As we lifted and pulled our little dinghy up the white sandy beach of Hog Island, we were instantly hit with the smell of a smoky wood burning fire. Tying the dinghy painter to an old tree trunk, we looked around.
Down towards Roger’s bar we saw the catamaran Shadowfax waiting to take tourists from the cruise ship back to St. George’s. We saw locals with their coolers and chairs hanging out, talking and laughing together. Little children played in the water.
At the other end of the beach, we saw a group of people huddled around a makeshift wooden counter, with smoke curling from a small fire nearby.
There was a lot happening at this little island today, but we knew it wasn’t an everyday occurrence on Hog Island. As a matter of fact, any other day (with the exception of the Sunday BBQ) you just might have a part of the beach all to yourself. But today was a special day. It was Grenada’s Independence Day. It was also the day we had been looking forward to—the day of the Oil Down shore party!
You might be wondering what on earth an Oil Down is. A massage perhaps? That’s what I wondered when I first heard s/v Grateful announce the event on the cruiser’s net a week before. After asking some of the locals we have befriended, we soon learned that it’s Grenada’s national dish; something like a thick stew with a variety of local veggies and meats in it. But we found that each person we asked described it a bit differently, always ending their descriptions with, “You just have to try it to see for yourself.” Needless to say, we were excited to see for ourselves and take part in this national sensation on Grenada’s day of independence.
Walking over to the group of people, we watched and listened as Sperry, a local fisherman, explained each ingredient as he prepared it for the Oil Down. Breadfruit, plantains, green beans, okra, cabbage, chicken, pork, coconut milk, dumplings (which were made with sea urchin water!), callaloo, spices and herbs were among the many ingredients scattered across the wooden plank counter.
Sperry explained that it’s called an Oil Down because they take spices soaked in coconut milk, squeeze and drain the oil from this mixture over the pot of ingredients. As the stew cooks, the oils from the mixture and the meats settle at the bottom of the pot. He went on to explain that not every Oil Down is the same. Since they use only local, fresh ingredients of the day, the recipe can be different each time.
As Sperry prepared each item, we all chipped in and handed him bowls of ingredients. Once each ingredient was ready, one of Sperry’s crew would take it and put it into one of the large black caldrons which were already heating up over the fires. After each ingredient was added to the pot, a cover was placed over top of it to keep the heat inside. The stews—one was vegetarian and one was not—cooked over the fires for several hours while Sperry and his crew continuously added additional ingredients and tended the fires.
While waiting, everyone stood nearby talking and enjoying the lovely aroma that would waft out of the caldrons each time the lids were raised.
Some of us were cruisers, some were landlubbers, and some were family members here for a short visit in paradise. Some of us brought our own coolers with drinks and some walked over to Roger’s Bar to purchase drinks. Huddled in groups, our bare feet in the sand or even ankle deep in the gentle water, we all smiled and shared stories of how we came to be in Grenada.
Before long, Sperry had emptied the bowls of ingredients and walked down to the water to rinse them off. Two of his crew took pieces of rope and ran them through the handles on one of the caldrons so they could lift and place it on the wooden counter.
Everyone watched as the lid was lifted off the pot, practically drooling as we stared at the beautiful, bubbling and steaming masterpiece. Sperry and his crew used large spoons to dole out pieces of the oil down, separating the stew according to ingredients. We soon found out that this was so they could evenly serve the ingredients to us; they wanted us to have an even distribution of all ingredients so we could get the full experience.
Suddenly, we realized it was time to be served! Faster than lightening we all scrambled for our bags to pull out our bowls and forks. (Most people brought their own dishes and utensils to cut down on trash). Standing in line, we watched as the colorful cuisine was dished out.
Taking our bowls, we walked away from the serving line to relish in the aromatic dish we had been smelling for hours. After our first bite, we looked at each other and smiled. The flavors were incredible—the spices, callaloo, and the coconut milk seemed to meld everything together into one giant delicious meal. Some enjoyed it so much that they even went back for seconds, although we found our first serving very large and filling.
After talking with new friends a little longer, we decided it was time to call it a day and go back to Snowflake. Dragging the dinghy back into the water, we climbed over the side, started up the outboard and motored away from Hog Island, under the bridge and back to Clarkes Court Bay where Snowflake is anchored.
Have you ever had Oil Down before? If you find yourself in Grenada, especially during their independence celebrations, be sure to give it a try!
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