Finding Paradise

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                                                              “N’allez Pas Trop Vite” Marcel Proust, 1919

I’m sleepy, just waking up, still in bed. Guy has brought me a cup of tea and I’m listening as he tells me about the conversations he’s having with his mom. They’re reading Proust together. He’s trying to help jog her failing memory after surgery. I knew Sonia loved to read the French novelist, if one can call what he writes novels. Just last month, when we stayed in Sonia’s downstairs guestroom in her masterfully fenestrated Georgian house in Winchester, we found three different editions of every volume Proust wrote. At this point Guy is three weeks into their discussions, and of course, we are now talking about Proust.

I have things to do, I have to get up, I have a book to write about my latest project—searching for paradise—but Proust has a tendency to slow everything down. Guy starts reading a passage from “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” a valiant attempt at interpreting the author by Alain de Botton—which proclaims under the title, Not A Novel. De Botton is recounting an exchange between Proust and an American Diplomat in Paris at the end of the Great War. The American, Harold Nicolson, writes in his memoir, “Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced,” and goes on to tell of his conversation with him. Nicolson is asked about the peace meetings he’s been attending, telling Proust, “Well, we generally meet at 10:00, there are secretaries behind…”  These words elicit from the grubby Frenchman a barrage of complaints and demands for more detail, “Mais non, recommencez. Vous prenez la voiture de la Delegation. Vous descendez au Quai d’Orsay. Vous montez l’escalier. Vous entrez dans la Salle. Et alors? …Mais precisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.”  Proust’s entreaties are to slow down, take your time, tell me about the car you came in, the stairs you walked up. Don’t go so fast.

As my mind wonders I hear Guy say, “I’ve been finding if you do slow down and start by recalling details, things start to come back to you. I’ve been remembering things about traveling across the Sahara I had forgotten.” Long ago Guy told me about hitchhiking from England to West Africa and back. It was 1974 and he would turn 20 later that year. He still has the old Michelin map of Africa. He pulls it off a cluttered shelf in his office now and then and unfolds it, and one can see the route he took in demarcated jagged lines and circles where he stayed. Over the years I’ve heard only snippets of this adventure. I know he stayed in Nigeria for two months and almost got a job teaching English. On his way back someone stole his boots one night when he was sleeping, even though he buried them in the sand. By then he had run out of money and had only flip-flops to wear as he pushed north through Franco’s Spain during the winter. One of the most surprising things he ever told me was that some years later, he threw away the journal he wrote while he was traveling. “Wait! What!? Why?” I shrieked. To this day he has never come up with an adequate explanation.

Now he starts telling the story.

“I left Algiers and traveled south across the Atlas mountains by bus—at night in a lightning storm. At daybreak we came down from the mountains onto the desert floor, and 200 kilometers or so later we arrived at Ghardaia. I was looking around the town that lay in a depression in the desert.” He gestures by dipping his hand in the air saying. “A soft valley. The houses and buildings were made of mud and everything was a faded white.” He tells me, “I hadn’t been there long when I met 3 young Europeans traveling together.”

Once again my mind wonders, this time to Tony Judt, and his book The Memory Chalet. Judt, the wonderful historian and political essayist, wrote the book in his last days while suffering from ALS. Paralyzed and unable physically to write, we would lay in bed and search through what he called his Memory Chalet. By walking through the doors and entering the ordered rooms of a Swiss Chalet, now in his mind, he would retrieve his early experiences. In the morning Judt would recount the reconstructed memories to the young woman writing them down. I think to myself, Guy’s been searching through his Memory Kasbah.

Screen Shot 2018-03-21 at 1.14.06 PM“Who were these people you met there?” I ask him.

“They were English and Dutch and had been traveling together for a while,” he says. “They knew each other pretty well. I can’t remember how we met, but we started doing things together. They spoke French pretty well and had gotten to know a merchant in the town who sold local wares, things like baskets and sandals, rugs made of camel hair, and dates, of course. One night the merchant invited us to his home for dinner,” he says, then pauses.

I ask, “What happened?”

Looking thoughtful, he tells me, “We found ourselves in a walled garden where palm trees grew. We ate outside on a low table, and the man brought out platters of couscous and little dishes of dates and nuts. It was the first time I ever ate couscous.” He paused again before saying, “We were in the middle of the desert in the middle of this town sitting in a walled-garden eating couscous under the moon shadows of date palms,” he repeats with amazement. “One of the fellows I was with was so moved, as I was, that he looked around marveling, swept his arm across the setting, and said to our host, ‘C’est un Paradis.’”

