A special sweet conjures memories of trailer-sailing in Mexico, where refreshing “drinking cocos” are there for the picking
The seething, smog-filled Mexican cities lay behind us. Towing our 17-foot sloop through the mountains of Mexico, we’d endured days of white-knuckled steering. We’d dodged potholes, trucks, dogs, and donkeys, as we tried to stay ahead of the boat, which threatened to overrun us as we dropped from snow-lined passes at 8,000 feet to steamy sea level in just a few hours.
Now all that was done, and finally the road was straight. The Gulf of Mexico was on our left, the Caribbean ahead. We drove past emerald green pastures, hump-backed cattle with brilliant white egrets stalking underfoot, and clumps of coconut palms, their feathery heads outlined against a flawless blue sky.
This road had no shoulder; water-filled ditches ran parallel to it on each side. But every few miles there’d be a small crossroad or a widening with just enough room to squeeze off the blacktop. At these junctures would be a couple of boxes, a small table, a box of straws, a chopping block, and sometimes a little roof for shelter from the sun or rain. But always, there’d be a pile of coconuts with a cardboard sign reading, “Cocos!” or, with a couple of coolers stacked in the shade, “Cocos Helados!” — with a price for chilled nuts scrawled in crayon.
The vendors were either very young or very old. Their machetes — the prime piece of equipment needed for this small business — were often as tall as they were. Because we were hot and always thirsty, we stopped often, and thus began our education about “cocos.”
The vendor would hold a nut on the block, swish down with two or three strokes and expose the strata — the green or yellow-green outside, the fibrous, light-brown husk, the chocolate-colored shell, and finally, the small circle of white. There followed a quick swirl with the tip of the machete blade, insertion of a straw — and voila! We couldn’t get the cool, sweet liquid down our throats fast enough. When we were finished, the vendor would take our nuts, slice a couple of “eating paddles” from a husk, and hand them to us. Then, with a mighty swing and thud, he’d cleave the nuts in two, allowing us to scoop out the jelly-like lining that, on young nuts, tastes like pudding.
Puffy trade wind clouds sailed over the Yucatan Peninsula as we drove on, and soon we, too, sailed. We circled Chetumal Bay, where we often anchored out of sight of land with a mere two to three feet of water below us. We visited the small village of Xcalac, with its houses just steps from the turquoise shallows of the Western Caribbean. A few pesos, a fresh fish offered in trade, or just a chat with the caretaker or owner of some little rancho got us all the coconuts we needed. We learned to judge ripeness by shaking: No sound meant the nut was young and full; a little sloshing meant it was older, with the liquid more effervescent and the meat more firm. Loud sloshing meant a mature nut — though the drying husk would also give that away.
My lasting memories of that cruise are these: Trade winds blowing straight onshore, crashing breakers rumbling over reefs, mixing indigo blue with foaming white. Twisting coconuts off trees and whacking them open with our small machete, then gulping the cool, sweet liquid as it spilled and dribbled down our chins.
We’re looking at cedars and firs now instead of casuarinas and palms, but thankfully the local grocery has a good supply of coconuts. They’re not drinking nuts, and the liquid inside isn’t “milk” — it’s strong-tasting and seldom used in cooking. I choose nuts that feel heavy and have liquid inside. Then, over the sink, I whack them around their equator with the back of a heavy knife or cleaver until they break. I pry out the meat with a strong, round-tipped table knife. Then I grate it with a simple hand-grater and use it for making a special treat. We like to call them “Coconut Dreams.”
Meat of 1 coconut, grated (about 3 cups, loosely packed)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
½ cup flour (more if the meat is very moist)
Remove meat from one mature coconut. Pare off the dark brown outer skin. Grate, using a medium blade. In a bowl, combine coconut meat with beaten eggs and stir well. Add sugar, again stirring well. Slowly add flour, working it in thoroughly. Add flour until the dough holds its shape. Shape into balls and bake at 350 degrees F for about half an hour, until browned on the outside. Mmmmm! (If you prefer to make cookies, the dough doesn’t have to be quite as firm).