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On being inspired by M.F.K. Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf"

(post, Beverly Bass)

I was reminded recently that I have always meant to write about life in the tropics back in the late 70s.  I spent 23 years living in Central and South America -- much of it in tropical Central American backwaters.  People have often told me that I should write a book.  For those of you unfortunate enough not to know Fisher's book -- it was written in 1942 and concerns itself with making do in  times of shortages.  In 1977 I moved from Honolulu to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.  My (then) husband was employed by Dole Foods (known at the time and place as Standard Fruit Company) in the business of growing bananas.  Limon is regarded as a backwater still but in the 70s was much more so.  We arrived shortly after the roads had been paved and the people (and the two-toed sloths) had not quite gotten used to the fact that the cars could go faster than when the roads were dirt and full of deep potholes.  As for the Company gringos, we had come from the land of plenty and plopped down in the land of "no hay" (translation: there is none).  The "supermarket" was lacking in many ways and we would go for weeks without many basic items.  I learned quickly that wine does not store well on tropical market shelves.  Food became an adventure.  The Company had a housing compound and our house was on the road.  It was a narrow dirt road leading up a hill with a steep jungle drop-off on the other side.  It was known as "La Cueva" (The Cave) since it was built above a large bat-inhabited cave.  Along the road by our house, we had line of cashew trees.  The cashew is an interesting nut.  The part so prized in many parts of the world is encased in a layer of oil surrounded by a hard-shelled casing.  Interestingly, the Costa Ricans much prefer to cashew fruit to the nut.  In order to extract the nut you must heat the cashews and burn away the oil -- it is not recommend that you do this inside.  We had an old Army field manual that told us as much but being young and dumb, we thought it would be a good idea to roast them in the over.  Bad idea.  I got a face full of smoke and a severe allergic reaction (the enzyme in the oil being the same as that in poison ivy and mango sap -- but that's another story).  My introduction to living off the land was not an auspicious one.  My next stab at local foods was more productive.  A friend and I used to go run on the beach down by the airport.  We noticed plants growing along the way and discovered them to be wild leeks which we regularly harvested and brought home at the end of the run to the amazement of the locals who said "you eat those?".  But the best food adventure Limon had to offer was the Central Market.  Each family was assigned an old (and I mean old) bare-bones Land Rover -- the kind with wooden benches in the back and no shock absorbers!).  On market days (Tuesdays and Fridays) the wives would ferry the men to work and wait for the market to open.  It was conveniently located across the street from the office which afforded me a grand view of the meat trucks arriving.  The scene went something like this:  Open truck arrives loaded with meat precariously loaded in the back.  Several guys wearing old blood stained formerly-white coats line up and load up a carcass on their back and haul it in the market.  Each carcass arrived at it destination about a foot shorter than when it left the truck due to the packs of yapping, leaping dogs that were helping themselves to anything within their reach.  For some reason, this made me leery about buying meat in the market -- though the locals seemed to have no problems with it.  So...for the most part, we became vegetarians.  Each Company house was equipped with an upright freezer and we placed occasional orders for meat with a German butcher in the capital of San Jose who would pack up the frozen meat and ship it down on the morning LACSA flight (on antique DC-3s). We would meet the plane and rush the meat home -- hopefully before it became totally thawed.  We later lived in other banana producing countries like Nicaragua and Colombia (both of which had their own culinary adventures) -- but I will always treasure my time in Limon.  I never did have to cook a wolf (there are no wolves there though there is a charming creature known as a tepesquintle (or wari) which rather resembles a large rat).  The population of Limon is a mixture of black Caribbean islanders descended from workers who arrived in the 1800s to work on the railroads others of West Indian descent and indigenous local tribes.  The big winner here is the cuisine that evolved from the mixture.  I'll sign off with one of my most memorable and favorite recipes from the region.  This version is taken from a local cookbook long out of print called "Rundown and Other Recipes from the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica" by Sharon Bienert.

Patacones (Twice-Fried Green Platanos)

Green Platanos

Peel about one platano per person and slice them crosswise in large chunks about 1 1/2 inches thick.  Place the chunks in very hot oil and lightly brown on both sides.  Remove the platanos from the oil with a slotted spoon and place them face down on a hard surface like a cutting board.  With the bottom of a clean bottle, mash each chunk down so that it resembles a little sun.  Rub each piece with a little salt and return to the hot oil, frying until each side is golden brown.  Remove from the oil and drain. Serve hot.

Next: On to Nicaragua and the war -- and having a baby along the way.