Maine, US | Hard water5 min read . Updated: 03 Oct 2014, 11:22 AM IST
On these stormy waters, a meal of curried mussels, a leap that wasn'tand another that was
The most unusual place I have cooked at was on a small boat that was swaying in Penobscot Bay on the coast of Maine in the US. This was when I’d made fresh mussels fried with curry powder and cumin and much else on a pan upon a stove.
I was with several of my classmates. We had just completed a two-year programme at business school. We were MBAs now. In a few weeks we would all go our separate ways—some to Wall Street, some to the great American industrial heartland, a few on to the West Coast, whereas I was to go to Geneva, on a fellowship at the United Nations.
To recover from the intense study of cases, running regressions and figuring out spreadsheets, some of us had signed up for an Outward Bound course where we would hike, sail, and learn survival skills. We drove to Rockport in Maine and made our way to the waterfront, where a tall guy called Jonathan was going to be our instructor and take charge of our lives for a week.
I can make curried seafood, I volunteered. I had carried some cumin and curry powder in my rucksack, and there was salt and paprika around.
The boat wasn’t very stable; we were routinely buffeted by winds. This was summer, but we were away from mainland and it often got chilly. Waves soaked us more often than I wished. I often sat shivering, and one of my classmates, Kate, would fling her spare sweatshirt towards me so that I’d shiver less. Seagulls circled over us, talking intently with each other, mocking our vain attempts to keep the boat moving in one direction.
Jonathan took it upon himself to gather the mussels. He scooped them out of the water with ease, piling them by our feet in a bucket. Rick sat near the stern, ready to light the stove when I was ready. Laura wanted to help, and to learn how to make curry. I had to deliver; they looked at me with great expectations.
Some cut the potatoes, some sliced the tomatoes, and I sat near the stove which was now lit, and realized that we didn’t have any cooking oil. Never mind, I thought: In Bombay, as my hometown was then known, I had seen young men produce sizzling pav bhaji on the tawa (griddle) using only butter, and so I decided we’d have buttered mussel curry.
The boat continued to bounce.
I liberally applied the butter stick on the pan till the butter began to sizzle. I put the paprika and cumin first, then the curry powder and watched it turn frothy and colourful. My friends had chopped the potatoes and tomatoes by now, so in they went. The North Atlantic was filled with smells of the kind that had never wafted through this landscape. Jonathan had steamed the mussels lightly and taken them off their shells. In they went, tossing and turning in that delicious mix of butter and spices. I added some water and the ocean thought it should also help and splashed a mighty wave on us, part of it falling into the pan. Dave, who was sitting on one side, said in a droll tone: “Salil, now you need not add salt."
I dipped a spoon into the pan and cautiously tasted the now watery gravy. The curry tasted surprisingly all right. A bit more cumin and some more time on the stove, and some of the sea water would evaporate, and we would be ready to eat.
The mussels turned out all right. We ate them with bread. My friends wanted more, but I had run out of cumin and curry powder.
The following morning our task was to plunge into the water from a cliff. My friends did, one by one, but I didn’t know how to swim at that time. I had a floating device tied to me, and they urged me to take the plunge. But I was afraid. Dave said I could do it; Laura held my hand and said she would dive with me and wouldn’t let go of my hand. I trusted her but I didn’t believe in myself. They let me off.
Later that night as we looked at the stars above us, Rick told me he had seen my eyes and knew I could do it. Laura said we aren’t alone. We had gone through two years of gruelling work at school and survived. That was a far bigger achievement. The following morning, it was my turn to hold the rope while Dave rappelled down. “My life is in your hands, buddy," he said; I looked into his eyes and said I wouldn’t let him down.
On the last day Jonathan took each of us to a different part of the island and left us alone. We were meant to write on a card the 10 things we would want to do in life. “Keep that card in your pocket. Look at it 20 years later."
I was at a spot surrounded by trees from where I could see the roaring sea. The sky was clear blue. One by one I started writing down my aspirations. The sea kept rising and falling, urging me to imagine. And that’s what I did, dreaming of what might be, beyond that ocean.
Many years later, while clearing stuff in my house in London I came across that list again. A quarter century had passed. I had done six of those 10 things. One was no longer possible. Three remained. I could hear the sound of the waves; I still had oceans to cross.
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The nearest international airport is Boston’s Logan International. You can fly there from most Indian cities by connecting flights via New York (one-way air fare starts at around ₹ 45,000). From there, take I-95 to Rockport, Maine, which is a distance of 185 miles (around 297km).
There are many excellent restaurants serving seafood. The local lobster is a speciality. Try Cappy’s Chowder House (1 Main Street) and Fresh (1 Bay View Street).
You can go sailing, climbing, hiking, birdwatching and rappelling, but please undertake such activities under supervision of experts.