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Biography & Autobiography Personal Memoirs

An Embarrassment of Mangoes

A Caribbean Interlude

by (author) Ann Vanderhoof

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Jan 2005
Personal Memoirs, Essays & Travelogues, Caribbean & West Indies
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2005
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Under the Tuscan Sun meets the wide-open sea . . . An Embarrassment of Mangoes is a delicious chronicle of leaving the type-A lifestyle behind -- and discovering the seductive secrets of life in the Caribbean.

Who hasn’t fantasized about chucking the job, saying goodbye to the rat race, and escaping to some exotic destination in search of sun, sand, and a different way of life? Canadians Ann Vanderhoof and her husband, Steve did just that.

In the mid 1990s, they were driven, forty-something professionals who were desperate for a break from their deadline-dominated, career-defined lives. So they quit their jobs, rented out their house, moved onto a 42-foot sailboat called Receta (“recipe,” in Spanish), and set sail for the Caribbean on a two-year voyage of culinary and cultural discovery.

In lavish detail that will have you packing your swimsuit and dashing for the airport, Vanderhoof describes the sun-drenched landscapes, enchanting characters and mouthwatering tastes that season their new lifestyle. Come along for the ride and be seduced by Caribbean rhythms as she and Steve sip rum with their island neighbors, hike lush rain forests, pull their supper out of the sea, and adapt to life on “island time.”

Exchanging business clothes for bare feet, they drop anchor in 16 countries -- 47 individual islands -- where they explore secluded beaches and shop lively local markets. Along the way, Ann records the delectable dishes they encounter -- from cracked conch in the Bahamas to curried lobster in Grenada, from Dominican papaya salsa to classic West Indian rum punch -- and incorporates these enticing recipes into the text so that readers can participate in the adventure.

Almost as good as making the journey itself, An Embarrassment of Mangoes is an intimate account that conjures all the irresistible beauty and bounty from the Bahamas to Trinidad -- and just may compel you to make a rash decision that will land you in paradise.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Ann Vanderhoof is an award-winning writer and magazine editor whose work has appeared in publications across Canada and the US. She lives in Toronto with her husband, Steve Manley. Their sailboat Receta is moored nearby on Lake Ontario.

Excerpt: An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude (by (author) Ann Vanderhoof)

The Five-Year Plan

Your courage is like a kite. Big wind raises it higher.
Fortune Cookie, Toronto, Canada;
November 1996

Relinquishing fears now allows you to succeed.
Fortune Cookie, Port of Spain, Trinidad;
November 1998

Perhaps the hardest thing, we realized in hindsight, was making the decision to go.

It had started as idle, dreamy chat in the bleak days of January and February, the time of year I detest in Toronto, when all the color is sucked out of the city, and even the snow looks gray and tired. As I do.

I left for work in the dark and returned home in the dark. On the rare days the sun bothered to show itself, it was a pale lemon pretender, offering little warmth and barely brightening the gunmetal surface of Lake Ontario. When I cooked dinner in the evening, Steve would catch me warming my hands over the stove, and, later, huddling over the heating vent in our bedroom while I read. It's a very sad sight, he would say. I looked like the little match girl rather than a successful magazine editor. I didn't care. I longed to be too hot.

Steve -- three years younger than me, all hard angles and sharp edges on the outside, a romantic softie within -- was my partner in work as well as life. A small-town Ontario boy, he'd relocated to the city to go to art college in the seventies and never left. For the past few years, we'd been working for the same magazine, and it was hard to tell most days where business ended and private life began. We operated in separate spaces: he, the freelance art director, from a crammed studio tucked into the back of the second floor of our house; me, the editor, at the magazine's main office, a fifteen-minute drive away. But we speed-dialed each other incessantly and flung e-mails and electronic story layouts back and forth all day long. When people asked how our relationship could survive our working together, I'd exclaim about the virtues. "How many people have a chance to see firsthand how really good their spouses are at what they do?" That was on the good days.

