(The following story appeared in Islands magazine and is included in GUT CHECK: Adventures in eating, drinking and wretched excess.)
I am driving north along the leeward coast of St. Vincent and, like always when I am cruising around a Caribbean island where bananas and breadfruit dangle from trees, chickens and goats feed freely along the road, and the air is made luscious by greasy good things roasting over open fires, I am hungry, looking for a place to eat.
On any other occasion this would not present a problem. But today is October 27, Independence Day for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and in every village and hamlet, from Kingstown to Clare Valley through Pembroke, Layou and Mt. Wynn, shops and restaurants are closed so Vincentians can celebrate in proper fashion. Marching bands play tunes that definitely are not Sousa. Schoolchildren in blue-and-white uniforms sing happy songs. Big families tote baskets and coolers and blankets for picnics on the beach.
By the time I roll into Barrouallie (rhymes with merrily), I am barely able to concentrate on much beyond my growling gut. I pull alongside a policeman and ask if there’s anywhere, anywhere, a starving man can find a bite to eat. He points to a weathered wood building just down the street.
“Shabba’s place,” the policeman says. “He’s usually got something cooking.”
Shabba’s place is your basic island rum shop. A half dozen empty stools at a paint-peeled counter, bottles on shelves behind it. To one side, a stocky, 50ish man stirs a big aluminum pot on a gas stove. Shabba himself.
I ask what’s on the menu. He nods at the pot.
“All I got is blackfish,” he says.
“Then that’s what I’ll have.”
Shabba ladles out a steaming bowlful and slides it in front of me. Big chunks of meat in a thin, oily broth, along with yams and cassava. I take a couple of bites. A bit bland for my taste, but not bad. It’s blistering hot and needs to cool off before I can really enjoy it.
“So, what’s blackfish anyway?” I ask Shabba, thinking maybe it’s bonito because the meat is so dark.
“You know, mon, it’s the big fish. The blackfish.” Shabba points to the back door. “Fishermen out there right now cleaning some, if you want to see.”
I step to the door and look out to the beach. A dozen fishermen work with shiny knives, their catch stretched out on the sand. One of the carcasses has been stripped clean. But the other two are largely intact.
Blackfish are big all right. The ones I’m looking at are almost 20 feet long.
Meaning: Whale meat.
Meaning: I’ve just swallowed some.
ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES might well be the loveliest string of islands in these parts, save for the fact it’s the only Caribbean nation that allows whaling. Two days earlier I had been on Bequia, where the entrance to the Whale Boner Bar is marked by an arch of two whale ribs and patrons sit in whale-vertebrae chairs. Bequia natives are permitted to kill up to two humpback whales each year, using traditional whaling methods—sailboats and hand-thrown harpoons. In the waters off Petit Nevis, where Bequian whalers render their catch, I had snorkeled over the 40-foot-long skeleton of a humpback that was killed only a few weeks earlier. That had been troubling enough, but to learn now that I am lunching on leviathan?
The whales I’m looking at are short-finned pilot whales. Their skin is shiny black with a patch of white on their bellies. Even dead, they look as if they are smiling at secrets known only to them.
Part of me wants to get in my car and drive off. But the other part of me, the part that always wins, can’t look away.
I join the men on the beach. They are laughing and enjoying themselves. A Japanese wholesaler with an office on St. Vincent has already paid them cash, lots of it, for the three pilot whales. These whalers hunt from powerboats with harpoons fired from modified shotguns. Since short-finned pilot whales are officially categorized as “small whales” they fall outside the restrictions set down by the International Whaling Commission. The St. Vincent government doesn’t keep detailed records, but conservation groups claim the country’s whalers kill more than a hundred pilot whales each year, along with untold numbers of dolphins.
A couple of the men tend an oil-drum pot that rests atop a wood fire. I can smell the oil that’s bubbling in the pot—nutty, sweet. A big white bowl contains pieces of whale skin and one of the men drops a handful into the pot. It sizzles and pops.
It’s called “krips,” one of the men tells me. Whale skin cooked in whale oil and then sprinkled with salt. A delicacy on St. Vincent.
“You got the flu or a cold, you just eat some krips and you’ll be well again,” says the man.
He tells me he learned to hunt whales from his father who learned from his father “back into forever.”
“You American?” he asks.
“Americans don’t like it that we kill the blackfish,” he says. “But this is what we do in Barrouallie.” I don’t say anything. There’s really not anything to say. The worst travelers are those who inflict judgment on other cultures, no matter how jarring the contrasts.
BACK INSIDE SHABBA’S PLACE, Shabba stands behind the counter, a glass of rum in front of him. I sit down. I look at the bowl of blackfish.
Part of me wants to pay Shabba what I owe him and find lunch someplace else. But the other part of me thinks: When in Barrouallie…
I look at Shabba.
“Got any hot sauce?” I ask.