No picnic in the park

How hard can it be to organise a “culinary excursion”? Franka Philip finds out

Curry prepared in a Dutch pot. Photograph by David WearOur intrepid author, Franka Philip, prepares tamarind pork. Photograph by David Wears

If you drive along one of Trinidad’s highways early on the morning of a weekend or public holiday, then you’re bound to pass people on a bus going on an excursion.

They’re easy to spot. The bus is usually gaudily painted, and has a name like “Big Daddy” or “De Revolution”. Then there’s the loud music — usually soca or dancehall — blaring out of the speakers, and a load of people on board clearly having a good time.

A successful excursion must be at a faraway place (beaches and rivers are preferred) with an interesting mix of people, plenty drinks, and, of course, great food.

I’ve been on several memorable excursions, and have always been intrigued by the exotic stuff that comes out of people’s baskets and coolers. So, in a desire to get some friends together around food in a different way, I decided to throw my own excursion.

It started with this Facebook status update in late May: “So I’ve decided to do it true Trini style and have an excursion. But this ain’t no ordinary excursion, it’s a Culinary Excursion. If you’re coming, you have to make something great. I envisage meat, vegetarian, vegan, fish, wild meat (legally caught, of course), punch for the back, and lots more. Who’s in???” Within a few short hours of that posting, my partners-in-crime Jenelle and Nicole jumped on the idea. We set Sunday 1 July as the date, and I let my imagination run wild about what I wanted this excursion to be.

First we needed a venue: would it be a beach or a river? How far would people be willing to venture? Jenelle, who has extensive knowledge of Trinidad’s exotic spots, led me to a slice of heaven in Valencia, north-east Trinidad.

Bright and early one Saturday morning, we made the pre-excursion trek to the Valencia Nature Centre and Heritage Park — and found the gates shut tight. Our hearts sank. And it didn’t help that we lost our mobile phone signal too.

Determined to have a look, we drove back a couple of miles and, when we picked up the signal again, called and spoke to the owner, Trevor, who was more than willing to give us an impromptu tour of the place, even though we didn’t have an appointment. It was hard not to be totally in awe of the lush, verdant, gorgeous property set on more than twenty acres of land — with a river running through it, a waterfall, a small petting farm, six or seven horses, and, most crucially, three outdoor kitchens on the river bank.

I visualised the scene: a bunch of happy people being enchanted by the aroma of a well-spiced curry bubbling in huge Dutch pots — the norm for what Trinidadians call a “river cook.” We sought advice from event-planning guru Randy, who christened the event Cuisine Cruisin’. To get the food aspect right, I picked the brain of top chef Debbie Sardinha-Metivier, who even suggested we make it a competitive event.

After considering the permutations and combinations — and taming my imagination — we decided to get two good friends who happen to be top cooks to prepare a selection of meat on the day, and we asked our “cruisers” to bring their best side dishes. Michael was tasked with creating exotic barbecue sauces to accompany chicken and fish, while Dane would throw down a mean curry goat. Not wanting to be left out, I opted to show off my skills with a special pork dish.

Cuisine Cruisin’ was never going to be about making heaps of money. We wanted to keep the ethos of a great day out with a bunch of friends who all share the love of food, so we charged a reasonable fee that covered transport to and from the venue, a t-shirt, lots of meat, and the cost of renting our gorgeous venue.

In the days leading up to Cuisine Cruisin’, there were a lot of excited posts on the Facebook event page by “cruisers” boasting about the dishes they’d be cooking, and banter about some people’s culinary skills, or lack thereof. The excitement was palpable.

While Jenelle and Nicole were confident everything would be all right, I was a ball of worry. One night, I jumped out of my sleep during a horrible dream about lost meat! A dream that was certainly prompted by the sad realisation that my search for a meat smoker had failed. I had my heart set on creating some theatre by showing off perfectly smoked pork shoulder, shredding it, mixing the meat with a spicy sauce, then serving it in crusty rolls to the folks who I knew would be dribbling for a taste. Imagine my dismay at trying to find a substitute pork dish at the last minute that was easy to cook and that would blow everyone’s socks off.

More panic and the urge for a strong drink set in on the Friday night, when Nicole called and said the company printing the t-shirts had some problems — but “don’t worry, we’ll get them on Saturday.”

Then on Saturday afternoon Michael, who was prepping the barbecued chicken, called to say he had the wrong chicken parts. Instead of taking legs and thighs, he mistakenly took the twenty pounds of breasts and wings meant for Dane, who was cooking the curry. With steam coming out of my ears, how I didn’t cuss like a sailor at that moment is a miracle. I simply prayed the t-shirts would be ready in time, and told Michael he’d have to make the breasts work on the grill.

When Sunday dawned with brilliant sunshine, I rejoiced. The bus left Port of Spain a bit late, but everyone on board was excited and ready to partake in the fun. There was no shortage of food and drinks. Our friend Halcian later described the scene: “You ever see so much food that you make your stomach stretch out a little more just to try to accommodate everything you want to taste? It was that kind of spread. Everybody got to choose from dishes that ran the gamut. I’m talking corn pie, steamed cassava, callaloo, coo-coo, green fig salad, geera pork, an apple, cranberry and candied walnut salad, pineapple chow, orange chow, sliced zaboca, macaroni salad . . . and that was just a few dishes alone.”

A great time was had by all. It was a joy to see people making new friends, exchanging food tips, and eating themselves happy. And what of my cameo dish? I listened to my friend Karel, who suggested I cook tamarind pork. I created a pot of spicy, sticky, fragrant, and ultimately triumphant porkiness.

At the end of the day, many of the fifty-strong crew who ventured to Valencia were asking for an encore. So we’re already planning the second edition of Cuisine Cruisin’ for later this year. I think we might be on to something!