Food issues

I don’t think of myself as high maintenance, but rather mildly OCD. I like straight corners and tidy piles. And I like to know where my next meal is coming from.

I have often wondered where my obsession over future meals originated. I have pinpointed two reasons for this. First, I have two older brothers and growing up, we were always racing to the bottom…of the bowl. If I didn’t grab that extra slice of pizza, it would end up in John’s belly, not on my plate. When we had popsicles in the house, I would squirrel away one or two in the downstairs freezer, the one where Mom put up all her veggies for the winter in airtight plastic containers. I thought the white-sheathed popsicles would fade into the whiteness of the freezer but damn if my brothers didn’t ferret them out without comment.

When my parents split up when I was 12, groceries duties fell by the wayside and the cupboards became bare, except for an errant tube of barley soup starter that Dad liked to use.

But that was decades ago and I still eat my food too fast and while swallowing the last bite of my lunch, I’m already forecasting a dinner plan. As a privileged American, this is not usually a problem. Food is abundant, from stocked supermarkets to tasty takeout to fine dining.

The Cook Islands are another story. Located in the South Pacific (look at a globe, find Hawaii, and then trace a line south past the equator), it’s a popular vacation spot for New Zealanders. My partner Carl and I are on our second vacation on Aitutaki, the most beautiful of the islands, due to the large jaw-dropping lagoon that encircles it. For each trip, we have checked a bag full of food staples: microwavable rice packets, oatmeal, peanut butter, crackers, chocolate, olive oil, mayonnaise, tea and coffee, non-dairy creamer, gin, spices… This seems excessive but the “grocery stores” here are more like corner bodegas with erratic and limited supplies of fresh produce. One day you’ll nab a head of lettuce and that’s it: there’s nothing else to put in your salad. On our first trip, I bought a snack pack of nuts at the store, chopped them up, and sprinkled them on top of the greens. I thought I was a culinary wizard.

Initially, this scarcity of produce caused me agita. But I have learned to embrace the challenge of putting together a meal with limited ingredients, rather than dining at one of the few restaurants on the island. It’s basically a daily Top Chef challenge. Carl has gone deep-sea fishing a couple of times, bringing home a plastic bag of fresh tuna. We’ve grilled it simply, we marinated it in teriyaki sauce, and in the height of indulgence, Carl grilled the rest up and made the best tuna salad ever.

I scored some tomatoes and basil from Tauono’s, a garden market and café on the island owned by Sonja, an Austrian woman. There’s little to no dairy on Aitutaki because all the foodstuffs come over on container ships and dairy wouldn’t fare well. There are a few goats tied to palm trees but otherwise the only livestock on the island are pigs and free-range chickens who roam the beaches and cockadoodledoo all hours of the day and night. Anyway, I sliced those tomatoes, chopped some basil, drizzled olive oil and balsamic over the plate, sprinkled Italian seasoning, and had the healthiest “Caprese” salad in a 2,000-mile radius. Who needs fresh mozzarella?

Black Jack, the captain who takes Carl fishing, gave him a haunch of pork, hoof still attached. We popped it in the oven and roasted it low and slow, hoof poking out of the roasting pan. When that was done, Carl shredded it and made pulled pork. I took an eggplant I found at Sonja’s, diced it in large chunks and roasted it in a bit of the pork drippings. I diced a starfruit, added lime, red onion, and salt to make an island salsa. There was a milestone birthday celebration going on down the beach but the real party that night was in my mouth.

I feel like a French woman, letting the day’s offerings (as limited as they may be here) dictate the meal. But actually, maybe I’m just becoming an islander. I’m off to the store to see if I can get a red pepper (called capsicum here) before they run out. Maybe I can roast that with another eggplant tonight. I’m already thinking about dinner and it’s not even lunchtime yet. But at least I’m not panicked about it.

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