Book Review: The Spice Necklace, My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life

Caribbean, Travel Books & Movies — By on August 24, 2010 at 2:00 pm

The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life

by Ann Vanderhoof

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 2010, $25.00

Rating: 3.5 stars

Review by Lori Rice

When you open the cover of The Spice Necklace by Ann Vanderhoof and begin to read the pages within, don’t be surprised if a hint of envy starts to tug at you. Even if you’re not a sea lover, eager to set sail, you will fantasize about exploring the Caribbean by boat, without any land to ground you.

This memoir takes the reader on an expedition around the Carribean islands, as Vanderhoof and her husband, Steve, set sail on their boat,  Receta, to discover all things food. And if you feel you have a basic knowledge of Caribbean cuisine, as I did, and picture curry, coconut and bananas, prepare to be amazed.

Once you´re over your awe, you can share with friends and family by preparing one of the 71 Caribbean recipes featured in the book.

You almost taste the food as Vanderhoof describes goats of the Dominican Republic ,which need no spice because they spend their days grazing on oregano. You´ll have a newfound respect for nutmeg, and its importance to the people of Grenada, and chocolate won’t taste the same again after you read about the author´s experiences in Trinidad.

Vanderhoof´s culinary history lessons stir up emotions, you learn how spices, peppers and cocoa trees made their way to the island, and disappointment and sympathy ensue when you learn how hurricanes destroyed these crops so important to island life and economy. And when you witness how islanders have overcome these natural disasters, you´ll share their pride.

As a traveler, you´ll easily relate to Vanderhoof´s honest humility and fear. She dreads being the center of attention at local parties, and is insecure about the tiny outfit she must sport for Carnival in Trinidad. When she and her husband invite locals, now friends, to the boat for meals, she worries she´ll mess up the dish.

Yet, Vanderhoof uses these occasions to perfect the art of her Caribbean cooking. And the relationship between she and her husband, a true, healthy travel-partner relationship, will make you laugh.  As Vanderhoof endlessly searches for goat cheese, Steve shows his frustration by telling her that she has just received another pity-the-crazy-gringa look.

Aside from cooking, Vanderhoof writes a lot about the culture of the different islands and how to translate local information. For example, in reference to Dominican driving, she writes:

Dominican driving lesson #1:  If you ask a Dominican for directions and he tells you that you will cross two rivers, do not assume you will be crossing them by bridge.

This book is ideal for anyone who simply can’t separate food and cooking from the travel experience. However, if you lack knowledge of Caribbean islands, it is quite possible you will feel confused throughout the book. The chapters hop from island to island, and I regularly had to check back to the chapter title to get my bearings. For someone with an extensive knowledge of the Caribbean, however, this may go unnoticed.

By the time you turn the pages of the last chapter, you feel as if you know Vanderhoof and her husband and share their friendships with the locals. You will check your pantry for the ingredients to make the recipes provided. And you might even check your bank account to see if you can afford your own Caribbean culinary adventure.

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