Could ya grab me some dinner if you see some?
We spent the morning yesterday on a boat charter, doing the obligatory Stingray City stop as well as two other North Sound snorkel stops. Stingray City is a sandbar on the north end of the island where, long ago, fisherman stopped to clean the day’s catch. The local stingray population got wise to the free eats and began to show up in droves. Tourists have now replaced the fishermen. Though it is often a parking lot of loud boats filled with cruiseship passengers in iridescent Oakley wrap-around sunglasses and bodies that glow like hot coals, it is still a “must have” experience. Having done it more times than I can count, I still enjoy the thrill of having stingrays brush up against me like a bunch of cats at suppertime.
We were piloted by two young guys. The captain was a warm, chatty guy of both Cayman and Honduran descent. His first mate, by my impression, was a long-time friend from Honduras. I can only imagine how many times they’d done that trip out to Stingray City. Yet there was never a moment of boredom or condescension from either guy. How many times did they have to listen to goofy passengers ask stupid stingray questions or say, “EEEW!” when they saw the squid they were to feed them? They clearly loved the sea. They loved its creatures. They genuinely liked and were interested in people. I don’t think they could have faked it so convincingly.
To avoid the so-called “cattleboats” we headed out early. As we began to chit-chat to kill time on the 30-minute ride out, the captain asked me if I like lobster. “Of course!” I replied. He shared with me that he’d caught a 7lb. lobster while out with some snorkelers the day before. Inevitably, there was a whole thrill-of-the-hunt story. He then shared in tones of child-like excitement how he was going to cook his lobster that night.
Near the end of the day’s snorkeling, I heard Sally and Penny signaling me from the boat. As I got within earshot, they excitedly told me that our first mate had gone out to try to find me some lobster for dinner. I was no longer interested in looking at the pretty fishies. I wanted to watch him catch our dinner! I tried to paddle out to where he was but, since I’d already been out in somewhat rough water for 20 minutes and since he was up-current, I got worn out and headed back to the boat.
Alas, the lobster narrowly escaped its date with our dinner table last night. As a consolation prize, the mate returned with four large conch. It turns out that the conch were a bit more interesting than the lobster.
The captain showed us how he removed the conch from the shell. Realizing I was genuinely interested, he took pains to demonstrate how he trimmed and skinned it. It was truly fascinating. The conch is basically a massive muscle with a gut and two eyes. When he took it out of the shell and placed it in my hands you could just feel that big muscle pulsing. As soon as he trimmed it up, he offered me a piece of the raw conch that had been alive just minutes before. Sashimi. It was sweet and mild, if a bit tough.
With four pounds of conch in the bag, the talk turned to preparation. The captain began to spout recipe after recipe of his favorite preparations: marinated raw conch (a.k.a. conch ceviche) with lime, onion, bell pepper, ketchup and Jamaican “pick-a-pepper” (some prepared condiment) served with crackers; conch stew made with fresh coconut milk and peppers served over plantain and cassava; grilled conch with peppers and onions and spices.
His description of these recipes was animated in a way only a cook’s could be. “You really love to cook.” I observed.
“Oh heck yeah, mon. My wife says she don’ wanna cook and I just get on da boat and say I’ll be back in an hour with dinner.”
I recognized a common love of home cooking in this guy. It isn’t about being a “foodie.” [I HATE that effing term.] He just likes good food. He likes the way food tastes. He’s interested in where it comes from. He definitely eats with gratitude. It was such a pleasure to talk about food with someone who just enjoys it.
Tonight we’re having marinated conch and conch fajitas- Cayman style. I’ll let you know how they are.
For the record, we went out with Ebanks Watersports at 345.328.0406