By Fyllis Hockman
Our paths never crossed when my husband and I visited Martha’s Vineyard the same week as President Obama and his family, but there was evidence of them everywhere. Within a single block of our hotel, a sign in an ice cream shop advertised Baracky Road as the flavor of the month, a local bar billed its specialty drink as an Obamatini, and a fudge store boasted Sasha and Malia chocolate fudge filled with M&Ms. A confectionary stand at a nearby farmers’ market offered Yes We Candy.
Food seemed to be the order of the day. From the traditional tourist-town appeal of Vineyard Haven to the down-and-dirty beach-strand shacks of Menemsha to the total isolation of Chappaquiddick, the approximately 100-square-mile island is big enough to explore by car but small enough to traverse by bike. Unusual eateries pop up everywhere (except Chappaquiddick where, even more unusual, not a single restaurant can be found).
My first surprising food experience came in Aquinnah, at the western end of the island, whose claims to fame are the Gay Head Cliffs and Lighthouse and the influence of the Wampanoag Indians, who still live there. A red cobblestone walkway houses an assortment of stalls selling everything from pendants and jewelry to T-shirts, crafts, ice cream and sandwiches. What I didn’t expect to see was Faith’s Seafood Shack and Sushi Bar, a walk-up window promising sushi, sashimi and almost two dozen different kinds of California rolls. Seaside sushi? Not your normal boardwalk fare.
A visit to Menemsha, a working fishing village that is part of Chilmark, where the Obamas stayed during their vacation here, brought more fun food encounters. In this small surf-and-sand community are tiny beach shacks you’d never confuse with fine dining establishments, and the emphasis is on all things ocean. As I passed a picnic table unexpectedly residing alongside a rundown gas station, I did a double-take at the family dining there on whole lobsters. What they lacked in ambience, they made up in succulence as the drawn butter dribbled happily from their lips onto their bathing suits. Just down the road, another family was enjoying a private tailgate party as they lunched on lobster from their hatchback. All they were missing were the lobster bibs.
I was eager to sample the lobster rolls recommended from Larson’s Fish Market. Although they didn’t best my all-time favorite from the small Pine Tree frosty ice cream stand in Rangeley, Maine — a tad too much mayo for my liking — they did serve up meaty chunks of lobster. Several Menemsha eateries also offer options to carry out and take down to the beach for a sunset-and-seafood supper, another Vineyard tradition. Pick up the famous fried clams at The Bite, indulge in the $14.99 Sunset Special (1-pound lobster, soup, seafood salad and stuffed clams) from the Menemsha Cafe or order off the Back Door Menu from the Home Port Restaurant. Most of the towns on the Vineyard are dry, so bring booze along with your beach blanket if you want to wash your seafood down with suds.
For sit-down seafood, the restaurant choices are too numerous to be whittled down to a not-to-be-missed few. But the Vineyard also offers offbeat dining options that provide interesting seafood alternatives.
The island celebrates the influence of the American Indian, African-American and Portuguese populations that have long inhabited the island. But the Brazilian community has been a recent addition, settling in as year-round residents only in the past 10 to 15 years. According to Anna Carringer, assistant curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Edgartown, “The flavor of Vineyard culture has been greatly enriched by the increasing impact of the growing presence of the Brazilian community.”
She plans to feature them in an upcoming oral history exhibit.
That being the case, it seemed only fitting to seek out a Brazilian restaurant. Joelson Cardoso and his chef-wife, Rose, have owned Tropical in Vineyard Haven for only a year, but it already has become a mainstay of local Brazilians. The couple imported a special oven from Brazil to accommodate the multiple slabs of meat that cook rotisserie-style. Customers select from among options that include beef ribs; roast beef; pork loin; chicken hearts, legs and wings; lamb; and two different kinds of sausages — which are then sliced to order and paired up with a selection of potatoes, rice and beans, salads and stews from the buffet.
We ate at the Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs the night after the president’s family did. We gambled that if the tuna tartare appetizer and the steak and short ribs entree with twice-baked potatoes were good enough for the president, they were good enough for us.
The fresh, hot doughnuts prepared nightly at the nearby MV Gourmet Cafe and Bakery are a legend on the island, so despite having finished off every bite of dinner, we headed to the cafe’s Back Porch for our fix. As one island resident enthused: “The freshly baked doughnuts are the most amazing thing you will ever eat in your life. They’re an institution here.”
At lunchtime, the recommendation of another islander led us to Edgartown and Humphrey’s, a bustling takeout deli that was overflowing with locals. There we encountered The Gobbler, an entire Thanksgiving dinner crammed between two pieces of oatmeal bread. The combo of roasted turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce plus lettuce and tomato measured at least 5 inches tall, and at a mere $6.95 was a filling repast for two — or three.
While President Obama played golf and went biking, I exercised my eating options. I’m not sure which of us had the better time on the island, but I suspect both of us would like to return.
IF YOU GO
For more information about Martha’s Vineyard, call 508-693-0085 or visit www.mvy.com.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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