The rest of the time, I drove home in the cold at night, freezing and fuming, replaying the day, and arrived ready to rant: about the sloppy writers, the uninspired stories, the cheapskate publisher, the blown deadlines and, especially, the talented but unreasonable art director. "Turn it off, the office is closed," Steve would say. And I would -- for at least a full minute. Our work and our personal lives were inseparable.

And there never seemed to be enough hours for both. Every day required a battle plan. Besides the magazine, we squeezed in other publishing projects that we worked on together -- including a small ongoing series of guidebooks for boaters on the Great Lakes that Steve published himself. They took a backseat to the other stuff and were, like their publisher, often late. Meanwhile, I was ruled day and night by my watch and the to-do lists in my Day-Timer. "I can barely brush my teeth without a deadline," I joked to friends. But increasingly I didn't find it funny.

On the surface, Steve remained calm and unruffled, letting the pressure swirl around him, seemingly as casual about business deadlines as he was about his standard business attire (T-shirt and jeans no matter what, unless the weather permitted shorts or required a sweatshirt). "It will all get done," he'd tell me, "whether you stew about it or not." Yet I knew he was growing more and more resentful of the constant demands on his time and his perpetual state of overcommitment. Not to mention what he swore was "ten months of winter a year."

His solution was thrown out casually -- just another sensible suggestion, like telling me I should crank up the thermostat when I complained about the cold. "So let's take a break and sail south to the Caribbean for a couple of years," he said.

Right. Escaping work and winter for a couple of years sounded wonderful -- but escaping on a sailboat? Was he nuts? Sure, I needed a break -- we both did -- but did he think I had somehow been miraculously grafted onto someone else's sea legs?

I had never set foot on a sailboat until one of my first dates with him, and it was hardly an auspicious beginning to a relationship, let alone a sailing career. Having taught himself to sail and fallen in love with sailing a few years earlier, Steve had planned a romantic afternoon for two on his boat on the lake. In fact, we didn't even get away from the dock, after he backed over one of his mooring lines leaving the slip and wrapped it on the propeller. ("I was too busy trying to impress you," he told me later.) Our second sailing date wasn't much better: It was aborted at the marina's fuel dock, when he discovered one of the boat's hoses had become detached, filling the bilge with gasoline. I, meanwhile, had identified sailing as an activity where things frequently go wrong.

When he did eventually get me out on the lake, I loved the feeling of being propelled by the wind, the total quiet except for the water gurgling past, the sense of freedom that came with leaving land (and land-based concerns) behind. But I only loved it on days when the lake was flat and the breeze gentle. My nervousness increased in direct proportion to wind strength, and so did my tendency to seasickness. I was most definitely not a natural sailor. I didn't react instinctively to the wind -- or to the movement of the boat. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," I'd mutter, lurching into the companionway and simultaneously barking a shin and a shoulder.

One August, several years after we had bought a house and moved in together, I had a routine checkup with my doctor. As she was examining me, she suddenly asked in all seriousness, "Is your husband beating you?" She was staring at my assortment of multicolored sailing bruises, which I'd become accustomed to having all summer long. I still had not developed anything that could remotely be called sea legs.

By the time Steve popped his "let's sail south" suggestion about five years later, I had fewer bruises and a few more basic skills, but not much else had changed in my relationship with sailing. Steve, meanwhile, had become an even more competent and confident sailor. He now raced the boat every Wednesday night in Toronto's harbor, and also entered longer weekend races on Lake Ontario when he could get crew. He knew better than to look to me to fill that role.

However, not wanting to focus on my personal shortcomings, I cleverly decided to point out a few other niggling drawbacks to his "let's sail south" idea instead. Like money. We were both self-employed; there was no company or educational institution offering sabbaticals, no family trust fund, no cash reserves or investments to help pay for a midlife break from the working world. So how were we going to finance this little adventure?

And that's how the Five-Year Plan was born: "Let's think about sailing south five years from now," Steve said, "and in the meantime we'll see if we can put together enough money." Mostly the Plan would involve paying down the mortgage on our house, which would involve the ever-popular concepts of fiscal restraint and concerted savings.

"Sure," I said to Steve. Stay calm, I said to myself. Five years is a long way off. This doesn't mean you're agreeing to sail into the sunset. We can always use the money to do something else. And I had to admit, in the short term, having the Plan would allow us to fantasize on the cold, tough days about making the great escape.

