When we left Texas, we also had to get rid of our sourdough starter. It was a bit of a lament because Jim started it in New Hampshire and it traveled with us across the country and I made my first beautiful crusty sourdough loaves with it in Elgin. Since arriving in Vieques, we haven’t had a taste of bread as there isn’t much in the way of options here. The bread available in the mercados is that enriched white baloney that disintegrates in your mouth.
When Jim got a tip last week that there’s a man on the island who bakes his own bread, we added it to our Saturday To Do. This was in addition to checking out the cafe by the airport. Isla Nena Cafe is owned by a husband and wife duo. He, Lyman, is from the states and she is from China and makes legit, homemade dumplings. Um, hell yes.
So that’s how last Saturday we found ourselves sitting on a plastic bench watching a beefy guy named Mike offer his hat-covered head to the sharpass beak of a yellow crested cockatoo named Zeek.
Zeek has his own perch at Isla Nena. Bracelets with large, colorful plastic beads, and other shiny, pretty objects drape along the rods of his roost, gifts from customers, friends, and admirers. He hops on one foot and then the other, flashing the top of his yellow crested crown intermittently.
Loud and boisterous, beer in one hand, Mike seemed to relish his audience, albeit a barely interested duo, me and Jim, for his playful interaction, encouraging the bird to peck at his hat. I still don’t know why. Maybe he didn’t like the hat. When Zeek finally nipped off the little plastic button at the crown of the hat, we all smiled and murmured some acknowledgement.
The drawn out show passed along the minutes on this lazy island weekend afternoon as we waited in the shade of the pavilion for our order of crab rangoons and steamed vegetable dumplings.
The cafe isn’t much to see. It’s set off to the side of the airport. You drive into the parking lot where lots of old vehicles seem to be waiting out their last days. But that’s just the nature of cars on this island. Dilapidated aesthetics with a running engine is “Good for Vieques!” Those were the reassuring words of the man at the tire store the other day in response to our concerns over the barely-hanging-on bumper of our beat up Rav4. We all laughed loudly at that.
Lyman had us seated at a table with an older lady named Jennifer. She was dressed in a beautiful white linen shirt that I had spotted earlier that morning in downtown Isabel Segunda. On the streets, amongst the other locals lined up outside the Post Office, she stuck out like a sore thumb – tall, long-limbed, and white, with an elegant way of moving that I admired, easy and cool, spry.
I was eager to talk to her, she looked like she had a story or two. Turns out she’s been here for over 20 years and calls the island, home. Her eyes flashed with pleasure as she said, “This island is gritty!” That last word enunciated by her enlivened spirit echoed the sentiment I noted upon landing here. This place is gritty and it’s wonderful. And Jennifer knows a thing or two about gritty. In her younger days, she was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in Jamaica. After that, she joined the Army as a private where she worked as a photographer out in Panama.
Come to find out, Jennifer was from our part of town, Villaborinquen, and hitchhiked into town to receive her weekly baked goods from John the Baker. What luck! This must be the baker we’re looking for!
The food took forever to come out, but the smells wafting from the kitchen were promising. I had yet to see the lady behind the homemade dumplings, just Lyman sweating behind the bar, which looked makeshift, as if it had been put together from scraps of construction material in some semi-dystopic era. Simple and cobbled together, cluttered with various knick-knacks, a whiteboard menu that displayed a scrawled out list of food items, and a very attentive Lyman, what else do you really need in a bar? Oh yea, in addition to well drinks, there are four kinds of beer sold here: the local Medalla light, Corona, and two other varieties that I didn’t care to note. That day, we ordered just the food.
Some time later, a pickup truck rolled by and parked near to the pavilion. The bumper had a sticker of a brick oven on it. A short man with a cap and glasses came out with bags and boxes, setting them down on the table next to ours.
There was an array of baked goods, loaves of multigrain and sourdough and sweeter things like pastries and a loaf with brown sugar. I went with the multigrain loaf with flax and oats. He and Jim had a bakers’ conversation about baking with the heat and humidity of the island that went over my head.
John the Baker is from a town in Connecticut adjacent to where I grew up in Glastonbury. Small world. At some point decades ago, he and his wife had enough of their consulting business and decided to move. They were shopping around the Caribbean for the next place to call home when they visited Vieques. That first day here, they were walking down the road when they looked at each other and said – This is the place. Then they packed up their things and moved. Before running the baking business, they had a boutique on the beach called Salty Dogs. John’s salmon colored cap bore the logo of this old business and I love it, two dogs, one black and the other white, encircling each other in a yin and yang symbol.
By the time Lyman came out with two bamboo steamers, I was so damn excited. Even better is that my excitement was well nourished. The crab rangoons and dumblings were so bomb. The rangoons actually had legit crab in them, not the fake crab stuffed into nori rolls these days, but actual crab meat. Ughhhh. The dumplings were a bit soggy but so what, when you douse them in some of the homemade soy sauce and Chinese mustard, it doesn’t matter that it’s falling apart on your spoon, slurp it down into your bellay.
It was a quirky afternoon down at the airport cafe and as we drove off, Jim and I agreed we would be back next week for some more bread.