Friday, August 3, 2007
Can a vegan thrive on a remote Pacific island?
In my blog entry yesterday when I pondered the thought if a vegan could thrive on a remote Pacific island, I really had no intimate knowledge to back up my guesses. I forgot about a wonderful book that I own by the famous Norwegian scientist-explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, called “Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature.” In 1936, Heyerdahl and his wife, Liv, spent their honeymoon living on the deserted side of the Polynesian island of Fatu-Hiva for a year. Much of Heyerdahl’s work involved whether the Polynesians had contact with the people of South America or if much of the plant crops made their way to the islands without human intervention. Obviously, the Polynesians and the South Americans were much more advanced than white conquerors ever gave them credit for. But I’m digressing. Heyerdahl was not a vegan. He ate fish and pigs and probably many other animals. He also ate a wide variety of plants growing wild on the island, including sweet potatoes (the white variety), bananas, plantains, pineapples, breadfruit, mangoes, husk tomatoes, taro, coconuts, oranges, limes, lemons, sugarcane, lemongrass and papayas. Also growing on the island was hibiscus, wild cotton and bamboo. You can eat bamboo shoots and use its wood for a building material. You can clearly see, a vegan could survive on Heyerdahl’s island. The only thing she would have to worry about is vitamin B-12. As I discussed earlier, you can take the step of composting your own manure ─ since your body’s bacteria make B-12 in your large intestine ─ and using the finished compost to contaminate some of your vegetables with B-12. Here is some material from the book that I thought was fascinating:
As predicted by Teriieroo, the precious fei, or mountain plantain, which on Tahiti grew only in almost inaccessible cliffs, grew all around our cabin on Fatu-Hiva. It became our favorite, staple diet. Inedible when raw, it was roasted on embers and eaten dipped in the creamy white sauce of grated and squeezed coconut kernel. This coconut sauce was our only oil and served a multitude of purposes, culinary, as well as cosmetic. Production was simple: We grated the nut with a serrated piece of shell and squeezed the crumbs by twisting yellow-green meat of the fei, sweeter than fried banana, had a special flavor of excellent quality, of which we never tired. Besides the fei, the forest offered us seven different kinds of real bananas, from a tiny, round variety, resembling a yellow egg with strawberry flavor, to the large horse-banana, almost as long as an arm, which had to be cooked and then tasted like baked apple.
It was unusual to come across ripe bananas hanging the plant. When we reached for one, it was like grabbing a finger on an empty glove: It was already hollowed out by small fruit rats and consumed with the help of lizards and tiny, yellow banana flies. But there was plenty for all of us. We simply collected the clusters when they were just about ready to turn yellow, and hung them unsheltered in the breadfruit tree next to our window, where the sun would ripen them in a day or two and under our control. Their taste was unmatched by commercial bananas, which have to be picked weeks too early so as to survive the long transportation.
We had learned not to climb the slippery stem of the banana plant to reach its cluster of fruit. With a hard stroke of the machete, the entire stem cut like an onion and we rushed to grab the cluster of bananas before it was smashed against the ground as the whole plant feel. This seemingly vandalistic procedure as due to the fact that neither a fei nor a banana yields fruit twice. On Fatu-Hiva, the green stump remaining above the root began pushing up a new plant immediately, and so fast that the growth could be seen daily. The juicy inner ring of the onionlike cut began to rise above the others and slowly pulled up the next ring and the next. In a fortnight, the old stump resembled a flowerpot holding a green pole as tall as a man, which now opened up to unfold a green banner, the first, huge leaf. The new plant crept up just slowly enough to seem to have its speed cautiously adjusted not to scare us, not to wake us up to the fact that in the forest there is no borderline between what we consider natural and what we would have considered magic if it happened with a speed that would catch our eye. Within a year, a big, new plant had silently replaced the old one and stood there motionless and mute, ready to offer a new cluster of tasty bananas to hungry passersby.
The coconut was almost equally important to our daily fare. Most of the coconut palms near our hut were so incredibly tall and they swayed so much that I could not manage to get to the top, but there were always plenty of ripe nuts, covered with husk, to be found on the ground. Some of them had fallen down weeks before, and a baby palm was fumbling in the opposite direction, trying to get a foothold and pierce the ground. In these overmature nuts, most of the hard kernel and dissolved in the milk and begun to form a spongy, white ball looking like a brain, edible, but with a sugary taste unlike the nut itself. Even the “marrow” of the stem on a young palm was edible, like a giant piece of crisp celery.
Most of the food plants kept up a non-stop production and yielded fruits and nuts all the year round. The spiny orange trees carried sweet-smelling white flowers and green and ripe, golden fruit side by side on the same branches, and so did lemon trees and lime. Most of the old breadfruit trees were so big that I could not encircle the smooth trunk in order to climb it if the lower branches did not happen to be within reach. The impressive foliage resembled oversize oak leaves, and, scattered throughout the cooked branches, hung green, globular fruits as large as a baby’s head. The tough, gnarled rind cracked when toasted black on embers, and loosened, when cooked, from the delicious white meat within. It was a starchy and filling dish, tasting like a cross between fresh toast and new potatoes. This fibrous meat could be torn apart with the finger like bread., it could be sliced and fried crisp in a coconut oil on a flat slab, and it could be buried in the ground for months or yeas and eaten as a pounded porridge when completely fermented.
The most important wild tuber we came across in the forest was the taro, the closest we came to potatoes. It had once been cultivated in irrigated swamps, but as the planters disappeared, it now grew wild in the swampy soil below the spring. A huge, heart-shaped leaf stood like a parasol above each individual taro root, and in between grew some other wild leaves of the same shape, but so big that we used them as umbrellas in the rain, and as body-sized “fig leaves” if native visitors should ever surprise us in the pool.
There was still more to harvest in the surrounding forest. Large, pear-shaped papayas. Small but extra-flavorsome mangoes. Wild pineapples. Tiny, red husk tomatoes. Pandanus, with its compound of nutlike kernels. The nobly, blue-green tapo-tapo. And a single large tree with a gorgeous fruit looking and tasting like a red strawberry but as large as a cauliflower.
For drinks, we had mineral water from the cool spring, orange juice, lemon squash sweetened with squeezed sugarcane, and the milk of green coconuts harvested with a struggle from the lower palms higher up the hill. In Tahiti, Liv had learned from Faufau to prepare as a hot beverage a very tasty tea from the withered leaves of orange trees. We often planned to gather and roast the red berries of a few coffee pants that grew in the thickets right behind our cabin, but got too fond of our orange tree.
I thought this was interesting, too, about the making of poipoi, “the staple diet in most of Polynesia,” before they attempted to live off the land:
Nowhere else was poipoi made as strong as in the Marquesas group. Breadfruit in large quantities was buried in deep pits in the ground and covered with large leaves. It was left to rot for a year, and sometimes much longer. When thoroughly rotten, the sticky dough was dug up and beaten with a polished stone pounder. Bits of fresh breadfruit also were sometimes pounded into this sour pasted, which was eaten raw. Marquesan poipoi stinks so intensely that a normal nose can sniff a dinner party a mile away in the jungle. The islanders frequently told us that they were so accustomed to this sour dough from early childhood that they could not digest a sturdy meal without it.
There it was, in the communal bowl before our noses. Like the rest of the group around it, we just had to dig our three longest fingers into the sticky mess and comfort ourselves with the discovery that it was better fitted to the palate than to the nose. The darkness helped us. We ate less than our movements suggested as we dug in the dark bowl.