As he speaks it strikes me that Guy’s words sound as if they’re coming off the page of a travel journal, a record of his thoughts and impressions. Yet these are the reflections of a different kind of journey, one to the past, to the deep and pleasant moonlit night in a Saharan oasis located now firmly in his memory. Inspired by Proust, he found Paradise hiding there in the past. He walked through the once faded alley ways of his own magical Kasbah, and pieced together the fragments of time. And now he was able to return to that place, as if he had taken a little taste of the madeleine that transported Proust back to the sensations of his childhood home in Combray.

He says, “After stressing out getting through France, Spain, Morocco and northern Algeria, it was suddenly OK to slow down.”

I ask him “Why were you rushing so much?”

“I was reading a lot of Kerouac then, and I must have been influenced by his maniacal intensity to just keep going—It’s all about getting to the next place. He pays no attention to anything on the way.” (Ironically, Kerouac’s main character in On the Road is Sal Paradise.)

“But suddenly none of us were in a hurry anymore. I had enough money at that point to stay there for a few more days, so I did. The people were reserved, but they were gentle and friendly too. I also needed to figure out how to cross the desert. After Ghardaia there was no public transport south through the Sahara.”

 

Since then Ghardaia, Algeria, the town Simon de Beauvoir once described as a Cubist painting, has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site. The inhabitants of the city that Guy moved among so many years ago are known as the Mzab people who fled to Ghardaia in the 10th century to escape persecution in the north. He never again saw the three young travelers he met there.

We look up the word Paradise and though it is attributed first to middle French, then lower Latin then to Greek, if you go back far enough you find the word’s origins to be Avestan, one of the two ancient languages of old Iranian, (the language that documents the sacred books of Zoroastrianism). The meaning of Paradise in Persian refers specifically to a walled garden.

Guy says, “I’ll have to tell my mom that Proust is helping me remember things I had forgotten about my trip to Africa.” Guy told me his mom never understood why he decided to hitchhike to Africa, especially since most of his friends were going to India to visit Ashrams and find enlightenment, on a journey his Dad used to call the hash trail to the east. I tell Guy, “You crossed the Sahara and found Paradise instead.”

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The New York Times Says St. John is No. 4 on Top Places to Visit: And It’s Better At Concordia Eco-Resort

 

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By the time The Virgin Island’s Daily News carried the front-page story from the New York Times listing Coral Bay in St. John no. 4 on its 52 places to go in 2016, we had already discovered the magic of the place. We were here to get far, far away, and very close to the sounds, smells and feel of a small Caribbean island. So we booked into a cliff-side eco-resort with screened tents, low lights, solar showers and unimpaired ocean vistas.

Getting There

After a flight from New York and a journey across 2 islands, we arrived at Concordia at dinnertime with grumbling stomachs and big appetites. Hot sun and sea breezes hit us on the deck of the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John. From Cruz Bay the open-air, Soca-blasting taxi hugged steep cliffs along the coast road—at times the wide truck body occupying both lanes of the narrow mountain switchbacks. When oIMG_4319ur rolling adventure descended back down to sea level, views of the perfect Coral Bay crescent shimmered in the sunlight. Back up the hill we continued on to the eastern reaches of the island.

After checking in at Concordia and leaving bags in our eco-tent—all the while marveling at the stunning seascapes from seemingly every point on the property—we headed straight for food.

Open Mic Night

By some cosmic good fortune it was Monday night at Cafe Concordia; open mic night—misnamed because the local musician who host the night, John “Johnny B” Bullock and Lauren Magnee, are anything but amateurs. They play here with lots of friends once a week and are so accomplished they effortlessly jam with musical guests visiting the island.

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Café Concordia

We settled in at one of the high 2-tops that looked straight into the kitchen and perused menu offerings of appetizers and specialty cocktails, keeping an eye on the chef as happy hour segued into dinner against the rhythms of rock and soul. The chef’s name was Treva, and he moved in the kitchen with unruffled confidence, managing sauté pans on open flames, pulling roasted fare out of the oven, and ladling generous portions of rice from aDSC_0211 huge pot. The low sun cast long rays of light across Salt Pond Bay, through the dining room, and straight into the kitchen. Treva hit the bell for each dish in sunglasses. Without them the old-fashioned paper tickets would have been back lit and unreadable.

So good was the food and varied the offerings, I was eager to find out more about the café and the people who created this extraordinary delight in a remote corner of the Caribbean. I got a sense of it when Joe Feraco the manager, ended the evening by thanking each of the staff by name. They worked together as a team, that much was clear. And Joe was not a stand-around kind of guy; he bused tables and worked the floor every night we were there, taking a seat only after most of the guests had walked off into the star-filled night.

Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia

Joe Feraco, hands-on manager of Cafe Concordia

Everything about this place was as surprising and extraordinary as the musicians and the food.

The Chef

When I got a few minutes to chat with Treva, he told me he was cooking for roughnecks on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico when he got a call from his friend Kim, who organizes Concordia’s daytime food and beverage. She told him Joe was looking for a new chef.

Treva’s first job in a restaurant was washing dishes. Then he moved on to waiting tables and ended up at Arnauds in NOLA setting Bananas Foster aflame. My guess is he would have stayed in the Crescent City, even with the steep competition for all positions food related, but as he said, “Katrina happened.” Migrating north like so many, he eventually ended up in the kitchen of the Chicago Marriott, where he learned from a talented team how to deliver massive amounts of specialty meals at break-neck speed. There he added sashimi to his growing culinary repertoire.

Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Roxanne  dining at the Cafe Concordia

Concordia General Manager Wayne Lloyd and his wife Rosanne dining at the Cafe Concordia

 

Chef Treva Porche's Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette

Chef Treva Porche’s Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette

Watching Treva serve up Shrimp Creole, Po’boys, red beans, rice and Andouille sausage, I wondered how such southern classics came to share the menu with Tamarind Chicken Wings, Tempura Coconut Shrimp and Beef Tenderloin Tower with Potato Galette. Treva told me he came from the deep south, a Louisiana parish called Terrebonne – he spelled it for me. Googling it I saw what he meant. It’s a little outpost sitting on the edge of the gulf coast. His time in New Orleans

Roasted Beet Salad with tomatoe, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine's local organic greens

Roasted Beet Salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, balsamic reduction, and Josephine’s local organic greens

had been a later stop on his culinary journey—the tastes and smells of southern cuisine had left an early craving on his pallet.

 

 

 

There is much more to be said about the character and attitude of this island hideaway. And the rest of Concordia Eco-Resort is as creative, innovative and satisfying as the Café. I’ll tell you about all of it in future posts.

Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is wonderful swimming!

Salt Pond Bay is a short hike down the hill from Concordia Eco-Resort and is a wonderful place to swim!

Taking on the Invasive Lionfish in the Waters off Grand Cayman

Photo by Elliott Jessup

Photo by Elliott Jessup

 

It’s not surprising to meet an unusual cast of characters at a diving lodge, especially an ecofriendly one, but as we chat that evening, occasionally looking up from computer screens, the three divers tell me they are spearing lionfish and emptying out the contents IMG_3805of their stomachs. The culling part makes sense, many divers are gleefully bringing up lionfish on the end of their spears, selling them to local restaurants, or filleting them on their own. They are beautiful but invasive fish, with no natural predators, feasting on indigenous reef fish and doing an untold amount of damage in the Caribbean. But tearing out their guts to take a look? I hadn’t heard that one before. When I ask why they tell me, “We need to know what they’re eating.” So, they’re curious about their food—and I wonder why.

Lionglove

Photo by Elliott Jessup

I discover that the team is from the California Academy of Sciences, and their research will reveal if the culling efforts by divers to clear the invaders from the reef is working. The team wants to know if the lions are feeding in shallow waters, or deeper down the reef walls. If the fish can easily change depth, they can avoid the culling efforts done in shallow waters. They want to know if the larger fish they see in deeper waters move up to shallow areas, or stay at lower depths and breed there.

Elliott Jessup the Diving Safety member of the team is the one who documents their IMG_3877underwater adventures, and has the wonderful title of “explorer.” His experience with deep water diving began when he trained in Egypt’s Red Sea. Now managing the highly specialized diving equipment—the closed circuit re-breathing units—he explains how they can plunge much lower than average recreational divers. They are collecting lionfish at depths ranging from 200 to 400 feet.

I ask the ichthyologist on the team Luiz Rocha, why he wants to know what the lions are eating. “We need to know the species of fish,” he tells me. The prey fish the invaders are going after will need some protection. Know what fish they are eating will also give them information about where they are feeding.

These science divers are also taking DNA samples of the fish back to the lab in California. Lionfish most likely arrived in the Caribbean after being released by private aquarium owners. DNA testing will show where the fish actually come from.

I’ve seen lionfish on the menus of Cayman’s finest eaters, and some chefs are joining in

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

the culling efforts, providing a market for what is said to be a fine light, white fish. But I’ve never tried it.

“We’re giving the fish to the lodge and they’re going to serve it tonight,” Elliott tells me. Indeed, lionfish turns out to be the catch of the day at dinner at the Cobalt Coast. I’ve never tried it before, but I’m willing to take a chance.

