I came across a magnificent conch shell the other day and it reminded me of a trip to Puerto Rico. Its turquoise blue water and tropical rain forest mountain always gives me a wonderful sense of adventure.
On this trip, my destination was the Northeast side of the island. It’s outside the beaten path of San Juan, the capital. On this trip, my goal was to find the untouched pirate dream of a Caribbean escape and adventure. When I ventured further into the island, the mysterious quietness of my surroundings surprised me. As I walked the remote cinnamon beaches, the strong waves of the Caribbean lapped at my feet and the warm wind off the water refreshed my Sea Captain soul.
My journey in search of something native to eat led me down the beach to a quiet street seldom frequented by tourists. Always in search of a cocktail at happy hour, I happened upon a bodega with all the charm I was expecting. Rum, of course, was my choice for my Island adventure. At last, I was in the motherland of my favorite sea captain libation, Bacardi rum and coke with a lime– the all too famous Cuba Libra, ahhhh!
I purchased my goods for the perfect drink and noticed a scent of something wonderful in the air. Mmmm, is that rice and beans? Golden fried empanadas filled with rich and exciting seafood? Or perhaps lobster or fish? I walked next door to investigate and saw a wonderful, happy face behind a pair glasses. I asked her name, and she happily told me, “Wanda.” “Rebel yell girl,” I replied. “Watcha got cooking, good looking?” Wanda proceeded to tell me in an excited voice that I came to the right place “Hun,” she said, “I got you hot soup!” After inquiring about the type of soup, she quick draws, “It be pig foot and yam!” Now, the idea of pig’s foot can be off-putting to many people, but first off, it’s delicious, and second, if it’s adventure you seek, food is part of the adventure. It doesn’t matter if I’m in another country or in the US, I seek out the local cuisine.
Of course, I asked her to dish some up for me and she disappeared to remote parts of a partially open kitchen. I pulled up a chair at the table next to the counter and took a pull off my Oakheart Bacardi rum. While soaking in the view of the ocean and blue sky, I thought about the peacefulness of this quiet street. My thoughts were interrupted when I heard Wanda yell from the kitchen, “Watcha else be having?” Her thick island accent made me feel like a pirate. “I know you probably have some wonderful conch here on the island,” I returned. “Just you wait Mr. Rebel man, she said. “You’ll see I’ve gotcha!” Under the shaded terrace, the ocean breeze blew through the colorful bouganvia. Flowers draped the walls and the coconut palms swayed while two small little dogs scuffled over a chicken scrap.
A local by the name of John, tan and cool in his own laid-up way, sat nearby drinking his Medalla light, the local beer. I could tell his happy hour began with the sunrise, living the island life like only he can. I began a conversation with him. It was somewhat broken, since he didn’t speak fluent English, but we worked together and entertained each other with talk of fishing and the freshness of Wanda’s daily caught food creations.
The aroma from the kitchen finally arrived in a bowl with a rich mixture of braised pig foot. The gelatinous and thick broth had big chunks of meat, pork fat, and golden-brown yams bathing in its glory. Upon my first bite, I found it to be a true slice of Caribbean heaven. It was more than a pig foot and yam stew. It was a bowl of deliciousness made with love.
There are chefs with titles who work in glorious kitchens with all the gadgets and prestige along with stuffy waiters and starched tablecloths. But this, my friends, is what the Extreme Chef loves about the culinary world. One doesn’t need to be a chef to create phenomenal food. I could feel the sense of joy infused in my bowl. It’s the joy that makes food taste so good. I could tell Wanda put her heart into that bowl and it truly put a tear in my eye.
Wanda excitedly returned with a zesty dish of perfectly seasoned conch ceviche as fresh as a morning breeze. It had lime, a touch of coconut oil, and was dotted with bright green chilies. It was mild, but not too spicy, and simply full of fresh flavor. The tender conch melted in my mouth with the taste of the sea and its salt, perfectly balanced with the other ingredients by Wanda’s loving hands. I wasn’t prepared to stop the wonderful party in my mouth and asked, ‘What else does mama Wanda got up her ladle?!” She happily replied that lobster turnovers were on the way.
The rum was flowing, the food was incredible, and the sun was setting over what I declared to be my Rebel Camp! I told Wanda to “pull out your guns, ’cause I’m settled in to this wonderful island dream.”
I began to hear chatter among the locals as they curiously peered my way. I inquisitively asked for insight into their island life, “Tell me, is it always this way?” John replied, “Oh yes. What you think, we just trying to impress you, Mr. Rebel Chef man?” They all laughed as the sun slipped away over the rain forest mountain. The street noises started picking up with cars driving by and Latin music filling the air. The evening was getting spicy and I couldn’t have been happier. The people were so friendly!
But I think much of it had to do with mama Wanda. Her personality is tender and loving, but I could tell she’d string up anyone at the first sign of bs. I longed for more of Wanda’s excellent, exciting food and shouted to her behind her wall of secrets, “What else do you have por favor?” She shouted back, “You like octopus?” Unable to contain my excitement, I exclaimed, “Argh! You trying to steal my heart?!”
I knew that whatever dish she was working on would be amazing. She took a minute or two and stepped forward with her big smile, “Here you go Mr. Sweetie man. Octopus salad for you.” I dug in immediately. It was similar to the conch, only a slight difference, but fresh, fresh, fresh!
My quest for a pirate dream of a Caribbean escape and adventure was found in Wanda. Every chef in the world would benefit from spending just one hour with her as she’d teach them the most important ingredient in food is love. Anyone can follow a recipe, but it takes love and joy in one’s heart to make food that will be remembered forever. Thank you, Wanda, for giving me a taste of your heart and showing me where the Caribbean gold truly lies.
And there you have it, my friends. Adventure and gold can be found in food or in any aspect of life for those who leave the travel brochures behind and dare to go outside the beaten path.
Until next time, Cheers!