Kookoo for Coconuts

(In June 2003, journalists Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair uprooted themselves from Los Angeles and moved to the South Pacific. Their first stop is Rarotonga. They brought their two young daughters with them.)

Mark’s obsession with ukuleles has been replaced by a fascination with coconuts. It’s all he talks about lately. His goal today is to make coconut cream, which he will then use to make coconut chicken, creamy pasta sauce, and scones from scratch.

He recruited Sarina to help him in his mission. They collected fallen coconuts this morning, spotting a few next to our laundry lines, and a couple more scattered around the border of our lawn.

Now Mark and Sarina are out in the front yard, trying to open the fruits, which is no simple matter. The edible part of a coconut is encapsulated by a fibrous shell, which is protected by another, thicker shell that — as Mark has learned — cannot be penetrated by whacking it with a sharp rock.

While Mark pries the outer shells open with his handmade ironwood spear (which took him two days to carve and sharpen), Sarina sits on the grass with a bush knife in hand, whacking the inner shells in half.

“You could slice off someone’s head with one of those knives,” I hear Mark say.

“Really?” Sarina squeals.

I flinch as she raises the knife up into the air, and wonder if I should interfere. I don’t think a bush knife, which must be in the same family as a machete, is an age-appropriate tool for a 6-year-old. But then she cracks the coconut open, a perfect split, and she and Mark hoot with delight.

Once the coconuts are all opened, the white “meat” needs to be grated. Again, this is no simple matter. It’s not something you can do with your ordinary cheese grater. The fruit is tenaciously tough and must be shredded with a coconut scraper. After days of looking in shops for a scraper, which everyone on the island seems to own, Mark found out that no one sells these tools. They are handmade by bolting a section of a car’s leaf spring onto a small wooden bench.

Until Mark is able to rig together one of his own, he’ll be borrowing our landlord’s scraper.

Mark and Sarina argue over who gets to scrape the coconuts, and Sarina wins. She straddles the bench with half a coconut in hand, bends forward, and begins to scrape the inside of the shell against the metal scraper. The moist shreds fall into a bucket. She stops for a moment to peel off her shirt, then continues to grate until she runs out of coconuts.

Mark scoops the white mush into a large piece of cheesecloth and wrings it into a jar, which also contains fresh clear milk from the coconuts. It’s surprising how much liquid squirts out of the cloth.

He’s now ready to begin cooking.

Jane is napping, so I decide to steal Sarina for the afternoon. We head down to the beach and rent a bright-orange kayak. The boat has an inch of water that sloshes around our feet as we paddle out to a motu, or islet. The bottom of the shallow lagoon is patched with huge black spots, which, we soon find out, are clusters of sea cucumbers. Sarina leans way over the boat, almost capsizing us.

“What are you doing?” I shout.

She laughs and holds up a fat limp cucumber, as if she’d just won a trophy.

We come home famished. Mark walks out to the front yard to greet us, looks up at our palm tree, and by sheer luck, witnesses a coconut falling from its top. It thumps to the ground with a force that could crack a skull. His eyes water with amazement, the way Moses may have wept when he witnessed the parting of the Red Sea.

I make a mental note to stay clear of that tree when hanging my clothes on the line.


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