It was a good night for a barbecue. John and Ingrid were visiting us in Nevis from Boston and we had a large salmon to cook for dinner that night. Our grill was nothing more than an old propane tank sliced in half lengthwise and mounted on a metal stand. But we’d managed large cookouts on it for years. The primitive nature of the grill always added to the eating pleasure, knowing that the delectable meals had come from such humble beginnings. And we never filled it with those charcoal briquettes that you buy at the hardware store with their fillers and chemicals. No, in Nevis, we preferred to use what the island folk did: lump charcoal made with local hardwood. But on that night, we were out.
Lump charcoal is nothing more than chunks of wood that have been slow-burned in a low oxygen environment to remove moisture and impurities without turning it into ash. This can be done using an outdoor fire pit and an old (but clean) oil drum with a tightly fitting lid and some poked holes to release water and gases. It’s a simple process, but labor-intensive. And it requires outdoor space and the wherewithal to prepare and handle the materials. Certainly not the sort of thing we would be able to do at our vacation home. In the past, we would have gotten a supply of it from Nick, our former property manager. But we’d had a falling out and he was no longer available to us as a resource. So, we headed into town to see what we could find.
At Ram’s, the largest grocery store on the island, we looked around but only found the usual commercial briquettes. Joe approached one of the store associates who was stacking cereal boxes on the shelves and asked if they carried the lump charcoal. She answered that, no, they didn’t. But if we wanted some, we should go find Brah who had the best charcoal on the island. She told him that Brah lived up in Church Ground in a yellow house, third on the left. “You can’t miss it,” she assured him. He thanked her and got a smile and a fist bump.
We piled back into the car, John sitting up front with Joe and Ingrid and me in the back. I was highly skeptical that this would lead us to anyone named Brah with or without charcoal. We drove on to Church Ground, a neighborhood that we hadn’t ever been to before, and turned up off the main road, looking for a yellow house. The narrow road wound around as we passed by houses of many colors behind walls and gates, sometimes past old vehicles, discarded bits of machinery, and tangles of local foliage. Not a yellow house to be found. We ended up in a loop back to the main road where we saw two guys in a yard working on a car. Joe got out to ask for help. When he got back into the car, he had renewed confidence. One of the men knew Brah and had given more specific directions. Unfortunately, those led us up and around the neighborhood again, and right back to the same spot, with no yellow house to be found.
This time, the man jumped into his car and motioned for us to follow him. Back down to the main road a bit further than we had gone before, then up again, this time into the Morningstar neighborhood. He motioned out his window to the left as he took a right turn back toward his house. This felt promising as we headed up the road. Green house, pink house, white house, faded house. The road dead-ended and after a precarious U-turn, we headed slowly back down, still looking for the elusive yellow house. We passed by a young woman braiding the hair of another on her front porch. Joe stopped the car and yelled out the window to ask if she knew where Brah, the guy with the charcoal in Church Ground, lived. She shook her head. But he persisted.
“Seriously, Joe? Let’s go home.” Questioning this lady seemed so random to me and the whole adventure was beginning to get tiresome. The chances of coming upon some guy named Brah in this maze of houses who actually had charcoal to sell was becoming less and less likely. But then the hair-braider said,
“Wait, I know that guy. He lives in Chicken Stone.”
“In a yellow house?”
“Yeah. In a yellow house.”
And off we drove.
Now, Nevis is a small island, thirty-six square miles, with a population of about 11,000. But the neighborhood of Chicken Stone was almost halfway round the island from where we started. The chances that the grocery lady, the car guy, and the braider all knew a guy named Brah who made charcoal who either lived in Church Ground, Morningstar, or Chicken Stone in a yellow house was remote. I pleaded with Joe to give up the search and just go home with the briquettes that we’d bought. But Joe was determined and was being egged on by John who was enjoying the wild goose chase on this, his first visit down to the island. So, we in the back seat had nothing to do but be passengers to the absurd mission and enjoy the ride.
Back on to the main road that rings the island, we passed by the turnoffs to Montpelier, the Hermitage, and Golden Rock, landmark sugar plantations that have been restored and turned into elegant resorts. We crossed from St. John’s to St. George’s Parrish, and just after reaching Gingerland, we saw the sign for Chicken Stone and took a right turn off the road – not a left as the grocery lady had originally directed. Once again, my skepticism rose.
Looking for a yellow house, we found ourselves aimlessly driving around this new neighborhood. We were now within sight of the Atlantic Ocean and still no Brah to be found. Not deterred, Joe pulled over and turned the car off. Tired of U-turning, he and John got out and set off on foot, leaving their exasperated spouses in the car. The chances, I declared, that they would return to the car with charcoal were absolutely nil. But we were on vacation on a beautiful tropical island. We opened the car doors and relaxed in the gentle breezes, chatting and waiting for our adventurers to return. After about fifteen minutes, we saw the two of them struggling toward the car carrying what seemed to be an enormous burlap bag of extremely heavy weight. They had done it! But how?
They reported that while wandering through the neighborhood looking for a yellow house, they had come upon an elderly woman who knew Brah. Yes, he did live here, and yes, he did have charcoal – around the corner in a pink house, not a yellow one. On to the next street, they had found a faded pink house seemingly with no one at home and no response to Joe’s “Hello? Hello?” Exasperated, but not to be defeated, John had stood in the middle of the road and shouted out, “Brah!”
“Yeah?” came the answer. And Brah had magically appeared.
Shocked and delighted, Joe and John told him they’d been searching for him because they heard he had the best charcoal on the island. Their enthusiasm got to him and he turned over, for a mere hundred dollars in EC (Eastern Caribbean Dollars equal to about $30), his last bag which he’d been saving for a friend.
Persistence had paid. That evening, Joe and John lit the grill and we enjoyed charcoal broiled salmon Nevis style. And we will do so for many backyard barbecues to come. The charred wood chunks were so dense that Joe was able to reuse that night’s batch the next week for a second night of outdoor cooking. That big bag of Brah’s is going to last forever.