Monday, January 31, 2011

Clogs Abroad, October 14th, 2010: The Peanut Gallery

Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made, not born. I might glorify my bill of fare until I was tired; but after all, the Scotchman would shake his head, and say, "Where's your haggis?" and the Fijian would sigh and say, "Where's your missionary?" - Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

We’ve pulled all the mattresses and seat cushions up to the sun-drenched deck and will sleep warm and dry tonight in the relative calm of the Port Resolution anchorage. Our three-day run from Fiji was rough and I am conscious of having passed through something – writing about it now seems meaningless...the height of the waves, the grace of the petrels as they danced across the steep sides of the swollen seas, the mahi-mahi we managed to catch in the early morning rain and bring aboard the pitching vessel... memories dimming to vignettes. I find it difficult now to convey my determined resolution to simply endure. Amazing what a little sunshine can do. Sunshine and the first cup of hot coffee in three days.

Port Resolution had very little in the way of provisions so I took the trip across the island to visit the public market, where fruits and vegetables were spread on the ground beneath the huge span of a Banyan tree. I was with Jodi, a young woman from sailing vessel Savannah, who had made the same passage as Victoria -- not just from Fiji to Tanna, but across the Pacific from Ecuador, where they had met. The photo files on Victoria are filled with pictures of Savannah's two-person/husband-wife crew and as we bump along the "road" that connects Port Resolution to the western side of the island, I felt my brief acquaintance with Jodi grow toward friendship. Few things bring people together as quickly as a drive around the base of an active, smoking volcano on a track that's no more than a thin span between ruts.

The market offerings were pretty standard. Of course there were bananas, tinier and sweeter than the ones at the Seattle Safeway. These South Pacific sweeties have just a hint of tartness and a whiff of vanilla. I once ate five of them in a single day. The papayas were huge, coarser and less sweet than their refined urban cousins I'd seen heaped up at the Suva Municipal Market in Fiji a week earlier. There were also the ubiquitous cabbages and carrots, anemic and juiceless tomatoes, one or two pampelmousse, a bumper crop of sweet potatoes portioned into woven palm baskets for easy transport back to the village and twists of fried dough wrapped in leaves for easy eating.

The piles of peanuts were a surprise, though. The first one I tried was shrunken and awful, difficult to crack open, and I would not have been surprised to find out that by eating it I had condemned myself to hives, or the growth of a hump, or a clubfoot. Magically repulsive. I was going to swear off peanuts forever but Jodi convinced me to try another. Much better. I'd never tasted a raw peanut before and the flavor was quite green, a lot like a very starchy English pea. Suddenly, the peanut's legume heritage was obvious. However, with the island dirt still clinging to the shells and the stems tied together with a short piece of blue baling twine, their resemblance to the peanuts of baseball games and Cracker Jacks was much less apparent. But I bought a bunch, excited to experiment with them back on the boat.

I decided to boil the peanuts in seawater, and finish them in the oven to dry out the shells. The anchorage was a little bit roll-y -- the swells from the open ocean occasionally rolled the boat enough to knock a glass off a table, enough to make cooking interesting and the oven devilishly difficult to light. I might not roast them.

As I snipped the peanuts off their stems and into the saucepan, I thought about how quickly something unfamiliar can resolve into the very picture of something known, something practically cliché. I felt as though I'd ordered a local dessert, something difficult to pronounce, probably impossible to replicate, and was then served a slab of apple pie. I started with a grubby bunch of knobby, knuckley things on stems and ended with a pot full of peanuts.

Peanuts hold a special place in the American consciousness and diet. The Giants won the pennant while shells accumulated around the spectators' feet. Open the Sunday morning funny-papers and there's Charlie Brown, stewing in unrequited love for the little Red-Headed Girl. Our 39th President was a peanut farmer in Georgia, a state whose history would have been radically different were it not for peanuts. The genius of George Washington Carver ushered in a new era of nutritious brown-bag lunches and afterschool snacks. The powerhouse composition of proteins, fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals made the peanut, and peanut butter, a staple for arctic and Antarctic explorers, Civil War soldiers, West Africans, Chinese, Peruvians....pretty much every culture that has had the opportunity to lean on the nutritional value and sturdiness of the peanut has done so. We have the Portuguese to blame, or thank, depending on who you ask, for the worldwide spread of the peanut. Discovered in Peru, taken to Africa, where it flourished, fed to slaves during the long sea voyage to the marketplace, slaves who planted them in the American South -- a greatly simplified version of events, but you get the idea. The popularity of peanuts as a shipboard staple probably explains why I ran across them in the middle of the South Pacific.

The pot on the stove is at a rolling boil now. As they cook, the peanut shells become more easily popped open, something any Georgia peanut farmer could probably tell you but it's as new to me as grinding cattails into flour, or making a foie gras foam. I'm about to put them into the oven, if I can get it lit...interestingly, the seawater is not instilling a terrific amount of salty flavor, but I think it would be a mistake to add any more salt as they roast. If they roast. I keep eating them as they boil. The green pea flavor has given way to a definite nuttiness. Finally, for fear of accidentally blowing up the boat, I decide against roasting the remaining peanuts and instead dry them on a tray, set among the cushions and pillows on the deck. I can leave them alone for only 20 minutes, then, with a good book and a glass of lemonade, I settle down into onto one of the slightly damp cushions and enjoy the rest of the peanuts in paradise.