"Dive Deep into My Bahamas."
Welcome to my Bahamas!
Not The Bahamas you think you know, nor The Bahamas often promoted highlighting our pristine beaches, bikini bodies, and radiant sun. My Bahamas is hidden in plain sight.
My Bahamas is deeply rooted in food history and social gastronomy. My Bahamas, unfortunately, is often as foreign to some locals as it is to the flip-flop wearing, suntan seeking, tropical shirt wearing tourists that grace our shores.
My Bahamas is a melting pot of island specificity spanning 700 island and cays with more than 14 major islands - all with an incredibly unique approach to local. My Bahamas was the secret getaway for late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who visited The Bahamas on several occasions in the 1950’s, staying at the home of the late Mr. Basil Sands on Lewis Street in an “over-da-hill” area where it is noted that Dr. King was very fond of Bahamian conch fritters. My Bahamas is where my late paternal Grandmother, Nola “Da’ Baked Crab Lady,” one of the first black female restaurateurs in the Caribbean who once FedExed her baked crabs and fish cakes to the Queen of England for an event in England after the Queen gave them rave reviews during a visit to The Bahamas in 1994. My Bahamas is also where, while apprenticing in several major hotels, I was taught to cook “Americanized”, to question the international appeal of our Bahamian dishes and made to be ashamed of our local cuisine. A fallacy that fueled my rebellion that isolates me from many of my colleagues to this day.
If you are satisfied with the postcard version of my beloved country, then this story is not for you. This story is for those that want to know the guy that knows a guy that knows where, why and what to eat. And I am that guy!
I can vividly remember sitting in the Miami International Airport on the last leg of my 3-day journey from Oahu, Hawaii after a 3-year placement at The Four Seasons Ko Olina, the signs of Covid-19 were evident everywhere. The usual billboards welcoming visitors to the tropics have been replaced with Covid-19 related reminders and guidelines. Even buried behind my face mask, a local Bahamian family recognizes me and engages in what is my first taste my homeland in almost two years. Just across the aisle, our connection is overheard by a family braving the new rules and regulations to escape to The Bahamas for the first time. I am quickly introduced as a Bahamian chef which immediately makes me adorn my ambassadorial and food guide hats. Unbeknownst to them they would be featured in this story.
Luckily, the visitors had already planned to island hop during their vacation around The Bahamas, having not bought into the erroneous belief that The Bahamas is an homogenous commixture with the island of New Providence, home to the country’s capital Nassau representative of the entire archipelago. As they navigated through their vacation plans, I could taste their itinerary. On Grand Bahama the three-rock stove cast iron fried fish and pannycakes from West End would be a must. In Andros, the boil fish and heirloom yellow speckle grits would be metamorphic. On Bimini the coconut tarts, cathartic and on New Providence, my hometown, the trinity of conch fritters, scorched conch and steamed crawfish promised a transformative, mystical, outer body experience.
But wait, just before I adorn my chef toque and dive deep into these recipes (Oh I'm not writing any new recipes on this post, so try hard look through the many ones I have posted already!) I am compelled to add a little blurb that I think sweetens the pot even further. A few Bahamian facts that should give you something to talk about whenever you decide to take these recipes and prepare a Taste of The Bahamas. Firstly, please know that the music of The Bahamas is not reggae, but Junkanoo and Rake n’ Scrape. Junkanoo, simply put is an Afrocentric harmony of goat skin drums, horns, bells and whistles. Rake n’ Scrape on the other hand is a tradition rooted in African and Creole heritage, incorporating a chorale of a fishing line and driftwood “harp”, a tin tub , goat skin drum and a handsaw.. “Siri play Ronnie Butler, Burma Road!”
Secondly, Bahamianese, aka Bahamian dialect, is usually very poorly imitated; Jamaican patois is not it. Bahamians speak the Queens English married with the isms of the Gullah Geechie people. So belting out “Yes Mon”, a famous Jamaican colloquialism, is misplaced and literally a disparaging reference that Bahamians never use!
Whether you visit via boat, plane, hovercraft or some yet to be publicized beaming chamber, the chain of Bahamian islands is only accessible by interisland travel. You cannot drive from island to island, a fact that also contributes to each islands’ uniqueness, while simultaneously connecting us all.
WEST END, GRAND BAHAMA
Should you ask Mr. Johnson, the famed taxi cab driver in Grand Bahama, or Mr. Rolle, the popular island historian, which fish shack serves the best fried fish and pannycake on that island, their answers may vary. But regardless of who you ask, the famed area of West End will surely be undisputed. West End is a small fishing village on the capital of Grand Bahama that was developed almost a century ago from the illegal trade of drugs, bootlegging and piracy. In the 1950’s, its development was led by infamous criminal Wallace Groves, who introduced logging to the island. He later partnered with the government of the day, as well as some nefarious characters to introduce tourism and major hotels. Grand Bahama is also the Bahamian island that saw the greatest influx of visitors and opportunists when the embargo against Cuba began in the 1960’s and American businesses were forced to close but wanted to remain offshore for various reasons.
