by Celeste Brash
Her spirits rose with the dough.
Mama Rose impaled the coconut onto the wooden spike making a tear in the husk. Self-rolled cigarette hanging out the corner of her mouth, she continued with ease, lifting, turning and thrusting the coconut on the spike till the husk fell away. Inside was a newborn, white nut with brown hairs. Picking up a cleaver she motioned for me to come look. She sat on a coconut wood stool, placed a large bowl between her ankles and then pointed at the three eyes at the top of the coconut. She drew an imaginary line with the cleaver across the three eyes. She lifted the cleaver, lowered it gently to position, raised it again then clack! With one whack the coconut split in half, the water falling into the bowl.
In the Tuamotu atolls of French Polynesia everything is done from scratch. If you want dinner you have to go fishing; even for a glass of water, rain is collected since there are no mountains, rivers, valleys or potable groundwater in the arid atolls. This day we were baking coconut bread and, in a land of some of the most capable people on Earth, I was learning from the master.
I had been living on Ahe atoll in French Polynesia for nearly two months. I had come in hopes of learning some lessons abut hard work and self-sufficiency, to live with my boyfriend who was helping his father start a black pearl farm. Ahe was an isolated place: it was a two-day boat trip from Tahiti, had no roads, no phones and only one store in the tiny village. Our farm was on an islet that was a wet and bumpy half hour boat ride from the village, which we rarely went to, and I was the only woman living among six work obsessed men. Lacking the physical strength of a man, I had been unable to feel useful in the workplace, diving and hauling oysters. I had felt that my femininity was a hindrance to myself and to my coworkers. Although I had always considered myself a strong, capable person, the vastness of the lagoon, the starkness of the land and the lack of female counter parts on the farm made me feel frail and lonely. Mama Rose, who sold oysters to my boyfriend’s father, seemed to sense my dis-ease and had started inviting my boyfriend and me to spend weekends with her at her house on an idyllic islet about ten minutes boat ride from our farm. Slowly, she was teaching me how to survive in a predominantly masculine environment that, before I met her, had seemed devoid of softness.
So it was that I visited her on a Saturday morning after she promised to teach me to bake coconut bread. Rose met me on her dock while her husband, my boyfriend and a few workers from our farm went back out onto the lagoon to go fishing. She was dressed in a faded purple pareu that was rolled at the waist so that the hem touched slightly above her coffee colored knees. In a gesture of misunderstood religious prudishness, she wore a sexy black lace bra, at least one size too small, to cover her matronly breasts. Naked or in a nuns habit she would have maintained the same self-assured, natural manner in movement and attitude.
We walked along her white beach to her house: the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom were constructed separately into three small, wooden structures with tin roofs. It was there that my lesson about coconuts began, culminating in the pitiless husking procedure.
Once we had husked and cracked several more coconuts, (I managed to fumble through one) Mama Rose brought us to two coconut stools positioned at the blue lagoon’s edge in the shade of a large leafy tree. A contraption that looked like a wooden cutting board with a round, serrated metal disk at the end was on each stool. She straddled hers.
“You, there,” she said pointing at the other stool.She spoke French, Tahitian, the local Paumotu dialect and a little English. I spoke limited French. What we couldn’t learn about each other through words became irrelevant as the time we passed together, always working towards the same goal, created a bond like I had never experienced in Western society. Our time and labor were being thrown in a bowl creating an unusual recipe for friendship that I was finding delicious.
As if, with the coconut carnage over, we could relax a little, she rolled another cigarette and smiled at me, exposing her perfect white teeth. They glinted in a sunray and made me think that she blended perfectly into the sand and shimmering lagoon. I wondered how old she was; she could have been anywhere from thirty-five to fifty.
“Coco many work,” she said.
“Yes,” I said remembering that it had taken some time just to collect the coconuts along her palm-planted white sand beach. They needed to have fallen to the ground but not be rotted or sprouted. We had tested them by shaking them; if they were filled with water they were still fresh.
With another smile that made me feel like I had actually been helpful, Mama Rose picked up half a coconut and slowly, to show me, began to grate it against the serrated disk. Once I had more or less figured out the circular, two handed grating technique, Rose picked up speed, eventually grating eight or more halves in the time it took me to grate two.
“Now my kitchen,” she said lifting her bowl full of grated coconut while I picked up my nearly empty one.
Her kitchen was a small, square, plywood structure painted turquoise. The wood windows were propped open from the bottom letting in a slight breeze and a view of the lagoon. We put our bowls on the plastic table and Rose pulled out two gauzy dishrags and a smaller bowl. She put a large handful of grated coconut into one of the rags and squeezed it tight so the milk strained out into the small bowl. I tried mine, not getting out nearly as much milk but feeling a deep satisfaction of actually having produced coconut milk. It was almost like having learned how to turn water into wine.
Rose pulled out two boxes of “Paradise” brand flour, a sac of instant yeast, some sugar, salt and a bottle of oil. Making the rest of the morning’s work look like a slow motion scene in an action flick, she threw together these ingredients along with the coconut milk, some coconut water and a few handfuls of un-squeezed grated coconut, making sure I could see how much of each she used.
She then turned the dough out onto a large coconut wood cutting board and began to knead. The billowing dough mimicked the soft fullness of Mama Rose’s belly, arms and breasts while it’s sallow cream color contrasted her healthy bronze skin. She moved rhythmically in an ellipse, forward and down, back and up, her movements graceful and strong. After a few minutes she stepped aside offering me a try. I imagined myself as I had seen her, confidently pushing the dough, but instead it was sticky on my hands and I felt like I was out of time with the silent music that she had been dancing to. Still, I continued, closing my eyes and listening to the breeze and gentle waves on the nearby shore. When I opened my eyes, Mama Rose was looking at me with her brilliant smile.
“You make good cooking you,” she said as if I had discovered some secret.
We finished kneading and let the dough rise in a bowl covered with a dishrag.
While waiting for the dough to rise, Rose made us some coffee and we tidied up her kitchen then put some rice and water in a pot to prepare for lunch. She was in constant movement; there was always work to be done but it never felt rushed or unpleasant, just natural. It was as if we should feel lucky to have such pleasant work at our disposal.We shaped the dough into five loaves and set them aside for a second rise.
Rose handed me a rake and we raked the leaves around her kitchen. Then we went and took her laundry down from the line and folded it.
The bread had risen high and firm above the edge of the bread pans. We put them into her heated oven and then sat down to drink some water while Rose lit another cigarette. The perfume of sweet coconut and fresh bread filled the kitchen and made me feel hungry. From the window I could see the men coming in from the lagoon from fishing.
As the men approached the kitchen, the bread was just coming out of the oven. We had no idea how long they would be gone, but somehow Mama Rose had it timed perfectly.
The look of delight on the shivering men’s faces at the warm scent of the bread made Rose glow. It was then that I realized how important this “women’s work” was, not just for the men but for the sanity of us all. Our bread was a jewel in the crown, the pillow under the head, the pleasure of life that was needed to keep the balance and make life on the island go on. Together with the men, we fried up the fish and set the table, starting our meal with the warm, soft, sweet bread.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Celeste Brash lived and worked as a cook on Kamoka Pearl Farm on Ahe atoll for five years. She now lives on the island of Tahiti with Josh—now her husband—and their two children. She works as as a Lonely Planet author and freelance writer and still bakes bread whenever she can find the time. This story won the Silver Award for Travel and Food in the First Annual Solas Awards. It also appeared in the Travelers’ Tales books 30 Days in the South Pacific, and The World Is a Kitchen.
About Editors’ Choice:
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