A growing obsession with food
Once the ferry leaves, Vaitupu is almost a closed system for another month. Except for fish, all food is now either packed into the shelves of the six little stores across the island, growing 20m up in the air or scampering through the underbrush foraging for scraps.
Our starting frame of reference is New World or Countdown – 20 isles filled with every conceivable packaged food, more than 100 different types of bread, fresh fruit and vegetables transported from every corner of the globe, a meat isle so large that the chicken section alone has 7 different flavours of skewers and the sausage section offers varieties as obscure as lamb with sage and fennel. With a plastic card we can walk out of that store with almost anything our heart desires. And then go back again tomorrow to find the empty slot on the shelf full again.
As our adventure stretches into week number three, we are like newborns having to rebuild our relationship with food. Where it comes from? How it gets to us? What our bodies need to run and jump and to concentrate on site measurement calculations and precision excavator driving?
Still waiting for our crates to arrive, we’ve been emptying the stores. There is a store which stocks tinned pineapple but there are only two tins left. Yesterday the island ran out of sugar. And I think I bought the last box of Weet-Bix on Friday. The shelves are thinning out but there is plenty of rice, palm oil and grape soda. There is also jam, Sao-like crackers, sweet biscuits, tomato sauce, soy sauce, tinned mackerels and corned beef. We cannot yet bring ourselves to eat the corned beef as it looks, smells and tastes exactly how I imagine cat food to be. And I cannot describe my excitement when I found I could buy onions and garlic – the starter and key flavouring in every meal since.
In our first days here, we treated ourselves to a sampling of the local food. A platter prepared by a local family filled with rice, breadfruit, cassava, fish and chicken, much of it cooked in generous amounts of oil. I couldn’t quite face day 3 of the same so we’ve since been trying to cook for ourselves, a task which has only been possible with the assistance of our fabulous house-frau, Lily.
Our staple dish is fried rice. Onion, garlic, rice, a tin of soggy mixed vegetables and lashings of soy sauce. It’s actually pretty good. As we start to navigate the pathways by which other food is procured, our menu expands. From the hidden freezers out the back of little stores, Lily has helped me to find chicken bits, pre-cooked pork sausages and a 2kg bag of the fattiest lamb chops I’ve ever seen in my life. BBQ’d with a side of fried rice and a glass of coconut water; we chewed every morsel off those bones in absolute silence.
Then there is tuna. If the weather is good, local fishermen will head out early and can be intercepted at the harbour about 7am. At $2/kg, the freshest tuna I’ve ever eaten is also the cheapest. We managed to get a 7kg tuna last week. Roger enjoyed every minute watching my butchering the poor thing into steaks. There was a handsaw involved. We were still eating tuna and breadfruit fishcakes 4 days later – Lily’s special recipe.
And so while the cupboards look bare, we are far from starving. Each new ingredient that we come across is worthy of celebration. There is bread baked on the island; “donuts” would be a more accurate description. The day I found a bottle of tomato sauce coincided with our first sampling of Lily’s fishcakes. Today I discovered the last jar of vegemite on the island and lunch was different to yesterday and the day before. You don’t need a brimming pantry afterall.
But what we crave more than anything else is fresh fruit and vegetables.
Last Wednesday Lily produced a pawpaw from her garden. I’d seen a few trees around and had been asking where I might buy one. Not easily it seems. That pawpaw tasted like a swig of cold beer after a long day herding sheep. And then on Friday she produced a bowl of bananas. We had these sliced on top of toasted slices of stale donut on Sunday morning and were sure we were brunching in a posh café in Ponsonby. And there was a cucumber for lunch in one of those early days after we arrived. I crunched it down without a thought and only now realise I should have savoured every bite.
Stuff does grow here but it’s just not available in neatly refrigerated supermarket isles. And it may not be simply a matter of money needed to acquire it.
Vaitupu is more fertile than I’d prepared myself for. It was described to me as a sand and coral atoll with little or no soil. But the vegetation is thick and lush, bursting with ferns and vines beneath a canopy of coconut trees, breadfruit and Pandanas palms. Beyond the main village where most people live in small concrete block houses, families own a “plantation” on which they grow coconuts. A very few families also grow pumpkin, capsicum, bananas, pawpaw and even tomatoes.