From the story Cooking With Donna
It took me 30 years as a travel editor — best job in the world, everyone said — to realize how much distaste I had for vacations. Not travel. Vacations. So I might not have been the best person to write a magazine article about Mustique, a private Caribbean island in the chain of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Luxury villas for rent on Mustique came staffed with enough servants to ensure that you, the master of the house for a week or two, had absolutely nothing to do except loaf on the beach or sip cocktails made by someone else while waiting until dinner was ready.
I have never cared much about landing at JFK with a tan. I like to come home smarter than I was before I left. Speaking a little better Spanish. Understanding a little more clearly how Parisians manage to look so chic, even when taking out the trash. Bearing a new recipe — always a recipe, for food is the key to culture, the easiest way into a relationship with folks you've yet to meet.
But Mustique, where everyone speaks English and where having servants is the very idea of the place, happened to be the assignment at hand. I had to make the best of it, so I came up with a plan. Among the staff at Sapphire, my five-room manse overlooking the sea, which so far I had seen only in a brochure, would be a cook. I would befriend that cook and break down the barrier that put her in a white uniform and me in shorts and a T-shirt. I would hang out with her. She would teach me to cook, to cook Caribbean.
The dinner bell told a different story.
I arrived at Sapphire in one of the ubiquitous Kawasaki Mules — a motorized vehicle that's bigger than a golf cart but not as sturdy as a Jeep — that every renter on the island is given after landing at the airport. My "staff" were dutifully lined up, waiting to greet me as a I drove past the gates: two gardeners, with whom I would have very little to do during my week's stay, busy as they were puttering around the lavish grounds; two maids — Pearl and Pat — both of whom would become pals, at least for a week; and Donna Jacobs, who ended up a friend.
It's hard to settle into a villa meant for parties of six, seven, eight or more when you're only one person. It's difficult to relax.
I broke the ice with the worst kind of small talk, mentioning to Pearl, the matriarch of the group, that it had been raining on Barbados when we changed planes. "Did it rain here?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," she said, "the rain, it came down." Ah, that lovely, lilting Caribbean way of phrasing. Islanders always seem to add a dash of sunshine to their speech, making English sound almost musical — no mean feat for what is not the most melodious language on the planet. I was starting to melt. Could the ice be far behind?
I took my seat in the formal dining room, so beautiful and shimmering in candlelight but also open to the breezes swirling through the house. The room was off a central courtyard filled with exotic plants and trees, where birds and butterflies swooped and soared with no regard for man-made boundaries. The warm moist air turned the rambling house sultry, a tropical Wuthering Heights above the sea, open to nature's seduction.
"Here is the bell, to ring when you want your next course," Pat told me, attempting to hand over a dainty little glass ornament that would have looked more at home in a Park Avenue dining room than on a sunny Caribbean estate. At first, I laughed without meaning to. Then I balked, and stood up, pushed my chair under the table and marched directly into the uncharted territory of the kitchen.
Donna was stirring the contents of a pot on the stove. I approached, picked up the lid, and said, "What's for dinner?"
William Sertl is former travel editor of Gourmet. Permission to publish granted by Lonely Planet.
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