(Note: This piece was originally published in an in-flight magazine. After I had read and approved the final version, someone decided to change direct quotes, armed only with a thesaurus. For example, the forager I was traveling with said, “I love to caper [a specific flower bud].” That was, for some reason, changed to “I love snatch them.” Since I loved the story and want to correct the record, here’s the story about foraging Aruba (with my original language). There will be capers and capering, and snatching, too, but in the correct contexts.)
Frank Kelly and I loaded into his car; we both entered through the passenger door.
“My front door does not open.” He shrugged and his happy eyes squinted shut behind thick-framed glasses.
Kelly drove us to Aruba’s northern point, away from the hotels, where the palm forest once stood and where Kelly’s grandparents had taught him to forage.
Once in the north, sky-scraping cacti towered over us, dive-bombing pelicans exploded into the ocean, kamikaze lizards sprinted for our tires.
“We have a lot of seaweed,” Kelly explained. “But in our culinary history, we have no recipes with seaweed. I ask myself why. So I come out here to find seaweed that we can use in our food. Most of the time it’s trial and error. You put some stuff in your mouth and try.”
That philosophy would guide us through our day’s culinary adventure.
Kelly stopped beside the turquoise sea and we snacked on foods he had prepared from yesterday’s harvest, like spongy cactus croquettes and marmalade, which he had made gelatinous by dehydrating seaweed and turning it into a pectin-like powder.
“This is tea.” Kelly presented the floral equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. He had wrapped a small, pink minty flower inside moringa’s peppery petals and enveloped the pair in toronjil’s citrusy corolla. Dehydrated, yet still-purple frangipani petals served as the natural bag.
When breakfast was done, Kelly pulled off his shirt, exposing a tattooed menagerie of bees with cartoon smiles and sparrows fluttering across his pudgy torso, and swapped slippers for punctured skateboarding shoes. Then he ran across razor-sharp coral like a steady mountain goat. By the time I made it halfway, he was back with his bounty. “I eat all of this,” he said, spilling a mollusk, red sea lettuce, and red-tinted seaweed called dulse into my hands, as if he were expecting me to gobble down the medley now.
I tried the dulse, which tasted like most flora submerged for a lifetime in salt.
“I blanch dulse,” Kelly said, “and use it for chimichurri. Normally, I can get enough mollusks for two bowls of soup in four hours.”
We climbed through the passenger door again and drove past endless cacti. Kelly called out the myriad names of the cacti in the way Inuits differentiated between snow.
Suddenly, Kelly swerved off the road and pulled himself through the driver’s side window as if he were escaping hornets that got loose in the car. I watched him jump beside a tree.
When he finished bounding, Kelly leaned through the window with a beautiful orange flower with wide-spaced petals. “Flamboyan. Great for salads. The pollen is like turmeric.”
I munched on the citrus-flavored petals. “This is great.”
“The bud is better. I love to caper it.”
The bud, however, turned my mouth fuzzy. I had forgotten that I was slightly allergic to some fruits, which meant that the same was probably true of buds and flowers. But I experienced nothing worse than that tingle. Kelly, however, had taken greater risks.
“I ate a red berry once with heart-shaped leaves,” he said. “Man, I was sick. But I don’t worry about this. There are many poisonous plants that I ate and nothing happened.”
However, his foraging is not guided by chance alone. Much of the flora on the island has been documented and their purposes recorded. In fact, Kelly’s grandmother authored such a book. But in the past few years, Kelly has made discoveries that upend old-school beliefs. For example, according to island lore, a plant that Kelly calls koko rabana had always been used in abortions. But he discovered that koko rabana had a different purpose: It worked as a blood purifier.
“The elders would get mad and say to me, ‘Do you know what you are talking about?’ This is because I’m changing how people think. Look, some people put a tea leaf under their pillow to rid themselves of a fever. I like the myths, but I have to be realistic.”
But contending with culture is not as difficult for him as dealing with Aruba’s overdevelopment and the destruction of overlooked resources.
“I love my island, but my people don’t embrace our culture because there’s nothing to embrace. Instead of looking outside, we need to look inside. We can’t just think we have tourism to offer. We have so much more. And we have to do more with what we have. How come we don’t cook with cactus?”
As soon as he stopped talking, Frank Kelly launched himself from the open window again. He returned to the car with a sweet-smelling, but bitter-tasting white flower. We drove a few meters more, but no sooner was he out the window plucking a purple and white flower called shoshoro. “It soothes skin irritations.” (It tasted like passion fruit.)
Kelly’s self-defenestration continued, but each time it ended with a flower and a smile. “People don’t think that we have good food here, but we have everything that we need.”