Natalie Compagno gets muddied up on her way to the Blue Food Festival, an outdoor party that brings together thousands of locals to eat Dasheen-inspired dishes.
Mud covers my legs and I have no idea where my knee starts and the wet earth begins. I lost my shoes long ago in some sort of sink hole. I took a step and suddenly one of my purple flats was gone, sucked into a sticky rain puddle. Don’t ask what I decided to wear that day, it’s embarrassing. My white lace skirt and top that seemed “Oh So Caribbean Chic” hours ago is now soaking, plastered to my body and, yes, covered with mud splatter. I have a bathing suit on underneath, so I am at least grateful that my now see-through outfit isn’t offending anyone. My hair is soaked, I am barefoot and trudging through the chaos to the make-shift bar for happy hour. I am at the Blue Food Festival in Tobago. Did I mention it is raining?
Going back earlier that day, when I decided to don this “cute” outfit and make my way around the island to Bloody Bay and the Blue Food Festival, it was sunny. Being a tourist, I clearly had zero idea that that meant in a few hours the heavens would open up and a deluge of water would fall down upon me. I decided to make every mistake I could. Why go straight to the Blue Food Festival? It’s only the biggest food (and music) festival on Tobago. No, no. I will let all the crowds show up and take all the parking. Then, I’ll arrive late, wet and confused. Great plan. I headed for the rainforest first to do a little hiking and see some waterfalls. The sky was blue and the birds were singing so I figured why not enjoy some exercise before stuffing my face?
Tobago’s Blue Food Festival is a celebration of much more than just Dasheen, a root vegetable that turns blue when cooked. It is a full-scale production with chefs and home cooks from around Trinidad and Tobago who come to share their culinary skills, compete for prizes and enjoy the festivities. Steel pan groups play, dancers perform on stage and off, MC’s inspire the crowd to cheer and soca, reggae and pop hits blare from speakers. Fifteen years and running, this outdoor party brings in thousands of people to taste and vote on Dasheen-inspired dishes. Who knew a simple root veggie could be so prolific? Dasheen pizza, Dasheen cheese cake, Dasheen tarts, Dasheen wine, Dasheen soda … you get the idea. Think of a food and add Dasheen. The tents that house these delectable inventions surround a large open space for dancing. This party is the place to see and be seen.
I arrived as the rain did and as we inched our way down the hill to Bloody Bay. An officer waved our car over and told us parking was full and we needed to turn left, away from Bloody Bay. One way in, one way out. We had already been barely moving due to poorly parked cars on the side of the road and no organization whatsoever by the powers that be. Are there no tow trucks in Tobago, I muse as I watched the time tick by. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast (woe is me). As the car started to turn left I panicked as I realized the truth of the situation. We are not going to make it to the festival, I thought. If we veer off course now we will be caught in a maze with the other morons who decided to come late to the rodeo. I forced my kind driver to pull over immediately into the driveway of a bar.
“Wait Here.” Before he could object I was out the door.
What happened next I am not proud of, but being Sicilian I greatly dislike missing meals. After bribing the bar owner for his coveted parking space I then ordered everyone to walk down the rest of the way on foot. In the rain.
“It’s far,” my driver pointed out as a warning, but I wasn’t listening to reason. Shuttle schmuttle. I lived in NYC when I was younger. I know how to survive.
I will skip through the “cowering under doorway eves, in-between running through the rain down the two mile windy road, while pathetically attempting to hitchhike” part and cut to the Blue Food Festival at the end of the road. At last, with the rain still pouring down on me, a drowned rat, shoeless and hungry.
Here’s where the travelers are separated from the tourists. Just when I thought, “Is this worth it?”, the festival opened up before me and I saw what everyone was talking about. Yes, I immediately ordered curry goat, Dasheen pie and every other food option in front of me. Yes, I poured six different grades of hot pepper sauce onto my food and wolfed it down like a ravenous escaped convict. But, I also saw the festival for what it was. A party. Everyone was liming and having the best time. This was about kicking off your shoes and having a blast. Literally. And as soon as my belly was full I looked around and really took it all in.
I saw incredible outfits: multi-colored dresses, skin tight affairs, men in full suits and a small few who were actually prepared for the rain. On stage were high school dance troupes, Baron the Calypso legend, Ronnie McIntosh a soca star and Oscar B, the local Tobagonian singer. Couples were grinding to the beat of steel pan and the rain deterred no one from having the best time. Sharleen John won Best Overall Dasheen Dish & Cook of the Day, Most Innovative Dasheen Dish and Best Table Display. As the winner was announced the crowd erupted into cheers.
In the mix at the Blue Food Festival
Muddy and desperate for a happy hour drink, I make my way over to a bar that’s basically a card table that miraculously hasn’t sunk into the mud. I ask for some local rum and the bartender picks up the entire table and motions for me to come inside the tent to look through his boxes of booze. Perhaps he had pity on me due to my appearance but most likely this was just Trini hospitality and general good cheer. I glance at the options but before I can choose, I find myself dancing with another bartender, taking selfies and forgetting all about the drink and the rain.
Off to the side, a whole pig roasts over a make-shift bamboo spit and the delicious aroma makes me turn my head. I glance over my shoulder to see my friend in the distance purchasing bottles of Dasheen wine to take back to our hotel. This is awesome. This is a local experience. This is The Blue Food Festival in Tobago.
How to attend the festival and NOT lose your shoes:
Go to the festival early. EARLY. Wear comfortable shoes and an outfit you don’t mind getting muddy. My bartender friend said it best, (insert cool Trini accent). “Every year it rains man. This is a difficult location for this party. But we will never move it. It’s part of the fun.” If you can take a car service that’s best but realistically you should plan on getting there early, taking the shuttle down and walking back up. In the rain. You won’t mind if you’re dressed appropriately and have eaten and imbibed.
Stay at either Coco Reef for charm, moonlight swims and a beautiful veranda restaurant or the luxurious Magdalena Grand and experience five-star dining with local flavors at their restaurant Kalina. I loved their Tobago Curry and Coconut Vegetables.