Our morning began as do most mornings in a rural Caribbean community, with the announcement of a new day by the neighborhood roosters. Later, Maria would apologize, but qualified it by explaining that she for one could live with the noise because all her eggs, including those we were eating, came from those same chickens – she went on to tell us that apparently she was one of the few living in that community who realized that the chickens choose to lay their eggs in the same area where they were fed, and that she made sure the chickens ate in her yard.
Between our repeated expressions of thanks to Maria for our rescue from an unknown fate, she told us she had been thinking, and she had an idea for our consideration. We had offered, once we were back in San Juan, to rent a car and use it to both see more of the island, and to give Maria a ride back to her home – and her idea now was to allow her to become our guide, and for three days to both see a good part of the island and to spend each night with one of Maria’s many relatives. The deal essentially was that we would provide the transportation, and she would arrange for us to have lodging and meals with her various family members – Wow!
Regardless of our protestations, Maria always had a better answer, and eventually we recognized that it would be best to agree and be done with it – of course, that agreement was partially in anticipation that Maria’s family would be cut from the same mold as was she – what if they were not? So, our agreement was with some degree of trepidation, but I think perhaps more in the remembrance of the event than perhaps was true at the moment – it was, after all, a part of the adventure!
Our eventual arrangements were such that five of us: we two; Maria; her daughter, Isabella; and Maria’s nephew, Paulo, squeezed into a tiny Volkswagen bug, and set off to visit relatives who they had not seen in years, and who we would learn, truly were overjoyed to see them – even with us tagging along.
That fantastic tour found us visiting first a brother who managed a sugar mill operation, where I became fascinated with the process of creating confectioner’s sugar (essentially, a small enclosed area housing a machine that pounded the granular sugar into submission). Later we slept in our first bed covered with a huge mosquito netting – necessitated by a house with no screens -?? And on another night, I’ll never forget my first shower in an open roof-top affair whose sides only came up four feet – I took my shower while the rest of the family relaxed over afternoon drinks on the other side of the roof-top patio – in retrospect, a bit of gringo cultural shock. On another day, we visited still another, apparently more well-to-do member of Maria’s clan at his mountain ranch, where he was raising “meat steers” – he took pains to explain that even though these were huge animals, they were entirely safe and docile, and he literally made me walk with him out to the herd, where we petted them to prove the point, I guess – I remained unconvinced.
As I think back on this experience, I can’t help but do so with regret – for I now know that this was an experience that most never have. And we had the fortunate opportunity to experience a cross-cultural immersion that few others have had. Yes, we exchanged addresses with Maria, and for a few years we wrote each other – but somehow, and I can’t even recall now how or why, we simply lost touch with each other – this fills me with sincere regret now, I guess it’s a matter of maturation. But the memory does make me more sad than happy now.
Finally, as our island adventure was coming to an end, we proposed a fitting finale to our adventure to take place at a seafood restaurant where we could all dine on “spiny crayfish”, the Caribbean equivalent of a U.S. lobster, as our treat. Isabella insisted that we must try Bacalaitos Fritos as an appetizer – these are a fritter made with dried salt cod, or bacalao, long a famous ingedient in Caribbean cooking – why?, I sure don’t know – my guess is that it’s a Spanish influence.
The spiny crayfish I don’t remember as especially great, but I shall always remember the Bacalaitos Fritos. Here’s a recipe so you can try this Puerto Rican specialty too
1/4 lb. bacalao (dried salt cod)
3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 tsp. salt, or to taste
3/4 cup water
1 garlic clove
2 Tbs. chopped cilantro
1 envelope sazón seasoning, or sub a Tbs. or two of sofrito
Pepper to taste
Oil for frying
Cut the bacalao in chunks, place in a pot, cover with water and boil for 15 minutes.
Drain, cool, debone, and shred.
In a bowl, combine flour, salt and baking powder.
Make a little well in the center. Pour the water slowly and mix to make a thick batter.
Add the pepper and sazón or sofrito and stir well.
Chop the garlic and cilantro leaves. Add to the mix.
Add the shredded bacalao and mix well.
In a frying or sauce pan, pre-heat a cup or two of oil.
Fry the bacalaitos on high heat by dropping big spoonfuls in hot oil.
Turn as needed.
Bacalaitos are done when they are golden.
Drain in paper towels and let them cool before biting into them.