Al Roker: Grouper and Bonefish and Conch, Oh My
By : Lauren Price
In the spring of 2000, Al Roker, NBC-TV Today’s weatherman, best-selling author, and self-professed foodie turned his love of Bahamian food into a family affair when he headed off for the Bahamas to film “Al Roker’s Bahamian Reunion Special” for the Food Network. Sunshine, pristine beaches and fun aside—the seven-time-Emmy-Award winner was the perfect spokesperson for the Bahamas.
The special followed Al and his family as they fished for grouper in the crystal-clear waters of Nassau and for ever-elusive bonefish in Exuma, strolled along the waterfront conch stalls in Arawak Cay and stopped at local favorites like Goldies and 'B' Man's Kitchen, sampling conch fritters and conch salad along the way. Filming the show gave the Rokers—and the viewing public—a chance to experience firsthand the destination's culture and cuisine, along with the opportunity to visit historical sites and enable Al to pore over church documentation and trace his ancestors back to the plantation days.
On Father’s Day, Scribner’s will release Al’s second book, The Big Bad Book of Barbeque which will be a collection of about 100 recipes from the Roker family as well as classic backyard fare, hot grilling tips, barbeque wisdom, Al's very own cartoons and plenty of four-color photographs of Al in action with tongs and a big spatula. Chances are, he has another hit on his hands since his first book was on the subject of parenting—Don't Make Me Stop this Car: Adventures in Fatherhood—spent four weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list.
These days, Mr. Roker grills and resides in New York City with his wife, ABC News and 20/20 Correspondent Deborah Roberts and their two daughters.
Tell us about going back to Exuma.
Well, my dad’s mother always went back for visits. She’s the one who really kept our heritage alive. She always kept up a dialogue between cousins and she was always inviting family for visits to New York. I’m not sure our trip to the Bahamas was so much about tracing roots, but more about going back to find out more about where my grandparents came from. Like, where they had lived and worked all their lives.
Who made the trip with you?
Of course, my father came along, and I decided to take my daughter, Courtney, too. I thought it was important for her to see where her ancestors lived, and we were actually able to find the plantation where some of our ancestors were quartered as slaves. The plantation is gone, but not the slave quarters. It was really hard to visualize. I mean, by day my family were cotton-pickers and by night, salt-rakers. It was all very emotional.
What else did you find out?
Well, Lord Thomas Roker owned my ancestors, so that’s where our family name comes from. You know, slaves generally took the name of their owners. So whenever I come across someone with the name, I know they are either descended from slaves who were also owned by Lord Roker or maybe from Lord Roker, himself.
Ok, we know you love to eat. When you were filming “Al Roker’s Bahamas Reunion,” you got to visit a lot of fancy and not-so-fancy restaurants. What was your favorite place?
In Exuma, I really enjoyed Iva Bowe’s Central Highway Inn on Queen’s Hwy. It’s a roadside tavern that coincidently happens to be run by a second cousin. The restaurant is very small and very sweet.
You have your new “The Big Bad Book of Barbeque” coming out on Father’s Day. Why Father’s Day?
Father's Day is a good moment in the backyard. The grills are clean and everyone is on their best behavior. Food is such a big part of life, and I hope that the book adds new fire to the art of hanging out in the backyard with your family and grilling great food.
Does your Bahamian heritage find its way to the table when you’re out there grilling?
Well, I like to grill whole fish, which of course is very Bahamian. And I love to make a good conch salad and sometimes, Johnny cakes.
There are so many diverse foods in the Bahamas. When you were visiting, you got to make what some say is the national dessert, Gauva Duff. What is that?
It’s really kind of hard to explain. It’s sort of a baked pudding. Very sweet and fluffy…very tasty. It’s made from the pulp and mixed with cinnamon and nutmeg and butter. It’s really good.
Your new book has some ”barbeque wisdom.” Like what?
Well, let’s see. If you’re grilling anything with a sugar-based sauce on it, you really should put that on the grill at the last minute. Otherwise, all that sugar carbonizes. That’s how you end up with a big black, charred piece of something if you put it on the grill for too long. And you should never barbeque in a thunderstorm. It’s really the only time I’m afraid to grill. I mean, here you are holding all these big metal utensils in your hand and well, you know…
Ok, we get it, you love anything grilled on the barbeque. But what’s your favorite?
Depends on who’s coming over…but I do love fish. For me, there’s nothing better than Chilean sea bass or a pork butt for sandwiches.
I’m sure everyone wants to know: how do you prefer your ribs, rubbed dry or wet? And the sauce. What’s your preference? Sweet or hot?
I like a dry rub, but really, whether you use a dry rub or not, it’s about using good meat. The flavor of good meat is what comes through with good ribs. It should never be about the sauce. In fact, when I see someone using way too much sauce, I have to kind of turn away. See, if I’m eating meat, I want to taste meat. If I’m eating fish, I want to taste fish. I never get it when someone says, “oh, that’s too fishy.” It’s fish! What should it taste like? Why cover good food with sauce? But If I’m having sauce, I do love it on the sweet side with just a little bit of bite.
When you’re looking for barbeque on the “outside” where do you go?
Out near my parent’s home in Queens, New York. It’s called the Rib Shack, off Linden Blvd. It’s take-out only, but it’s really authentic.
Is grill time ever a family affair?
No. Deborah has no desire to do it and my 14-year-old is on the cusp of becoming a vegetarian. She says she doesn’t want to eat anything cute and for her, pigs are really cute. The little one’s not making those choices yet. So it’s only me cooking on the grill.
Would you ever want your own series on the Food Network?
Yes and no. Problem is—I have this day job. I would really love to have a show. I’d love it. I just can’t, though. There’s just no time for it.
1/4 cup butter or Margarine
1 cup sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups guava pulp; (put thru a sieve or food mill)
1/2 tsp. Nutmeg, freshly grated
1/2 tsp. Cinnamon, freshly ground
1/4 tsp. Cloves, freshly ground
3 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
Cream the butter or margarine with the sugar. Add the eggs, guava and spices and beat until smooth. Sift together the flour and baking powder and add to the butter mixture. The dough should be stiff. Place the mixture in the greased top of a double boiler and cook over boiling water, or use a can with a tight-fitting cover and place the can in a pan of boiling water about 2/3 from the top of the can. Steam for 3 hours. Slice and serve.
Photos By Simon + Schuster
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