I stared into the pot with disbelief. I was making meatballs, and it was not going well. Belatedly, I wondered if maybe I should have followed the recipe more precisely. My cavalier attitude towards cooking (read: my utter indifference to details like ingredients and measurements) could sometimes lead to, shall we say, disappointing results.
I really hoped this wasn’t one of those times.
It was Sunday in Samoa, which meant I was preparing for the weekly to’ona’i (toh-oh-NAH-ee), a post-church, potluck-style feast. Extended families and large social groups (which might include Peace Corps Volunteers like me) gathered to share and enjoy phenomenal food. Standard fare always included Samoan classics: breadfruit, a soft, fluffy, white starch, lighter and sweeter than potatoes; taro, a purplish-gray root vegetable, a starch much denser and heavier than potatoes; palusami, a velvety mixture of taro leaves and coconut cream, baked to perfection in a smoldering fire; and coco Samoa, sweet, rich Samoan hot chocolate. Raw fish; sweet and sour pork; fresh bananas, mangoes, papayas.
Everyone brought something; the food was always fantastic.
To avoid public humiliation given my unpredictable success with meals, I usually brought safe and unimaginative items like fresh bread (purchased that morning) or a package of cookies. But on this particular Sunday I was inspired. I would wow everyone! I would cook them real food. I would make breadfruit-cod meatballs!
The photo looked amazing, showing crisp, deep-brown orbs with a soft, moist interior. I was sure I could do it, if I just followed the recipe. My cooking would be talked about for days!
Here we go! Step one: Cook the breadfruit, then mash it into a paste.
Okay, I didn’t have any breadfruit. But that’s okay! I had taro. Way more solid than breadfruit, yes. But did it really matter? I doubted it. Starch is starch, totally interchangeable! So I boiled up the taro.
Now for the mashing. I didn’t have a potato masher, either. But that’s okay! I could mush it up with a fork. Unfortunately, not only is taro very dense, but it seems I didn’t cook it long enough; there was nothing soft or spongy or remotely mashable about it. Trying to mash that taro into a paste was like trying to make fluffy mashed potatoes from hard, undercooked potatoes. Using a fork.
But I leaned into the job and energetically smashed the taro as best I could, bending the fork in the process. The hard lumps skittered around in the bowl, refusing to yield to my fork. The end result was irregular-sized lumps of hard, fibrous taro. Not a “paste” at all, but the lumps should stick together once other ingredients were added. Right?
I was feeling confident. Onward!
Step two! Add fresh cod.
Okay, well, I didn’t actually have any cod; in fact, I didn’t have any fish at all. A minor detail! What I did have was a tin of corned beef, much like Spam. Meat is meat! Fresh cod, processed corned beef, totally interchangeable! You agree, right?
Whatever. Seemed fine to me.
So I peeled open the can and dumped the unidentifiable meat globules into the bowl with the taro lumps.
Step three! Add eggs, onion, and spices.
Huh, that’s odd. It appeared I didn’t have any eggs. But that’s okay! The eggs seemed fairly insignificant to me; I decided they probably just added a little moisture so everything would stick together better; those taro lumps certainly weren’t adhering to anything, despite the corned beef’s soft, slick texture. And if all I needed was moisture, chicken broth should do just fine.
Actually, I didn’t have any chicken broth either, but bouillon cubes are the same thing. So I cheerfully splashed a generous amount of chicken-flavored bouillon-water into the bowl with the hard taro lumps, glistening corned beef, and chopped onion.
Hey! Did you catch that? I had onion! I was following the recipe, pretty much (almost) exactly.
Step four! Form into meatballs; fry until deep brown.
Optimistically, I scooped up the wet mixture to form meatballs. I squeezed and pressed and rolled, but as soon as I set the meatball down, the whole thing would fall apart. That’s okay, I thought, albeit with mounting concern and flagging confidence. Once I started to fry them, I reasoned, a crispy outer skin would form, holding it all together. They would look just like the photo.
Yes indeed, everyone was gonna love my breadfruit-cod meatballs, made with neither breadfruit nor cod.
So I heated a substantial amount of oil in a pot, waaay more than the recipe called for. A nice deep pool guaranteed maximum oil exposure for each meatball, to help promote that vital outer skin. Good thing I was thinking things through so well!
