At the end of the summer of 2010, I left the Vineyard to spend a semester of college in Cameroon. There, my host mother and I bonded over a love of food. In our neighborhood of Yaoundé, the capital city, she was known to be a great cook, and I soon came to be known as the American with the big appetite—it was a match made in heaven. We had planned to grill her specialty dish together, a whole fish with basil sauce, before I left, but I was kicked out of the country before we had a chance to.
I spent just over three months studying abroad in Yaoundé. The choice to go there was not an easy one. My professors advised me to go to Italy, and the allure of Milanese pizza and princesses was more than tempting. In the end, however, I decided I wanted to have an experience that was completely unlike any other I had had before.
Cameroon did not disappoint. There were many highs during my stay—searching for sea turtles on the beach, weekly soccer games with a bunch of taxi cab drivers, and spaghetti omelets, to name a few—but there were lows as well, a great many of which were a direct result of the stringent rules of the study abroad program I was a part of. Three months into my stay, I broke one too many (or five) of those rules by traveling to a part of the country I wasn’t allowed to visit. Shortly thereafter, I was expelled from the program.
It was not an unexpected outcome. My fellow students had been wagering as to the chances of my remaining in the program, and few gave me great odds. But that did not make it a less hurtful one, particularly because I knew that I had run out of time to grill that specialty fish with my host mom. Indeed, the most painful result of leaving the country came from knowing that we would perhaps never be able to eat that meal together.
So back home I did the next best thing available: I substituted a Vineyard grilled fish for the Cameroonian one.
With no host father to bring one back from the coast, I bought a bass from John’s Fish Market in Vineyard Haven. Instead of grilling it over a wooden flame on my doorstep, I threw it on the gas grill on my porch. And without my host mom’s sauce prepared with basil from the market, my actual mom made one with basil from our backyard garden in Edgartown that was equal to the task.
Of course, nothing could truly match the original sauce, just as nothing could recreate the lost meal. But grilling that elusive fish in a corner of Sengekontacket rather than in a quartier of Yaoundé made up for it in a way, and I know my host mother would have thought so too, if only for one reason: it was delicious.