The Nemesis Sandwich: Pain Coco
“Come on!” Dorita said, “we have to get to Tavana‘s (governor’s) house to pick up our pain coco (coconut bread)!” I slipped on my flip-flops and followed my hostess down the path that led to the gravel road circling our island. We’d been waiting all week–ever since the island’s bakery had announced that they’d be baking the special rolls for delivery on Friday. Tavana’s wife had ordered dozens of pain coco, enough for the entire village to share, as a leader’s wife should. And we were on our way to claim ours.
As we walked up the road, I thought about food here on Tahaa. Many of my colleagues from the anthropology department conducted their fieldwork in regions where food was scarce. I had landed in French Polynesia, where most people had plenty to eat. I was glad to be here, rather than a place where people went hungry.
Because to study starving people, you have to let them starve. The rules of inquiry demand that one arrive in the field self-sufficient. They also demand that one not upset the local economy, for better or for worse.
Food was available here. On the main island of Tahiti, one could acquire almost anything available back in California–at a price. Here on the outer islands, where I was studying, food was plentiful, but variety was scarce.
Pain Coco, like any break in the dietary monotony, was a big deal.
Tavana‘s wife, who was also Dorita’s aunt, insisted that we stay and eat lunch with her. Once the other villagers had claimed their rolls and left, Dorita went into the kitchen to gather what we’d need. She returned with tinned butter, Nutella, cherry preserves….and a can of Armour potted meat.
“Taste one,” the governor’s niece offered, handing me a roll. I bit. The bread reminded me of a King’s Hawaiian roll–slightly sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. I didn’t taste coconut.
“It’s good,” I said.
“I’ll make you a sandwich,” Dorita said. “What would you like on it?”
“Butter and preserves, please,” I said, eyeing that can of potted meat with dread.
I left to wash my hands. When I returned, Dorita had buttered the roll, which looked something like a hamburger bun, and spread jam on one side. As I approached the table, she grabbed the can of potted meat, swirled her knife into the goo, and smeared a gob of it all over the other side of the roll.
I felt my smile freeze.
As I sat she slid the plate toward me. “Eat!” she said, smiling.
Tavana’s wife sat with us. “Bon appétit!” she said.
“Bon appétit,” I fairly grumbled. I gagged down the sandwich, trying to ignore the fatty, pasty spread on the roll. I would brush my tongue after we ate, attempting to scrub off a layer of grease that seemed to cling there.
The tears came later, when I sat at my makeshift desk in front of a window in Dorita’s home. A small boy ran up, left a mango on the windowsill–a gift for me–then ran off, giggling.
These people had welcomed me into their community, despite the inconveniences of having a nosy white girl move in for months and months, always poking about and asking incessant questions.
My attempts at self-sufficiency were doomed, because these people shared everything. So often I received more than I wanted, more than I needed.
And I had become so accustomed to their generosity that I felt annoyance when their gifts were not exactly what I wanted.
I almost packed up and went home in shame, that day.
But I stayed. I didn’t go there to learn gratitude, or grace. But I needed the lesson.
31 Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Matthew 6:31-33 (NASB)