Carefully, delicately, gingerly, I picked up each fragile meatball and dropped it into the sizzling vat of oil. And I stared with disbelief as the meatballs instantly disintegrated, everything separating and floating apart. Unable to reach in there and squish them back together again, I helplessly watched as taro lumps, meat molecules, and onion chunks spread out and dissolved in the greasy depths, melting into an oily, gray concoction.
I slammed the lid on the pot.
I was too proud to show up to the to’ona’i empty-handed. Worse, I was too stupid to taste it first. But hadn’t all my substitutions had been good ones? I substituted a starch for a starch, a meat for a meat. Surely it would taste fine.
I added a generous amount of salt, just in case.
Off I went to the to’ona’i, clutching the pot. There was a murmur as I placed it among the other dishes. What’s this? Kalala didn’t bring her standard white bread or purchased cookies? This must be something special! People caught my eye and nodded approvingly.
The village chief was formally presenting the food to the crowd; each item was collectively admired and appreciated. He got to mine. “And Kalala,” – he beamed over at me as he raised the lid. “Kalala brought –” His smile faltered as he eyed the contents. He looked my way for help; I could offer none.
Don’t ask me, I don’t know what it is! It sure as hell isn’t meatballs, I can tell you that!
“Kalala brought –” He seemed desperate, searching for inspiration as everyone waited expectantly. Suddenly he brightened. “Soup!” he cried, looking relieved.
Soup! Yes! That’s exactly what it was! I felt relieved too. Taro and corned beef soup! Of course, the “broth” was really just a pot of oil with a gritty splash of chicken bouillon, but surely everyone would love it! They would probably want the recipe!
Samoans can eat some pretty unusual stuff by American standards: The orange innards of spiny sea urchins, eaten straight out of their spikey shells. Sea slug guts, obtained by forcefully squeezing a sea slug and causing it to eject its entrails, often directly into one’s mouth. (The sea slug is then tossed back into the lagoon, where it happily regrows its bowels.) Bats, which taste remarkably like chicken. And Palolo worms, considered a great delicacy. The salty, sludgy material is actually the breeding worms’ expelled sperm and eggs. It’s definitely an acquired taste, one I did not master, ever, at all.
In a nutshell, Samoans have an astounding capacity to eat– and enjoy!– all kinds of really weird shit. So while I was pretty sure they would appreciate my somewhat unorthodox soup, I watched carefully as the gray liquid was ladled into little bowls and distributed with the rest of the food. I watched as everyone inspected it, their faces changing from sunny anticipation to clouded concern.
And I watched as everyone swallowed a tentative mouthful, and their expressions changed from sincere interest to fleeting revulsion, and then (because Samoans are a gracious people) immediately to studied neutrality. Spoons were set down, a little too casually; attention was turned to other food, a little too hurriedly. And what’s this? Suddenly those approving smiles were gone, and everyone was avoiding my eyes.
Taken altogether, it seemed a bit worrisome.
With rising trepidation, I tried a spoonful. And my spoon was immediately set down, too, as I felt my own face register a fleeting revulsion. The “soup” was a vile, salty combination of hard, fibrous taro chunks and liquified meat, swirling in gray oil.
You know when you wish you could sink into the floor, quietly disappearing from sight without fanfare or notice? Utterly mortified, I had to sit there, making light conversation, acting carefree and relaxed, while those little bowls sat silent and untouched before each place setting, tormenting me. Each individual bowl ballooned into an enormous elephant, trumpeting my failure. I was acutely aware that not one person took a second spoonful.
Of course, neither did I. I would rather eat Palolo worms.
Later that day, I watched as the leftover to’ona’i scraps were hauled to the pigpen. The pigs rushed joyfully to the fence as several buckets of slop were poured into their trough. Making very content grunting noises, they eagerly gobbled their food– until they got to my gray swill. Then the pigs abruptly stopped, sniffing cautiously at the oily liquid. Looking very offended, they turned up their considerable noses and waddled away.
It’s pretty bad when it offends the pigs.
But that’s okay! I was exactly right about one thing.
My cooking was talked about for days.