When in Jamaica, get a soursop. It's gastronomic ecstasy under the Caribbean sun. Soursops are easy to find. Unlike money, they grow on trees, and according to Jamaicans, they're always in season.
Don't be put off by the looks of the soursop. It's an unprepossessing fruit, unexceptionally green in color and definitely off-putting in shape. Lumpy and bulbous, the soursop seems overgrown and underbred. Its shiny rind has spiny knobs. While all my soursops have been reasonably sized, local experts swear they've found 10-pounders, up to a foot long.
Never mind. The soursop is the frog prince of the plant kingdom. Cut into one of these oddballs when ripe and you get a snow-white pulp that's chewy and tasty with enough sweetness and tang to titillate the most jaded palate. Furthermore, it's full of Vitamin C. (I even like the pits. They're hard and shiny like tiny after-dinner chestnuts. Capture them easily with a fork or, alternatively, spit them out with aplomb.)
My latest soursop saga occurred last spring while I was vacationing at an all-inclusive Jamaica resort near Ocho Rios. All-inclusive means that a single flat rate buys you all the food, drinks, service, use of facilities and sports instruction you can consume. All-inclusive means you never have to put your hand in your pocket, which is convenient since you're usually wearing a bathing suit.
Officiating one day at my all-included sailing lesson was a reedy young man named Mooney, who had never visited Kingston, let alone left the island of Jamaica. Mooney kept a steady hand on the tiller while I wagged the lone and unretractable sail on our little slab of a boat. Much as a gynecologist talks to distract a nervous patient, Mooney chatted of this and that. His real name, he said, is Donovan Oillet. "I got my nickname," he explained modestly, "because I'm said to be a person who sometimes shines at night."
When I mentioned soursops, his smile enlarged. To Mooney a soursop is an everyday treat, as available as pizza with free delivery. "The leaves are good too," he told me. "You boil them in water. It's good for the nerves." Bobbing perilously, a good quarter-mile from shore, Mooney promised to get me a soursop. "Stop by the beach early tomorrow," he said.
The next day I took a rest from my vacation to visit the Runaway H.E.A.R.T. Country Club, not too far along the road between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. H.E.A.R.T. stands for Human Employment and Research Training. The country club is part of a hotel and restaurant school, one of five government-run career schools on the island. Forty percent of the employees of one all-inclusive I looked in on were H.E.A.R.T. graduates. The concierge there, an alum, described his alma mater: "It's like a monastery there. No smoking, drinking or anything else, and they only let you out once a month." I also learned there are more than six applications for each student opening and a job awaiting every graduate.
H.E.A.R.T. is open to the public, so I hitched a ride in the all-inclusive van that takes golfers from my resort to the Runaway golf course. But first I hurried to the beach, where Mooney was waiting at the towel counter. The towel man, who was studying an Italian vocabulary list, watched as Mooney produced a bulky parcel and unwrapped it. There was the soursop -- the size of a giant sweet potato, kelly green and hard as a maraca.
Mooney was sorry it wasn't ripe but he told me what to do. First snip off the prickles. Then wrap the smoothened soursop in newspaper. Leave it in a cool spot for a few days. "Boil the leaves," the towel man told me. "It's good for the nerves."
"Grazie," I said.
"Prego," he replied.
Hotel employees are encouraged to study foreign languages because of a phenomenal influx of transoceanic guests. A month earlier, a third of the guests had been Italian. Next, after the U.S. and Canadian majority, came German, then French, then Japanese. Strait-laced Jamaicans have a little trouble explaining the rules to topless Europeans, the towel man told me. "Jamaicans are a very moral society," he said. "Jamaican women would never do that."
I rushed the soursop up to my space in a four-suite villa that had its own swimming pool and an all-included villa attendant to clean up, fix breakfast and keep the fruit juices flowing. There was just time enough to follow Mooney's instructions before the van took off.
The soursop -- more formally called guanabana -- is the fruit of a slender evergreen tree of the same name, native to the West Indies but now found throughout the American tropics. The fruit is a member of the custard apple family that smells like perfumed soap and is prone to attack by the Jamaica fruit bat.