I order lionfish ceviche and it is spectacular; the perfect balance of texture and flavor.IMG_3866

In case you find some fresh lionfish on your travels, here is a cookbook created especially to turn lionfish into a culinary delicacy. Creating a demand for it may encourage more large-scale extraction of the fish, the strategy most likely to be effective at removing the unwelcome invader from the waters of the Caribbean. So eat up!

 

A Farwell to HBO’s Treme: The Series About Post-Katrina New Orleans Brought Us Music, Food, & Friends

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Last night was the final episode of Treme after 3 seasons. The 5 final episodes, a shortened season 4,  aired in December and wrapped up some of the story lines. In an interview in New Orleans just before the premier of season 2, creator and executive producer, David Simon told me he needed 5 seasons to develop the characters and tell the story of post-Katrina New Orleans. There are no doubt multiple reasons for shortening the series, but 2 weeks ago he joked that HBO has an odd idea that their programming needs viewers. I’ve joked for some time, when asked what I’m working on, that I’m writing about the best TV series no one is watching. Treme is destined to become a cult classic, and may live a long and fruitful life in syndication. I hope so. This series deserves to be watched.

I have no doubt that we will continue to talk about the unique space the city of New Orleans occupies in American culture in a post-Treme television universe. The final song of the final episode expressed the sentiment I already feel; to Miss New Orleans.  I will miss this raucous indulgence in food and music (and other things).

Featuring food and music as major characters on television wasn’t easy, though they DSC_0031made it look that way. The variety of bands and performers, clubs and buskers that appeared on the program was a musical phenomenon in itself. Some of the most stunning sequences on Treme were performances shot on location at many of the smaller music venues, most outside of the well-known tourist spots on Bourbon Street. Frenchmen Street is currently the place to go for some of the most vibrant music and the jazz at Snug Harbor and other clubs took the program to creative realms wholly different from the confines of ordinary television. This kind of on-location TV that collects vast amounts of talented local musicians (and extras) is expensive and complicated to film and choreograph. Treme was quality television of the first order.

DSC_0314Many NOLA musicians appeared on the program, and their lives and music were major inspirations for key fictional portrayals on Treme. The character of Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is loosely based on New Orleans saxophone player Donald Harrison Jr., who like Delmond, divides his artistic life between the Big Easy and the Big Apple. Harrison is also the son of legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., long-time leader of the Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, Guardians of the Flame. Harrison consulted on costume design for Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters)DSC_0076 and offered instruction on how to move in the magnificent suits that can weigh over 150 pounds.

There is so much more to say about the music, and the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, and I will linger there in future posts, but food also played a major role in evoking New Orleans DSC_0036as a place and a culture, and deserves a mention in this tribute.

Speaking at the 92 Street Y on December 13, 2013, David Simon and executive producer Nina Noble, explained how food is central to the unique identity of New Orleans. Just as music took the series to new creative heights, so did the presentation of food. In visually rendering New Orleans cuisine, its chefs and restaurants, the writers, directors and cinematographers advanced the art of presenting food on camera, and food took its rightful place in narrative drama.

There was much to learn about filming real food. The use of fake food would have been, well, fake. If scenes took too long, the dishes would have to be replaced. In the first few episodes shot in kitchens where dialogue and interactions were also occurring between characters, the camera focused on the people and the food sometimes didn’t make it on screen. But by the second-to-last episode when chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) shares an extended moment with D.J. Davis (Steve Zahn) in her kitchen, the scene is an intoxicating blend of food and visual storytelling. The sequence ends when Janette offers Davis a perfect omelet for his 40th birthday. We see every aspect of her preparation and when she handed him the plate, I could almost smell it. Food as an extension of character and expression of emotion reached it full impact at that moment.

That December night at the 92 Street Y, one of the most renowned BBQ chefs in NOLA, the author and story editor for Treme, Lolis Eric Elie, joined in the discussion and talked about the important role New Orleans’ cuisine played in the series. He spoke lovingly about food, his family’s recipes, and the sense of identity that comes from cooking, from simple rice and red beans, to gumbo. If you’ve ever eaten in the city, you understand, and you will certainly miss New Orleans until you can get back for another plate of gumbo.

