Cooked white rice
Take the lobster meat out of the shells or chop or shred by hand. Heat the oil in a skillet and lightly caramelize the celery, onion, bell pepper and Mom’s sauce. Season with thyme, black pepper, diced hot pepper and salt. Cook about 5 minutes. Add the water then simmer to reduce the liquid, about 3 minutes. Serve hot over rice. Serves 6.