It’s Girl Scout cookie time, and for the first time in my life, I will be selling them; no, not as a Girl Scout, but as the mother of one. (Wish me luck.) One of the iconic Girl Scout cookies is the Samoa. It had long been my favorite (along with the Thin Mint), but my aging tastebuds find them a bit too sweet. Nonetheless, I have a feeling that I will end up with a few boxes of these this year (after all, it’s a fundraiser). Here’s a recipe that repurposes Samoas as an element of a slightly more grown up dessert, one inspired by a trip years ago to Polynesia, those iconic tropical islands in the South Pacific. And a controversy:
I used to eat these chewy, sweet, caramelly and chocolatey cookies without wondering about the origin of their name. But then I started to wonder… did the Girl Scouts have a special connection to Samoa? Is the toasted coconut an ode to the tall coconut trees which sway in the tropical breezes of the South Pacific? Could it be stereotyping?
It’s entirely possible that a Girl Scout troop leader, or possibly, executive, took a trip to the Samoan islands and asked for an authentic Samoan cookie… and was lied to. Not really a lie in any malicious sense. There is a word in Samoan, pepelo, which means not-quite-truth, and it can be a way of having fun, being conversational, and combating the boredom that comes with living on a small island.
To understand this sort of not-really-lying, we need to remember Margaret Mead. Ta’u is one of the three islands which comprise the Manu’a islands group, which also includes ‘Ofu and Olosega, pictured above. Ta’u was made famous by Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, who did her fieldwork there living among and interviewing Samoan young women as a way to study adolescence in a different cultural context. In Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), she famously declared that Samoans, unlike Westerners, had a blissful, angst-free adolescence, and enjoyed casual sexual relationships before marriage– basically that the natives were happy. Decades later, after her death, another anthropologist, Derek Freeman, attempted to debunk her findings and implied that the natives had actually lied to her. To prove his thesis, in the early 1980s, Freeman interviewed two of the girls, who had since converted to evangelical Christianity:
“She must have taken it seriously,” one of the girls would say of Mead on videotape years later, “but I was only joking. As you know, Samoan girls are terrific liars when it comes to joking. But Margaret accepted our trumped up stories as though they were true.” If challenged by Mead, the girls would not have hesitated to tell the truth, but Mead never questioned their stories. The girls, now mature women, swore on the Bible to the truth of what they told Freeman and his colleagues.”
The truth remains an unknowable controversy. ’Ofu is still a place of mainly untouched beauty, paradise on earth. There’s really no place to stay on ‘Ofu except for Vaoto Lodge, which you get to by walking across the runway.
It’s a simple place with a lodge and a few private cabins. When my husband first visited ‘Ofu to do his fieldwork, the owners, Marge and Tito Malae, were on site. He told me they were ebullient hosts who cooked lovingly for their guests, and served them family style on the long table which took up most of the common room.
A typical night would be spent talking story, playing cards, and learning to sing local songs beneath the starry sky. But as with everything so glorified, underneath ‘Ofu’s simple beauty are some secrets and lies, if you’re paying attention. When my husband brought me, his new bride, back for a visit, Marge and Tito were abroad, and in their place was their helper, a British woman who, like many expatriates, was living there because it was at the end of the world, far away from the life she wanted to escape. We never found out the details of what made her travel so far. She was nice enough, but she cooked terribly. Really terribly, as if she was trying to reinforce stereotypes about English food. Besides the bad food, meals were made awkward by the giggles and knowing glances she exchanged with the one other guest who was there during our stay, a recently engaged (to someone else) young American on his way to meet up with his fiancee.
The outdoors was also more complex than how it appeared at first glance. The landscape, sunny and blue skied in the daytime, at night turned dark ombre. Our evening walk back to the lodge from the coral reef where we snorkeled in the daytime led through a palm grove. In the twilight, the grove was alive with a mysterious sound, which my husband told me was from flying foxes. ”They eat fruit,” he said. Another almost-truth-not-quite-lie: he later admitted they were actually bats. Despite their fruitarianism, had I known they were bats, I would have freaked out, even in the daytime. We talked to our British host about that. She didn’t seem concerned about the bats, but turned pale for another reason. ”You walked through there at night? But didn’t you know, it’s haunted by aitu?” So many dark layers beneath the sunny exterior.
Maybe Samoas, the Girl Scout cookie, really are named after Samoa, the archipelago of islands. Whimsical chocolate swirls atop sunny, toasted coconut, covering a deep, dark, mysterious layer of chocolate.
But sometimes, a cookie is just a cookie.
Samoas. These are just perfect on their own, with an icy cold glass of milk. But if you want to get more creative, make them into a tropical trifle. An appropriately English toast to our host, who escaped her mysterious past by moving to the other end of the world.
Samoa Coconut Trifle
for the coconut pudding:
1 13.5 oz. can coconut milk
1/2 Tbsp. corn starch
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
Combine all ingredients, then bring to a boil. Let cool for 20 minutes before assembling trifle.
for the trifle:
1 dozen Samoas cookies, coarsely broken (if not Girl Scout Cookie season, substitute Keebler Fudge Stripe or other chocolate covered shortbread or digestive cookie)
1-1/2 cups whipped cream
In clear glasses, alternately layer prepared coconut pudding, Samoa cookie pieces, and whipped cream. End with a dollop of whipped cream and garnish with a sprinkle of cocoa powder. Chill for at least an hour before serving.