Related:

Mediating the Past: Treme and the Stories of the Storm

By Robin Andersen

Trinidad on My Mind

 

DSCN4905My left hand found a hole in the wet limestone wall and the rushing water came closer as I clamped my fingers into it and moved up a little.  My right leg was still searching for an outcropping, a small indentation, anything my foot could settle into to take some weight off the left quad that was now burning above the pool of white water below.  I nestled my toes into a dimple in the wall hoping to find a bit of horizontal rock so I could use my foot and shift some weight. No way, my toes hit the wall before the ball of my foot found any purchase. At least I was attached with 3 limbs but I couldn’t move. The holes within my reach on the face of this waterfall were too high. I couldn’t position my legs to do the work and push me up. My muscular thighs have always been the strongest part of my body, probably from riding my horse bareback all through my teens. My upper body strength is a different story. My arms would never pull me straight up. I reached my right leg long, almost straight out, and tried anyway, wobbled a little and was still stuck midway up the side of the waterfall.

I looked down over my shoulder to assess the situation. The water in the pool created by the falls wasn’t angry or threatening. In fact it was looking more and more inviting. I had been on this wall for what seemed like an hour, but was probably was less then 10 DSCN4913 minutes. I could easily push hard away from the limestone and hit the calmer part of the pool feet first. It was plenty deep. There would be no headline in the travel section reporting, Frommer’s guidebook writer fatally injured in a climbing accident in Trinidad. As it turned out I didn’t have to jump.

This Trinidadian adventure has come back to me while I am sitting in an airy, whimsical restaurant waiting to interview the owner Alvin Clayton, who is from Trinidad. The walls are covered with Matisse inspired paintings. I’ve heard he did them all. It’s quite an oeuvre.  He named his restaurant Alvin & Friends because, after all, isn’t it nicer to share a meal with friends than eat alone? I’m not the first writer to come through these glass DSCN6138doors that open invitingly onto the small plaza in front. A New York City anchorwomen Sade Baderinwa, came all the way up to the suburbs to get a taste of Alvin’s Po Boy sandwich. I’m intrigued by what I’ve read and the local buzz that surrounds this place. I might be missing Trinidad a little too.

The manager looks embarrassed and tells me Alvin’s been delayed. He offers a rum punch and I’m happy. Almost every review includes the detail that Alvin got into the business when he partnered with Denzel Washington and others, to open a restaurant in Los Angeles called Georgia. On the south side of Melrose, It became a celebrity hangout and lasted for seven years. That was his first experience with the fusion cuisine that merges Trinidadian cooking with the favorite recipes of the American south.

When Alvin walks in I recognize him from pictures and his reputation as a former model. DSCN6126The man couldn’t take a bad picture. While we chat he adjusts the sound system with his cell phone, altering the volume and music, and changing the mood of the restaurant. He tells me, “If the music is wrong it’s just any ordinary place to eat.” The demi-walls of paneled glass that evoke the feeling of openness and seclusion at the same time are also his design.

In Trinidad, where steelpan drums originated, I began to loose track of how many different people and cultures passed through, stayed, or somehow left their mark on the island. Exploring the Caribbean gave Alex Stankie from Islands Magazine learns to play the Seal Drumsme a real taste for the mashup of people and history that is so much a part of the islands. The early history that created these fusions wasn’t so happy, especially after the arrival of Columbus, who encountered Trinidad in 1498. Beginning in the 1530s the Spanish were bent on conquering the Arawakan and Cariban speak peoples, and like most of the inhabitants of the Caribbean after colonial contact, they were very nearly wiped out. For the next 4 centuries, as Europeans vied for arable land, wealth and resources, different waves of peoples and cultures tossed up on Trinidad’s shores. By 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh (who introduced tobacco to England) showed up to attack the Spanish in his quest for El Dorado – the famed “City of Gold.” After the French revolution the arrival of plantation owners and their slaves from Martinique led to an agriculture-based economy of cocoa and sugar. But Trinidad remained a Spanish colony until 1797 when the British fleet sent 18 warships to take the island away from the Spanish.

The abolition of slavery on Trinidad in 1838 presented a problem for the powerful plantation owners, who then devised a system of “indenture” for Indian workers. From 1845 to 1917, they brought almost 150,000 East Indians to work on the sugarcane
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Today Indian food is a major ingredient of Trinidadian cuisine. The first thing I ate when I got off the plane was a Roti. I remember the smells and smoke from the vendor’s carts on an evening walk through Independence Square in the heart of Port of Spain where the classic “double” was in great demand. We waited in line to be served the hand-held treat made of coco bread and stuffed with curried chickpeas and a little hot sauce.

I am reminded of the smells and sounds of Trinidad having dinner at Alvin’s after my interview with him. What a great adventure it was all around. I finally did get off the waterfall, by the way. I grabbed the rope attached to the top of the rock wall, held onto it tight with both hands, and walked straight up the rest of the wet limestone, all the way to the top. The really fun part was coming down!