When I lived in Panama, a daily ritual of mine was walking down our town's single dirt road and up a long flight of stairs to the wide open porch that overlooked the rest of Old Bank and the ocean. I didn't just go to enjoy the view, I was there in search of Mitch, the man who sold bags of trash to everyone in Bastimentos. You may be wondering why anyone would want to buy a bag of someone else's trash. Well as it happens, these bags contained the secret to all the sauces on the island. For fifty cents Mitch would pick two ripe and juicy coconuts, grate them up, and stuff the meat into a clear plastic bag, ready to cook into a milk, and then milk into a sauce.
If you've you ever heard the idiom, "one man's trash is another man'streasure" you'll understand. And what I noticed, in the Patois-speaking part of this very Spanish country, is that where there are black folks there are often coconuts in the kitchen, or if you are really lucky, in the soup.
There are a great many culinary influences in Panama, thanks to incredible diversity that exists there. In fact there are even communities and groups of people that are distinguished by the ingredients they impressed onto the country's palate. There are the children of Afro-Antillean Jamaican and Bajan migrants, who came throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to build the canal, and to work in the banana plantations. These folks introduced Caribbean rhythms and Anglicized tongues to the country. They also brought their beloved Scotch Bonnet Pepper, ever after known as Aji Chombo. The ubiquity of this pepper in dishes and on tables led to the naming of this group, Chombos - a contemptuous term that has adapted over the years into a term of endearment.
Afro-Colonials, by contrast, are the descendants of Africans captured and enslaved by the Spanish and brought to La Gran Colombia (and eventually Panama) in the sixteenth century. They landed their feet in the shallow surf and began building Nombre de Dios, the first settlement on the Isthmus, and so on. These were the first people to walk between the breezes of the Caribbean and Pacific oceans while enjoying the bounty of coconuts that grew there. Throughout history, this group has been distinguished by a very distinct culinary preference, and referred to as Comecocos - The Coconut Eaters.
Panamanian cuisine would surely be blander if it weren't for these communities and their culinary (among other) contributions. Coconut appears in various coastal dishes (both), though you would likely never find them in the cooking pots of the interior where the indigenous peoples of the East (the Embera), the West (the Guaymi), and the in between (the Kuna, the Bribri, the Naso) use this fruit for its water and little else. Only on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts will you taste an extra sweetness in the sauces, in the candies all chewy and brown, hidden in breads and pastries, and burnt at the bottom of a pot of rice (my favorite). If you like to wake up with the sun, go visit the country's Caribbean islands and you will even smell freshly made coconut oil frying the holadras first thing in the morning. Oh heaven.
It doesn't stop there. Creep up through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, through Honduras, to Belize - you will find coconut in the hudut, pan de coco, rice and peas... Or sneak down into Colombia, then Venezuela, Guyana and into the north of Brazil, where you will taste coconut in the sancocho de pescado, arroz, and moqueca de Camaro... If you embark on a journey by boat you will discover coconut cooking in the kitchens and outdoor fires of Jamaica, Haiti, and all on through to Trinidad. You may even cross through Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, blissfully guided by an aroma of garlic in a pilon. I promise you will find coconut there too if you try. Just listen for the sound of bomba and plena and you will find the towns, likely on the coast, where coconut still finds its way into the cooking. In fact, it is in these very countries, I've heard from many, that our darker-skinned sisters and brothers have for many generations been referred to as Cocolos - sound familiar?
I wouldn't suggest you walk up into Panama asking, "Usted es comecoco?" because you might get your lights punched out. And you would surely deserve it. These names harken back to those early moments in colonial history when we first started specifying people by their color, their (levels of) disadvantage, by their cuisine. And, as usual, my people were distinguished by their dark skin, their thick hair, and the foods they ate. Coconut, a so called trash food, was not considered by the French or Spanish to be a refined culinary ingredient. It was left, in incredible abundance, on the trees to be picked by those that loved and needed their nourishment.
Coconuts are full of calories and fat. They are power food. I would call their ability to keep my ancestors alive supernatural. They fall in line with a whole host of ingredients that we used and still use to nourish our families and communities - salt cod, ham hocks, rice, pepper, cassava, and on and on. For here we are, 2016, still walking the earth despite the countless obstacles that might have prevented our doing so. It is a miracle that we are still here. It took intelligence and resilience, sure. It also took protection from our gods, music, dance, language, and love. And it took the foods and recipes that we shared, that we passed down and relied on to stay strong, healthy, and full of life.