When we arrive at Smith Island on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, it is just before dusk. Rakish clouds with underskirts of gray scuttle across the sky. The public dock at the island's main town of Ewell, where we tie Receta, is a mere six inches above water level, and it's still not high tide; the main street is already awash ankle-deep. Neat white clapboard houses with red or green shutters are scattered along both sides, but there's not a soul in sight -- and no other boats at the dock -- just a family of ducks paddling up the flooded roadway.

By far the most off-the-beaten-path spot we've stopped at since leaving Toronto two months ago, Smith Island, Maryland, is one of only two inhabited offshore islands in Chesapeake Bay. The other is Tangier Island, a little farther to the south and just across the Virginia state line. Isolated from the mainland 11 miles away, Smith's 400 or so residents make their living by crabbing and, in winter, oystering, as they always have. In fact, the current residents are direct descendants of the island's original settlers who came here in 1657. Almost half the population of Ewell has the same last name, Evans. "Visitors are well advised not to make jokes or ask too many questions about this," says William Warner, writing about Tangier and Smith in Beautiful Swimmers, his Pulitzer Prize-winning elegy to the watermen and crabs of Chesapeake Bay. I've been reading it at night, and annoyingly recounting snatches to Steve (since he's already read it himself) as we sail down the bay. I suspect Smith Island would be unusual at any time, but it is particularly unusual on this chill, blustery October weekday when we are the only visitors and an abnormally high tide laps across the carefully tended lawns.

We pull on our deck boots and wade up the deserted main street, eventually coming upon a lone crabber who, with the help of a young woman, is unloading the day's catch into the back of a pickup. Blue crabs have been constantly on our minds lately because the most common method of catching them commercially is the crab trap, and crab traps and boats don't mix. The traps lie on the bottom of the bay, the location of each one marked on the surface by a small round buoy about the size of an overgrown grapefruit, which is attached to the trap below by a rope. During the summer and early fall, Chesapeake Bay is positively littered with them. "Watermen who normally set out 200 crab pots in the 1970s now work with 500 to 1,000 to get approximately the same catch," Warner tells us. The last thing we want to do is run into one of those ropes and catch it on our prop, for an unpleasant reprise of our Toronto harbor date.

So one of us spots and one of us steers as we slalom from anchorage to anchorage down the bay. We're particularly fond of the crabbers with the blue buoys -- almost impossible to see in the waves until we're right on top of them, at which point we have to zigzag quickly away, the sails flapping inelegantly from the unplanned change in direction. Steve figures the only way to get even for the stress of constant crab-trap watch is to devour as many crabs as possible. There's no way we're going to walk by a truck full of them on Smith Island and not buy some to cook ourselves.

"How much are they?" I ask the young woman hefting traps. She relays the question to the man in oilskins in the bed of the pickup, who shouts back an incomprehensible answer. The island's isolation has allowed a distinctive dialect to survive, with outmoded words and grammatical constructions from seventeenth-century England. To our ears, it sounds like the crabber is gargling marbles with a Shakespearean southern drawl. "Thirty-five dollars for number one jimmies," the woman translates. Number one jimmies are the big fat prime male crabs, the ones served steamed in restaurants; but even given that, the price seems high for buying direct from the supplier -- higher, in fact, than we've sometimes paid when eating out. "Wannem?" The man in the pickup pushes a basket scrabbling with live crabs toward the pickup's rear gate.

It's only then that I realize the price isn't for a dozen -- our usual consumption -- but for an entire bushel basket. I'd be up all night steaming and picking the meat out of seventy or eighty crabs. And even Steve, whose lean build belies his near-legendary appetite, can't see devouring that many. "Can we buy just a dozen?" Nope, it's all or none. We politely decline and wade on.

Maybe it's a good thing. Friends had recounted the difficulty of steaming crabs in the small galley of a cruising boat; one of theirs had escaped on its way to the pot and disappeared behind the stove. "When we finally rooted him out, he had a death grip on our propane line," Wayne had told us.

