The Spice Necklace
By: Ann Vanderhoof
2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When I was growing up, there was a special tradition that has disappeared in the light of modern technology. Called the “vacation slideshow”, friends and family would sit in a dimly lit room while the returned vacationers would subject them to the story of their trip, organized around what they chose to photograph. The Spice Necklace is not an academic work. It isn’t a cookbook, and it isn’t a travelogue. Instead it reads like a family member’s vacation slideshow, meandering freely around time and locations, loosely united by edible themes.
Author Ann Vanderhoof and her husband Steve are Canadian professionals who save up for a few years, then spend a few years cruising the Caribbean in their yacht, The Receto. Yes, Receto is Spanish for recipe, and culinary exploration seems to be the couple’s motivating force. Ann takes it upon herself to befriend locals on her favorite islands, watching in the kitchens and studying dishes and their preparation. Most of the chapters have a general food based theme, such as goat, rum, or a specific spice.
The interesting thing about these themes is that they are not selected based on the sort of patterns an anthropologist would usually apply. The history, economy, and traditions of the islands emerge only incidentally. Her choices seem to be based on when her taste intersected with her experiences. An ongoing joke through the book is her fruitless search for goat cheese; if it had been encountered, it probably would have had a chapter of its very own.
Most chapters tell the tale of how the author came across a dish and how it is made; and at the end of the chapter are a few recipes related to the ingredients or dishes that had been discussed. Authenticity to island cooking is not a significant concern in the recipes. Although the meals are usually based on what she saw, the recipes are for the actual dishes as she cooks them on the boat. This is what makes the book interesting. It isn’t an ethnography of the island people, but sort of a first-person accidental ethnography of the life and culture of the “Yachties”, the North Americans who live on their boats and wander the islands.
Anthropologists tend to study the people of other nations, and typically those people who are overlooked in their own culture, the residents of the fringes. From my somewhat staid Midwestern perspective, the Yachties are a fascinating subculture, totally new to me. Ann and Steve frequently share meals and adventures with other Yachties, who seem to all be middle class Anglophone North Americans. The term “authentic” carries a lot of baggage with it, but I will go ahead and say the recipes in the book represent authentic Yachtie cuisine. Many of the recipes were developed by other boat residents and shared with Ann. They are not recipes strictly adapted to the common tastes of Americans and Canadians, but you can see where inclusions and omissions have slightly altered the food to suite the author. For instance, Ann was raised kosher, so salt pork has been replaced with other meats; lettuce is often omitted, because it would not keep well on the boat; coconut is often replaced because Steve doesn’t really care for it in desserts.
I do not mean to imply that this book is dull, although it is slightly self-indulgent; Ann Vanderhoof is as clear and concise a writer as her background in magazine editing would suggest. It is simply a series of anecdotes, designed to make the reader think “I wish I was there”. The author does not have any grand, life-changing realizations; no shocking new histories of the islands are revealed; no academic theories are posited or challenged. It is a simple, honest tale of a couple who love food and boating, and how they spent almost three years enjoying both. I would suggest this book for someone who is interested in trying new spices or island style cooking. Rather than the recipes lending a little sparkle to the text, it really works the other way around in this book. The recipes are the outcome- the preceding chapter gives the significance of the recipe, why it was selected, why it is meaningful to the author, and how it represents the visitor’s experience in Grenada, Trinidad, or one of the many other islands they visited. The recipes sound interesting on their own: Lambi Fritters, Saltfish Buljol, Miss Pat’s Pepper Shrimp, Carnival Corn Soup, etc; but to read about the authors first experience enjoying them, and her pleasure in re-creating them made me desperate to taste the foods so lovingly detailed. The Spice Necklace is not a great work of literature, but it is one of the best, most unusually designed cookbooks I have ever read.