Four days out of the week I teach a class at the University of The Bahamas, so four days out of the week I pass a pretty wooden produce stand on my way home. It’s on the lefthand side of Nassau Street, travelling north, and it sprung up six years ago. There are other vendors on that side of the road, selling things like breakfast, lunch and 5 gallon bottles of water. Something about this shop caught my eye though. The unpainted planks of wood, shuttered windows and jaunty rooftop are so inviting. Every day that I drove past I’d crane my neck curiously to see what was for sale, planning one day to actually make a stop.
That day finally came – yesterday. Well, technically I stopped by a couple weeks ago too, but at that time Ms. Patti’s stock was low and she told me to come back. Yesterday she had much more than potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, grits and dried conch. There was okra, goat and finger peppers, avocado pears, ripe and green plantains, spice rubs for fish and general cooking, pineapples… I could go on. She have plenty tings!
By far the stars of it all were crabs, white and black. The white crabs were lined up neatly, biter-less, on one of the counters built into the stand itself. The black crabs were crawling around each other in two cages on the floor next to the stand. Everybody who came by asked about them. Ms. Patti’s cousin Jeff was there to buy crabs and peppers too. In fact, he warmed up to me first, and we had a long conversation about where the crabs came from and what he was going to do with the ones he bought.
Jeff told me that Ms. Patti is from Andros, the largest island in The Bahamas, and that I’d only find Andros people selling crabs. That made sense, because Andros is known for its crab population. What didn’t make sense was when he told me that Andros people would consider Ms. Patti a traitor for selling crabs right now in Nassau.
You see, crabs are plentiful in the early summer months. They walk all around the road, and you could eat them till you can’t stand even the sight of them anymore. In the summer, Jeff buys $200 and $300 worth of crabs at a time; he gives them away by the dozen, boils 50 in a big pot and throws parties for friends. In the wintertime the crabs are hiding, and it’s much harder to find them. Andros people hardly have enough for themselves, let alone strangers. Even so, Jeff said they taste sweeter now, and they’re plenty fat. You could cook a crab, turn it over and pour out enough fat to light on fire, and still have fat left to enjoy for yourself.
So what’s he going to do with the crabs he bought? Steam them with the peppers until he hears their shells frying and starts coughing from the pepper in the air. Plate ’em up, and enjoy them with some of 3S Bakery’s dinner rolls. Sounds super simple and delicious, doesn’t it? I’ve never cooked crabs myself, but talking with Jeff gave me all the confidence.
Once he drove off, Ms. Patti called me over, and this time she had plenty to say about herself. The thing she’s most proud of is that in all her 62 years she’s never worked for anyone, “not even government”. She grew up one of seven children, with no father, and she’s never had a boyfriend or husband helping her along the way either. I’m paraphrasing here, but a few times she emphasised the fact that “God gave you a brain! If you don’t use it to make money then that’s on you!”
Ms. Patti seemed a little shy about having her portrait out there, which is why I don’t have a full on picture of her, but she was feisty and straightforward and I had fun chatting with her. We talked a lot about food, as you can imagine. She cooks only Bahamian, and to her that means no chicken or ribs, “none of that stuff”. She loves her fish, her baked crab and crab soup, her potato bread, her conch n’ dough. Conch n’ dough! I didn’t even know that was a thing until yesterday. And she learned how to cook beginning when she was 5 years old. Along with her friends she’d gather a few rocks and build small fires in her backyard. They’d catch fish and boil it in a Milo can, her mum would give them 1/2 cup portions of rice that they cooked in corned beef cans, and Ms. Patti carried on like that, practicing what she saw the adults do around her, until she was 12 and cooking for the whole family.
Ms. Patti gave me a tip about using dried conch in my fritters, or wherever else I might want to use fresh conch, for a richer flavour. As I was leaving I bought an enormous pear, which was buttery smooth and perfectly ripe. I ate one slice on the spot, the other on my way home, and basically haven’t stopped snacking on it. I’ll have to go back and get another! And maybe some dried conch to experiment with. 😉