“This is the perfect time for the electricity to go out. Our plates are full of dessert and now no one can see how much we eat!” The table erupted into laughter as Jackie lightened the mood after our attempt at a festive Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted by sudden blackness when the electricity went out for the umpteenth time that day. In a room full of Americans, gathered from throughout the island to celebrate, I realized that if the electricity and internet and music had kept coming in at a steady stream, I might have forgotten where I was. You are on an island – I reminded myself – in a country not your own, and this is normal here.
As we ate our desserts by the lights of flashlights and cellphones, the darkness did not change the mood. It maybe even improved it. We listened to Jackie explain how she had come up with her own family recipe for the amazing flan we were eating. After asking her uncle and her grandmother and her aunt and her mother for their recipes, she took the best parts of each and made her own recipe. She told the story like an expert; acting out how she would sidle up to a relative and, in a conspiratorial manner, ask them in a whisper, “hey, what do you put in yours?” – collecting all the different versions and then fusing them together into her masterpiece.
Along with the flan, we ate Brenda’s pumpkin pie, moist and delicious from a family recipe of her own. We ate Lori’s cheesecake, drowning in blueberries and sweetness – which was characteristic of Lori’s generosity. And we ate Sarah’s key lime pie; Sarah had already firmly placed herself in my “food hero” category by bringing what to me is the essential part of Thanksgiving – green bean casserole. It is a dish that I consider already perfect; and then she added bacon. Bacon. Perfect. Eating like this is an American tradition, but it was a real treat for this crew of folks that were accustomed to rationing food until the boat came in and brought what you needed.
I thought about the meals I had eaten earlier that week as I rationed my money and my food. A packet of “just add water” powdered potatoes, a can of Chef Boyardee. A handful of pancake mix fried up when I had lost the will to continue eating my chicken’s eggs after a month solid of frying them up each morning. We had been blessed enough to have some fresh fish earlier in the week, but the weather had been too bad and the water too choppy for fishing, by hook or by spear, since Sunday. Meat and vegetables, apart from what you can grow or catch yourself, are a luxury here on the island. Trying to make my money last, I wonder about my health. I had been running and eating healthy all year and had been in the best shape of my life a couple months prior. But now, I warn myself of a lesson that I learned long ago – “Eating healthy” is one of the many accessories of privilege in our modern culture. “Getting by”, on the other hand, can quickly erode a person’s health in a variety of ways.
The lesson hit home back in 2008 in the midst of a debate I was having with my uncle about poverty and food when I lived in North Carolina. We were discussing access to healthy foods in the urban center, and I was trying to explain that my community was very concerned because we were at risk of losing our one and only grocery store, Los Primos. Along with the city’s announcement of plans to expand the road through our community, the police had recently labeled our neighborhood “The Bull’s Eye” and targeted us for special vigilance. Seeing no reason for me to be in that area as a white woman, apart from criminal reasons, I would many times find myself followed as I drove through my neighborhood or pulled over without cause. I even had a police officer follow me into my driveway one night when I was returning home from the late shift at one of my three jobs; he turned his spotlight on me dramatically as I got out of my car. I simply gave him a wave, pulled out my house keys, and walked into my own house. I had stared down a man with tear drop tattoos earlier that week when he came around my youth recruiting, a spotlight was not about to alarm me.
Our neighbor across the street led a non-profit called Uplift East Durham that had been started by one of my housemates, and was organizing the neighborhood to protest the new highway being planned in order to move people more quickly through our community. The community remembered well the damage the construction of Highway 147 had wreaked upon “The Black Wall Street”, leaving the city forever changed. They had seen this happen before, felt this happen before; they knew it would strengthen the gentrification of the center of Durham, but weaken their community ties and support. Not only that, but it would add a great deal of danger for the predominantly pedestrian immigrant population that had been increasing in number. Lastly, the project would claim eminent domain over the few businesses we did have operating.
Two things stood in the way of the plan: first, the community’s fierce protectiveness of that one grocery store, Los Primos – threatening it was bordering on sacrilege when there were no other banks or grocery stores that would operate in our community. The second impediment was the fact that the church where I worked was a historic building. That second point was the one that would hold the most weight with the mayor as I observed when I accompanied the senior pastor to the mayor’s office to advocate.
The proposed road project has not taken place… yet. People still had to look at our faces as they drove through our neighborhood, and the tienda was saved. But access to fresh and healthy food was still dramatically different for my neighborhood, bordering NC Central University, than it was for the folks that bordered Duke University on the other side of town. Even my friends from the Iredell House, a community founded by Hauerwas students, had easier access to healthy food when they dumpster dove out behind their neighborhood Whole Foods for certified, organic produce.
My uncle was under the impression that people were making the conscious choice not to obtain healthy food, that mothers had the option and were simply not choosing it. My mind went to a recent evening that I had spent with one of the mothers who was living in the Isaiah House with us while she and her daughter were houseless in Durham. Getting home from work one evening, she had heard I was making a trip in my car to the store across town and asked for a ride. Once we got to the store, she insisted she did not want to hold me up and would take the bus back. It got later and later, and feeling responsible, I sat at home and worried. Finally, frustrated and wet, she made it home, having taken two hours to complete by bus the trip that had taken me twenty minutes by car. This was something that I could not make my uncle understand – that when my housemate got home late and tired from work, the choice to go to a store where she could get “healthy food” for her daughter would cost her every remaining minute until bedtime. Something inside me told me that her daughter would rather spend those minutes with her mother, who she adored, than with a mouth full of “healthy food.”
Thankfully, at the Isaiah House, that was not a decision we had to make often during much of the year because the community grew most of their own food. Strawberries in the front yard. Grape vines and apple trees in the side yard. Tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, onions, herbs, lettuce in the back. We supplemented it with rice, ate simply, and we were happy. But not everyone has the space, the time, or the knowledge to grow their own food. Food can be a very complicated thing, no more so than when you are hungry. We can educate and we can accompany, but we do not have the right to judge another’s food choices – especially when their belly is empty and ours is full.
Here on Eleuthera, we try to grow a good amount of our own food, but many of the plants are still maturing. Ironically, the one tree that cannot seem to stop producing fruit is the one tree whose fruit no one seems very interested in eating. The papaya trees plays Jan to the mango tree’s Marcia Brady. Like the mango, the papaya tree bears a roundish, orange fruit that is beautiful on the outside and even more beautiful on the inside. It’s flavor, however, is not very popular with visitors or locals. It is sweet and salty, but sadly not in an addictive chocolate-covered pretzel way. It is sweet and salty in more of a confusing manner that leaves you simply ambivalent about whether you want to put any more of its moist flesh in your mouth. This often results in it sitting on the table until it looks like better food for the chickens than for humans. But unless they are very hungry, even the chickens seem ambivalent. Poor papaya, the food of necessity.
I think to myself that the papaya must be rooting for the electricity to go out; because with no way to prepare our “prepared food”, the lovely but confusing papaya might just have its day in the sun after all.
Thankfully, the sun has finally come back out after a week’s absence, and it is a lovely day for fishing. After all, the papaya does not want to sit on my plate alone.