Bob Weibel - An Uncertain Feast

Nothing changes your attitude toward food more than the lack of it. So the standout meal of my life happened to have been shared with my two other "crew" members on a mishap-ridden, nearly ill-fated, frightening and totally wonderful adventure sailing to Lighthouse Caye 60 miles off the shores of Belize, on the Caribbean coast of Central American. The 18-foot sloop I'll describe as rickety, designed for Sunday outings on peaceful suburban lakes, not island hopping during the Caribbean winter season with its sharp, cold "Norther" winds beating down unexpectedly, nor fit for the Chubascos, small cyclical storms about 5-10 miles in diameter, mini-hurricanes of which up to 10 might be skudding around between the Mosquito Coast and the Gulf of Honduras.

You can see where this is going. Having practically crash landed on Lighthouse Caye, in those days--about 20 years ago--populated only by the lighthouse keeper and colony of Booby birds, we enjoyed some days of balmy paradise, eating conch and lobster fetched from the corals of the shallow lagoon, and frying snapper and grouper harpooned with spear guns from the deep brain-coral grottoes on the ocean side of the caye. But the weather turned miserable, cold, rainy, and windy, and though I'd often slept out nights in the warm rains wrapping myself in a plastic pancho, still cozy in a hammock, this series of storms left my girlfriend and I huddling in the ruins of the original light keeper's house by night, while our "captain" kept watch in the sloop.

Basically, we couldn't fish, and we couldn't get warm. I wandered around wearing a thin wet suit jacket, but without sweaters or jackets, the cold took its toll. We rationed the food we'd brought, but a sorry pancake or two didn't last you long in that vigorous environment. And while we gnawed on coconut, there's a limit to how much of this oily sawdust your system will tolerate, and we took to chewing it and spitting it out.

After maybe two days the sun shone again, but the wind remained intense and chilly, and "la mar"-the feminized rendering of normally correct "el mar" that the local Spanish speakers gave the sea when it acted up-looked tough and dangerous, whipped with chop and swells, and in a weakened and cold state, it was the last thing you felt like jumping into. But after several more hours of misery, hunger overrode my resistance, and I started strapping on my gear to battle it out on the ocean side to see if I could get some fish, which also meant going it alone, since my partners just weren't physically up for it. There's a particular feeling of awe, and not necessarily pleasant, when the elements leave you no particular guarantee for your survival, and you have to steel down and trust luck and whatever skill you feel you can muster.

With great luck I found a large grouper lurking in grotto not more than a couple of hundred feet from shore, a ten or twenty-pounder. And after 15 minutes of repeated dives to finally extract it from the cave I had it in my bag, and I was so excited that I felt none of the chill, dread, and fatigue, I'd felt earlier. I understood, then, why hunter-gathers had celebrated after the hunt, when there was finally some certainty of food, and all was well, at least for awhile.

George, our one-eyed captain, watched me filet it on a piece of driftwood, cutting away the visible parasites in the meat, and slicing steaks to the dimensions he requested. To this day my nickname for George is "Golden Fry," given that on this trip he spent the evenings perfecting his fish frying technique, heating coconut oil and experimenting with different flour dips and batters on the funky propane gas ring on board. Patty, meanwhile, had managed to build a wind shelter in order to keep a fragile gasoline stove ignited for the hours in took to boil some beans and rice—a big pot, when it was all finished.

So as the sun was setting, the wind died down. We made cocktails from fresh oranges and the last of the Belizean rum. Huddled down in the greasy cabin George fussed up the heat for the coconut oil. Perhaps giddy from the fast I recall that the world simply sparkled. And then there was George, handing up the crisp, golden grouper, with a look of modest pride and satisfaction that said, "Yes, this is the fry-up of my dreams! I can die now."

But we waited, and all started eating together, sort of by instinct. And the thing that I find so remarkable to this day is that when we each finished the first heap of fish and rice and beans, George dipped back down and prepared more of the same, and we ate a second heap, and then a third, and I'm thinking possibly a moderate fourth-essentially four large dinners at one sitting-bellies ridiculously distended. It's as though after many days battling storms and doldrums and midnight groundings in uncharted waters and failed rigging, essentially hunting and gathering for the mainstay of our food all that time, that our bodies had moved into hunter-gather mode, the rhythm of the uncertain feast. This is suggested by a certain other story told to me by a South African friend, who related how the Bushmen of the Kalihari, after stalking a giraffe for days without eating would then gorge on the kill, to the extent that to sleep, they'd have to dig holes in the ground into which they'd flop their ballooned stomachs in order lie down. We were sort of like that.

Bob Weibel

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