The dish of fried fish and pannycake is an amalgamation of the 300 plus enslaved decedents from Turks and Caicos, (formerly part of The Bahamas that is now returned to British rule and the birth place of my father’s parents) , the native Lucayan Indians and the British Colonialists that brought wheat. As a fishing village, most days, especially on Sundays after church services, the locals would gather at West End to celebrate and gossip. This became the way important community news spread around the island. Using just 3 limestone rocks, dried fruit tree wood, a cast iron skillet and lard, this week’s catch alongside savory pancakes (pronounced pannycakes) would be the most requested meal of the day.
BAILEY TOWN, BIMINI
Bimini, the sister island to Grand Bahama, is one of leading sports fishing destinations in the world. Earnest Hemmingway who loved to catch big game fish and sip vodka martinis, lived on Bimini for 2 years where he also wrote To Have and Have Not. Just 50 miles off the coast of Florida, Bimini is also a diver’s paradise with relicts such as a WWII freighter wreck and the sunken Spanish galleons SS Sapona. Former Puerto Rican Governor and explorer, Ponce De Leon is said to believe that the fountain of youth was located on Bimini island. However, to most locals, Bimini is home to some of the best bread and pastries in the region. Maybe it’s the water, longitude and latitude, the transformative mystery of the island or maybe it is simply the blessed touch of “Charlie Da’Bread man”. It is believed that you haven’t visited Charlie’s Bakery in you haven’t really visited Bimini.
Bimini was the first island that I ever visited as a young boy with my dad on one of his preaching engagements and the first place that I traveled by seaplane back in the days when that mode of transportation was normal. Bimini was also where I fell deeply in love with “Bahamian coconut tarts”. I remember peeking into a kitchen of one of the church member’s as she prepared the Sunday dinner that they prepared for me and my Father after a church service. Her hands seemed huge as she grated the fresh coconut, but they dwarfed as she carefully massaged the dough. A vivid memory that I have never forgotten.
FRESH CREEK, ANDROS
Want to see why Andros island is the epicentre of natural experiences in the Bahamas? Then look at the cover of National Geographic’s August 2010 issue. If that doesn’t sufficiently explain it, then the fact that it has one of the largest barrier reefs in the world or that it is home to some of the most mysterious blue holes and where Lusca, the mythical sea monster is said to live, should do it for you. Andros is also an ornithologist’s paradise and bone fisherman’s pot of gold.
The American Underwater Test and Evaluation Center, A.U.T.E.C. can be found in Andros and is a big contributor to the economy and culture of this island. Andros is home to a small, but vital Mennonite farming community. Migrating mainly from Pennsylvania, they introduced some innovative sustainable farming methods to the island and in my opinion have some of the best sweet corn I have ever tasted. Ask famed southern chef B. J. Dennis about the immediate brotherhood experienced when we first met, and he will tell you it’s because we are kin. His Gullah roots can be traced to The Bahamas, more specifically to the island of Andros where a few Gullah descendants still live to this day.
All these historical tidbits impact what makes Andros island different from any other island in the region. However, Mrs. Brenda, the local cook that taught me how to make down home Berl Fish, remains my favorite Androsian jewel. Mrs. Brenda could not read or write, so working in the octogenarian’s kitchen proved to be challenging, but profound. Her recipes were all oral and came from her early understudying of other women in her community and her interpretation of their recipes. She was proud to debunk all my culinary training and once told me, “A real chef doesn’t need to read, you taste and just know!”
NASSAU, NEW PROVIDENCE
Arawak Cay/Fish fry, Atlantis Resorts, Parliament Buildings, Pompey Museum, Rawson Square, The Sir Sidney Poitier Bridge, Sysco Food Distribution, Chris Blackwell’s Former Studio, The One & Only Ocean Club, Lyford Cay and Dr. Rita Marley’s Residence are just a few places of note on the island of New Providence. New Providence is also home of The University of The Bahamas and former Bahamas Hotel Training Centre (B.H.T.C), the culinary and hospitality school of which I attended. It is also where you find small and large breweries, a rum distillery, fish markets, over 11,000 hotel rooms and one of highest fast-food franchises per capita in The Caribbean.. All of these converge to form the basis of what is known as Nassauvian cuisine.
“Rain beats the leopard’s skin and does not wash the spot”, is the adage that reminds me to hold on to the heritage that is ingrained in me. No matter how many influences weigh in on our culture, growing up under the culinary tutelage of both my Grandmothers, my mother Linda and my Aunt Caroline will not soon be forgotten or overshadowed. For example, I can distinctly remember thay at start of every lobster season my Aunt Caroline would make her famous minced lobster. Somehow, she would perfectly combine the meat of the lobster – considered a delicacy - with simple ingredients from her garden and whatever was in the pantry to make an amazing dish. What a delectable experience!
The islands of The Bahamas are the sum of its parts, but we are as identical as dizygotic twins. Each island has its own unique identity, history, tone, food and more. We are all proud Bahamians, but we enjoy the regional specificity afforded to an archipelagic country. We also believe that it is time for us to have our seat at the table. The table discussing Caribbean cuisine, African heritage cooking, southern influence, and diasporic gastronomy.