No form of soursop appeared on the menu of any of the four restaurants at my all-inclusive, but there were several local specialties. The beachside trattoria, for example, offered a Rasta Pizza with ackee, callaloo, tomatoes, olives and onions. My favorite lunch was what I insisted on calling Rasta Pasta, any kind of macaroni with sauce made with all of the above plus coconut juice. Another popular dish was jerk chicken (steeped in a marinade of torrid spices). The word "jerk" affixed to any meat or poultry dish in Jamaica may be taken as a warning that the first mouthful will catapult you out of your chair.
At the H.E.A.R.T. Academy, I visited the computer room, the rehearsal restaurant and the food lab, a kitchen with six six-burner stoves, two wall ovens, one microwave, two overhead broilers, six fryers and a roomy refrigerator. The huge wooden cupboard was made from the packing case that then-food preparation instructor, Les Goodall, had brought with him from England the previous fall. (Goodall has since returned to England.)
H.E.A.R.T. gets financial assistance from the U.K. Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation and also from the United Nations, which supports hotel schools around the world. At H.E.A.R.T. 262 students (136 live-in) receive stipends as well as free tuition for eight- or 12-month programs, which include math, English, family life, tourism and French. The enthusiastic Goodall, previously a chef and now a world-traveling teacher, reports that most of his H.E.A.R.T. students have job offers before they've even completed their work-study component. "Every graduate," he said, "is fully prepared to cook a five-course meal, both Jamaican and international."
Back at my resort, I interviewed a bar waitress named Melrose, a recent H.E.A.R.T. graduate. "I have three skills," she told me, "waitressing, bartending, housekeeping. I'll never be out of a job."
Each guest at my all-inclusive was entitled to a complimentary body massage, neck-and-shoulder rub, foot rub (called, unaccountably, reflexology), manicure and pedicure. It was the first time I'd had a manicure in sync with my husband's -- and his first. I remarked to my manicurist that I had a soursop in my room. My husband's manicurist said, "Boil the leaves. It's good for the nerves."
"Wash them first," my manicurist warned.
"Cover them with cold water," my masseuse said the next day as she flexed my knee. "Boil them for at least 20 minutes. It makes a tea. Drink it hot."
My husband is ticklish and had trouble holding still for the reflexologist. "You drink some too," she advised him.
Two flawlessly sunny days later, I squeezed the soursop and it yielded. I took a sharp knife from our well-stocked kitchen drawer and made the incision. I peeled back the skin, picked out the pits and ate a wad of pulp. Heavenly! I took a chunk to my husband on the terrace, where he was enjoying the landscaping -- mown lawns and flowering bushes through which he could see a swath of clear Caribbean Sea. He chewed the soursop dubiously. "Quite tasty," he concluded.
Roselin, our attentive attendant, had stopped by with some clean laundry. She was politely dismayed to see us eating soursop straight. Jamaicans make it into jellies, ice cream, sherbet and, above all, milkshakes. Gentle Roselin wanted to gild our lily with condensed milk and a run in the blender. I let her have half, if she'd promise to use plain milk and just a pinch of sugar. I told her I'd take care of the leaves myself. She approved of that: "Good for the nerves," she said.
I ended up with some purply-green water that tasted like a blend of artichoke and asparagus. I chilled it in the fridge. After tennis my husband and I went for Roselin's soursop juice. It was not bad. In fact, I thought, I'll have to get two soursops next time. For her manifold services, I wanted to give Roselin a wildly extravagant tip, but that satisfaction was denied me. Tipping is taboo at all-inclusives. An employee caught with a hand out is axed on the spot. Even though I swore secrecy, not a one would take the chance.
Early on our last morning, as we were packing up, preparing for the return trip to cold and noninclusive city life, I poured the soursop tea and my husband and I drank it up. We thought we'd be needing it.
Rolaine Hochstein is a short-story writer and novelist.