Mama Rose's Coconut Bread

This story appeared in the Travelers' Tales books The World is a Kitchen and 30 Days in the South Pacific. It won the 2007 Silver Solas award for best food and travel story.

Mama Rose impaled the coconut onto the wooden spike making a tear in the husk. Self-rolled cigarette hanging out the corner of her mouth, she continued with ease, lifting, turning and thrusting the coconut on the spike till the husk fell away. Inside was a newborn, white nut with brown hairs. Picking up a cleaver she motioned for me to come look. She sat on a coconut wood stool, placed a large bowl between her ankles and then pointed at the three eyes at the top of the coconut. She drew an imaginary line with the cleaver across the three eyes. She lifted the cleaver, lowered it gently to position, raised it again then clack! With one whack the coconut split in half, the water falling into the bowl.

In the Tuamotu atolls of French Polynesia everything is done from scratch. If you want dinner you have to go fishing; even for a glass of water, rain is collected since there are no mountains, rivers, valleys or potable groundwater in the arid atolls. This day we were baking coconut bread and, in a land of some of the most capable people on Earth, I was learning from the master.

I had been living on Ahe atoll in French Polynesia for nearly two months. I had come in hopes of learning some lessons abut hard work and self-sufficiency, to live with my boyfriend who was helping his father start a black pearl farm. Ahe was an isolated place: it was a two-day boat trip from Tahiti, had no roads, no phones and only one store in the tiny village. 

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