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Bahamian Soup Customs

Like all island states in the Caribbean region, the Bahamas have their own distinctive cuisine. Although they share most ingredients with their island neighbors--from new world foods...to the bounty of the sea...to African imports brought by slaves...and to ingredients and foodways brought by successive waves of European conquerers, colonizers, and taskmasters--their own specific history has produced unique dishes, tastes, seasonings, and soups.

It all started with the native Arawak Indians, who themselves likely migrated to the Bahamas from Mexico and the southern United States. They were raising corn, cassava, and yams when they welcomed Columbus in October 1492 at his first landfall on what he called San Salvador--and for their troubles were enslaved by later Spaniards and taken to goldmines elsewhere in the Caribbean. During Spain's brief possession of the islands, sugarcane was introduced, leading inevitably to rum. And so too were the first slaves from West Africa, who arrived with okra, pigeon peas, plaintains, taro, and breadfruit. In no time, potatoes migrated from South America, and cocoa, chayote, avocado, and papaya arrived from Mexico.

British pilgrims arrived in the 1600s to largely uninhabited islands--and they staked a formal claim in 1717, mostly uncontested, though Spanish pirates left them always on their guard. It was after the American Revolutionary War that British Loyalists fled from their U.S. plantations with their slaves and settled mostly on Grand Bahama Island and New Provincetown. Slavery was abolished in 1833...and power was gradually transferred to the island government until the Bahamas were granted independence in 1973.

Out of this history, Bahamians developed a spicy cuisine but a curiously English one. Roasted and grilled meats and fish. Side dishes. Casseroles. Pasties. Fish for breakfast. Tarts and bread puddings for dessert. Sames kinds of dishes, just different stuff in them. Like conch, for instance. In her How to be a True-True Bahamian, Patricia Glinton-Meicholas talks about the mystical regard in which conch is held, admitting it "most likely enjoys high favor because of its reputation as an enhancer of male potency. In local terms, 'conch does gi'e man strong back.'" And the seasonings of the dishes, also different: "over the hill" style, or filled with spices, chilies, tomatoes, and thyme.

Soups, now: they're quite distinctive.

There's "boil' fish" for breakfast: "a kind of bouillabaise made by boiling firm-fleshed fish (preferably grouper) in water with salt pork, onions, and seasonings. Sometimes potatoes are added, and the dish is always accompanied by plain grits or johnny cake. ...Just as other nationalities have their 'pubs' or 'locals,' the Bahamian, from the lowest to the greatest, has his favorite boil' fish fish hangout, where he goes most weekends to eat substantial portions of this dish and discuss politics and sports."

How about for lunch and dinner? Ms. Glinton-Meicholas says, "From those peas and beans and other vegetables, such as okra, we make soups that are heavy enough with meats, vegetables, and dumplings to anchor cruise ship." And it's true. I saw them for sale in bakeries and supermarkets, with people lined up at the door to get them dished up. Outside of some light "first course" soups at restaurants, like the classic Conch Soup, true Bahamian soups are one-pot meals: Seafood and conch chowders thick with vegetables. Vegetable soups, dark and rich with pounds of meat in them. And the national soup--Pigeon Pea Soup with Dumplings--I'm here to testify that it could definitely anchor cruise ship, and in the best sense of the word.

Then there's "souse"--a kind of one pot meal that people make at home, especially on weekends, that takes the least amount of trouble for the most amount of food. Just stick a cut up chicken or fish in a pot with lots of vegetables and water and let it boil til it's done. The point here is that you don't want to be spending a lot of time in the kitchen when you could be relaxing and having fun.

Okay, one last soup--again from the wonderful True True Bahamian that discusses the dreaded "cuckoo soup," a love potion "whose efficacy depends on the addition of certain body fluids. The saying goes that a dose of this broth can make you fall in love with and want to marry the rear end of an elephant. ...My mother tells the story of a young man who was invited to lunch and given a dish of okra soup. Not wishing to offend, he took it but flung the soup out a window at first chance. One of the family pigs ate it, and within minutes was running about wildly shouting 'I want to get married. I want to get married.'" No recipe for this that I've found yet....