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August 10, 2006

HEADING: The Cuisine of Reggae: Red, Green and Gold, photo of the Watermelon Man

They call it Bob Marley Boulevard, the thoroughfare at Reggae on the River that goes from the camping area at French's Camp to a bridge across the Eel and on up to the new Reggae on the River festival entrance. It's a rocky road lined with dusty cars, SUVs and tents. The late night party people were just stirring late in the morning as a stream of reggae revelers walked along it, headed toward the music, making way for an occasional auto or off-road vehicle.

The Watermelon Man was parked along the boulevard, the tailgate down on his red, green and gold painted pickup revealing a cargo of luscious melons.

"Fresh, juicy, golden watermelons! Get your delicious watermelon slices, just a dollar!" shouted a young urban barker wearing a Giants cap and wire-rimmed glasses with no lenses, and holding a fistful of bills.

The Watermelon Man, shirtless in a pair of farmer's overalls and a weathered leather cap, expertly wielded a long knife, filling an aluminum tray with golden triangles and slices of honeydew melon. His dreadlocked son, the third in the operation, worked the other side of the tailgate in his stylishly oversized white T.

I bought a slice and, yes, it lived up to the juicy, delicious patter. The Watermelon Man (I never did learn his real name) explained that he grows the melons near Sacramento for a seed company, so most of the year the fruit is processed, the remains composted or turned into animal feed.

photo of Beginnings' pizza bread boothAs he began to tell me about how he started growing melons 30 years ago in an urban garden in San Francisco's Hunter's Point, spinning a story about community building, a 4-wheeler rolled up, driven by a guy in a yellow shirt from the Security crew. "Sorry, no vending allowed on Bob Marley Boulevard", he announced almost apologetically. "You'll have to pack up and move this truck off this road," he insisted as the barker resisted. Our conversation was cut short as the trio moved to comply. I kept moving toward the music and the officially sanctioned food.

Right: Beginnings' pizza bread booth.

Reggae on the River has long been the ultimate fund-raising opportunity for Humboldt nonprofits, mostly from south county, but from up north and Mendocino too. Dozens of schools, volunteer fire departments and assorted other community groups set up shop and feed the crowd of around 15,000. Some of the organizations derive the majority of their annual operating budgets from the green and gold they earn at Reggae.

As you may have heard, the festival expanded upriver this year with the center of operations moving to the larger, cooler and lusher Dimmick Ranch. With Reggae 2.0 using a new location for the concert grounds, organizers redesigned what was once a straight restaurant row, bending it into a horseshoe food court with booths facing outward, leaving a common area in the middle and an open end for easy access.

Of course the old adage, location, location, location, was in effect with more action on the side opposite the stage. The Sprowel Creek VFD root beer/Coke float booth in the corner furthest from the music didn't seem to have much business, but then again, maybe people just weren't in the mood for floats, or the $4 price seemed too high, or perhaps there was some fear of high-fructose corn syrup.

For my purposes the most popular booths were at a disadvantage. I usually wanted to eat between music sets (as did everyone else) and the lines grew too long for an eager diner in a hurry. Thus I never tried the Indian tacos made by the folks from KuKsui, a cultural survival project based on the Round Valley Indian Reservation. They piled the greasy but good fry bread with beans, cheese, lettuce tomatoes and salsa, earning praise from pleased customers (and some needed funds).

I sampled the potstickers from the Garberville Town Square booth and found them slightly disappointing in that they were just frozen prefab items, probably from Costco. The samosas at the nearby Mattole Salmon Group booth were much better, especially the vegetarian version filled with spicy peas, carrots and potatoes, served with a garlicky dipping sauce.

The local Veterans for Peace (seen Fridays on the Arcata Plaza) made their first foray to Reggae this year, selling tasty chile rellenos and a fine carne asade made from grass-fed beef served with a wedge of lime and excellent salsa (or, for the vegans, carne seitan). I don't know about others in the crowd, but I chose the place because I believe in their cause. I had a Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar from the peace-waging Garberville VFW Post No. 6354 for dessert, twice.

Sunday night when hunger struck I headed for the Beginnings pizza bread booth only to find the typically long line — same thing around the corner at the Trees Foundation's Thai noodles booth. There was no line next door at the Brazilian food place run by a SoHum Capoeira club. Signage may have made the difference. The Tree's sign was huge and announced most of the menu. The Capoeira booth suggested that the food was "organic" and "vegan", neglecting to mention that a chicken dish was also an option.

photo of booth with "sold out" signImpatient, I switched from the Thai line and tried the muquecha, a Brazilian dish with onions, peppers and coconut milk (and chicken) served with black beans and rice. It was just what I needed: tasty and pretty filling. But I still wanted pesto pizza bread. An unscientific poll over the weekend told me that it was the best thing around — the ultimate Reggae food, according to one long-time festival-goer. As I rounded the corner I thought I was in luck: The line had mysteriously disappeared. Of course there was a reason. The young crew was putting up a sign that said, "Sold out, thank you." I stopped to ask how they'd done, how much they may have made, and was referred to a supervising elder, who turned out to be Beginnings Inc. director Peter Ryce. He figured they'd sold 10,000 slices of pizza bread, which is actually a slab of French bread topped with tomato sauce, cheese and a choice of pineapple, sliced black olives, and/or Nona Lena pesto. The mark-up is good: An order costs about $1 to make and sells for $4.50 to $6.

"It's labor intensive — hard work," said Peter, noting that he enjoys the community aspect of the labor. Students, parents and returning former students run the booth.

The net profit, probably around $20,000, will help support Skyfish School and Children's House (the Montessori preschool that was the beginning of Beginnings) along with two fire departments in the Briceland area. Specifically, this years' money will go toward upgrading and expanding the kitchen in the Octagon, the central Beginnings structure, which also serves as Briceland's community center. If you read the Journal calendar regularly you'll see that events at the Octagon invariably begin with a dinner of some sort. "We're overdue for some new equipment," said Peter.

What makes their pizza bread the ultimate Reggae food item? Peter thinks it's simple. "They're red, green, gold and black reggae colors," he said with a smile, and returned to the task at hand, counting the weekend green.

As always, there's more to the story. I didn't get around to Paul and Margann's fine wine potluck or my search for the amazing underground soul food kitchen. For more photos and stories on Reggae Cuisine go to

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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