A woman stands on her front porch, hands on hips, watching the egret that has abandoned the marshes to fish the main street. "Excuse me, is there a restaurant in town?"

She points down the street. "Ruke's Store, 'cept it's closed. He went home to have dinner."

That doesn't sound promising. "It's the only place; he'll be back 'fore long to open up."

We splash around the village some more, until we spot a wind-hardened man unlocking the store, then wander in behind him. As we slide into one of the old-fashioned booths that fill a corner of the general store, he tells us we still can't get dinner: The cook is trapped at home by the exceptionally high water.

"Happens three times a year or so now," he explains. "You have to wait 'til a nor'wester blows through and ends it." Some people blame global warming -- as the sea warms, it is rising and nibbling away at the land -- others say the island is sinking. Whichever, Smith is now just a foot above sea level, and the island's graveyard has been so badly flooded at times that coffins have been sent floating down the main street.

"There is little doubt that Smith Island is the champion of the Chesapeake in soft crab production," Beautiful Swimmers had informed us. To be here and not try one would be for Steve like being in Burgundy and not trying the local wine.

The joy of a softshell is eating the entire fried-crisp thing. But there's only about a one-day window between when a crab discards its old shell and when the new shell has hardened too much to eat, so the harvest has necessarily evolved into a precise science. With practiced eyes, the watermen cull the "busters," which have begun to shed, and the "peelers," which are just about to. And then they wait. The moment the crabs molt, they are put on ice and rushed to market.

The ones that arrive in front of Steve, once the tide turns and the cook arrives, are so perfect he has no intention of sharing more than one measly bite with me: dredged in flour and panfried gloriously crisp on the outside, yet soft and melting inside, with no trace of hardness from the start of a new shell. We end up ordering a platter of three additional softshells, and demolish every last buttery-sweet bite. Meanwhile, I have first inhaled my own crabcake dinner, giving up only the one requisite taste to Steve that fair trade requires. The cake is almost pure crab inside its golden exterior, held together by a bit of mayo, a wisp of seafood seasoning, and not much else. I'm determined to buy some crabmeat -- already steamed and out of the shell -- before Receta leaves the Chesapeake and replicate them onboard myself.
Pasta from Mr. Butters's Garden

Quick, easy and tasty. Serve the pasta with crusty bread and sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped basil. The tomatoes provide a lovely contrast to the green pasta sauce.

1/2 pound smoked sausage, sliced thin, or fresh sausage, casings removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch escarole, roughly chopped (about 10 cups)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Splash white wine (optional)
1/2 pound penne or other pasta
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1. In a large frying pan, cook the smoked sausage for a few minutes until it releases its fat, or cook fresh sausage, breaking it up with a fork, until lightly browned. Removed meat from pan and set aside. Drain fat from pan.

2. In the same pan, heat olive oil and gently sauté garlic. Add the escarole a bit at a time, adding more as the first batch begins to wilt., and sauté until it is all wilted. Season with lots of black pepper and a little salt. Add a splash of wine or some of the pasta-cooking water if it seems dry and cook a minute or so longer. Return the sausage to the pan and toss all together.

3. Meanwhile, cook the penne and drain. Combine with the escarole mixture and serve with Parmesan sprinkled on top.

Serves 3 - 4, depending on how hungry the crew is.

Editorial Reviews

“Full of humor and insight, Mangoes easily reminds a reader of some of the true pleasures of travel — and how travel writing at its best indisputably pleasures the reader.”
The Washington Times

“Thanks to the author’s graceful prose and self-deprecating humour . . . [this is] a beguiling winter break.”

“Vanderhoof’s account of the trip bursts with sunshine and interesting people.”
National Post

“The language positively sings.”
The Globe and Mail

“Gracefully written and poignant. . . a splendid adventure, engagingly told.”
Explore Magazine

“The book’s a gently passionate story. . . captured in writing so engrossing it often seems you’re witnessing their journey, not just reading about it. . . . Delicious.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“Finely crafted…portraits that prompt us to see and to yearn: what travel writing is all about.”
Kirkus Reviews

Other titles by Ann Vanderhoof