Provisioning in Puerto Rico
If you enjoy scavenger hunts, you would love grocery shopping in foreign ports.
As with any scavenger hunt, you begin with a list. Start with the staples: beans, rice, soup, pasta, peanut butter, cookies, crackers, cereal. Now add fresh fruit and veggies: tomatoes, apples, citrus, eggplant, lettuce. Finish with snacks and treats: chocolate, pretzels, wine and beer. Don’t bother listing specific brands—half the adventure lies in sampling new ones—and allow yourself plenty of time to ponder over odd-looking produce. You’re creative, right? There must be some way to use it in a meal.
Now dig out your knapsack and/or green bags and head to the store. Most often this will mean walking, sometimes a mile or more, but you get to explore along the way. Since it’s imperative to keep up your strength on the journey, be sure to fortify yourself any time you pass a bakery or, miracle of miracles on a hot day, an ice cream vendor. Other times you may be lucky and have Uber in your area, or a cheap local bus or taxi. In some places, friendly locals will spot you trudging along the road and generously offer you a ride.
“Look at those idiots hiking in the blazing sun,” they are probably thinking. “Even if they make it to the store without dropping dead of heatstroke, how do they think they’re going to carry thirty pounds of canned goods back to their boat?”
Finally, you reach your destination and begin roaming the aisles, providing the store is large enough to have “aisles” at all. In truly out-of-the-way places, you scan the shelves in a single room. For Eric and me, being vegetarian adds another layer of challenge to our provisioning. On the smaller islands in the Bahamas, for example, the supply ship carrying fresh produce comes only once a week, and the quantity and variety of food it delivers is limited. If you’re not in the store within 24 hours of the ship’s arrival, there may be nothing left but a few onions and potatoes. In such instances, it makes you all the more grateful to pounce upon the one green pepper or lonely grapefruit.
Yet small stores can contain big treasures. Take Bahama bread. We first discovered it in a one-oven bakery on Bimini. On other islands, it is hand-baked by women in their kitchens and sold to you at their front door. We found three varieties—white, whole wheat and coconut—and it comes out of the oven so hot, it will singe your fingers. The texture is cake-like, and the smell is heavenly. One morning I made French toast for breakfast with the coconut bread. We topped it with sliced bananas and real maple syrup, and it was rapturous.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, to encounter a supermarket of American proportions is like entering the Magic Kingdom. Dazzled by the tiers of cans, bottles and boxes, the cornucopia of colorful produce and the chilled dairy cases, you can wander for an hour, scrutinizing labels and reading ingredients, reveling in the array of choices. At our current marina in Puerto Rico, we are exceptionally spoiled. Not only are there four major supermarkets within five miles, another sailing couple permanently berthed here has given us the use of their car. It’s all we can do to restrain ourselves from stocking up on everything in sight.
But now comes the dilemma: Do you buy six cans of the canned tofu—a rare find near the end of your stay in the Dominican Republic—only to discover once you’re at sea that you’ve spent thirty dollars on inedible mush? Or do you buy one, try it and like it immensely, then find the canned tofu is sold out on your next visit to the store? And what about those foods that bear no label at all? Like “mystery cheese,” also first discovered on Bimini in the freezer of a small grocery store. Cut in irregular sizes, these cellophane-wrapped orange blocks come with a price sticker and nothing more.
“What kind of cheese is this?” I asked the bored clerk, holding it out for her inspection.
“I don’t know.”
“It looks like it might be cheddar.”
“I don’t know.”
“Where does it come from?”
“The United States.”
Okay, that’s a start, and it was stored in a freezer. Also in its favor, the price for what I estimated to be one-pound block—the price sticker didn’t give a weight or price per pound—was quite reasonable. More to the point, it was the only cheese I’d found on the island at all. Be brave, be bold! Mystery cheese, which we continued to encounter throughout the Bahamas, proved to be bland but adequate when we couldn’t find anything better.
So overall, I’d say we are eating well, and occasionally we have scored real treasures. Juicy purple plums from the US at a price less than they would cost stateside. An unknown brand of tabouli, on clearance at twenty-five cents a box and very tasty. We also learned there are some foods we can do without entirely. Ranch dressing is a great substitute for sour cream, and no, you don’t have to refrigerate your condiments. Plantains are a nice change from potatoes.
Best of all, these grocery scavenger hunts provide us with exercise and entertainment, expose our palates to new taste sensations, and inspire culinary ingenuity. Please note I did not say “culinary success.” Some of my experiments with that odd-looking produce have ended miserably. Nevertheless, it’s back to the store for the next great scavenger hunt find. After all, you didn’t really sail all this way just to eat the same foods you did back in the USA, did you?