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Food and Cooking

The importance given to food in Caribbean historical and cultural studies is signalled in the opulence and depth of research in a book by the eminent historian Barry W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture, a book that rivals the classic status of Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power or Fernando Ortiz’s Cuban Counterpoint (on sugar and tobacco) in its ability to reach into many areas of Caribbean being. The seriousness with which many of the region’s writers have approached the topic of food is present by Austin C. Clarke’s encomium to Bajan food in Pigtails n’ Breadfruit: the Rituals of Slave Food, which confronts the anomalous fact that many of the foods beloved by Caribbean people, such as saltfish, have their roots in slavery. And the desire to elevate Caribbean cooking to the level of literary and visual art is triumphantly realised in John Lyons’ Cook-up in a Trini Kitchen, a book that brings together the author’s poetry, art and recipes. Critical commentary has also caught up with the significance of food in Caribbean literature in Valerie Loichot’s The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature, a study of food in Francophone Caribbean writing.

There is, then, a book to be written, an anthology to be compiled, because descriptions of food and eating in Anglophone Caribbean writing have so much to say about belonging and unbelonging, about identity, ethnicity, class, gender, migrancy, exile, food as a token and signifier of communicative exchange, food as a passageway to sensuality and sex, eating as an external sign of inner feelings, food as sacrament.

Descriptions of food and eating in Caribbean writing are frequently signifiers of belonging, of community and cultural rootedness. When G prepares to leave home in George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, there is a detailed and evocative description of his mother cooking cuckoo and flying fish for him, cuckoo a comfort food of cornmeal and okra and a signifier of Barbadianness. But foods are also signifiers of exile, the packages of home-foods carried by emigrants as talismans to accompany their journey. The description of the young VS Naipaul with his roasted half-chicken in The Enigma of Arrival (1987), ‘eating secretively in a dark room’ in his hotel, on his first journey away from Trinidad, the chicken reflecting ‘my family’s peasant, Indian, Hindu fear about my food, about pollution…’.There are similar reflections on food and memory in Marcia Douglas’s poems “Leaving for Ohio” and “Wild Rice” in Electricity Comes to Cocoa Bottom. In the first poem, it is the gifts of food the emigrant carries as a charms of hoped for return: ‘with mother’s black cake, fried fish wrapped in foil,/ bun, a tin of Milo, a bottle of guava jelly…’. In ‘Wild Rice’, eight little meditations on the theme of racial memory, images move from a slave runaway braiding rice grains into her hair, to the ‘coat of arms’ of rice and peas, ‘no instructions needed’, to children going to bed ‘with bellies fluffed full of white rice’. In Kei Miller’s “But in Glasgow there are Plantains”, in Writing Down the Vision, he confides how “I am learning to cook the Caribbean with Scottish ingredients”, which we read as an act of filial piety to both his mother and his nation. In Khadijah Ibrahiim’s Another Crossing, the poem “My Mother’s Dutch Pot of Stories” makes the natural connection between the preparation of Jamaican food and reminiscences about the past that provide the British-born daughter a way into her heritage. There are at least two poems, Kwame Dawes’ “Thelma’s Precious Cargo” from Resisting the Anomie (1995) in New and Selected Poems (2003) and Tanya Shirley’s “Dining at Customs” in The Merchant of Feathers (2014) that both describe in moving and droll ways the determination of an old woman to resist the confiscation of home foods by customs officers, by eating the feast on the spot. But such trust in food as a symbol of continuity may not always be realised, as Dawes painfully acknowledges in the poem “Enigma of Departures” (in New and Selected Poems) where in a meal eaten by exiles in London “The table has the strained effort/ of Jamaican nostalgia – fried plantains,/ curry goat, escovitch fish – all blandly/ flavoured, as all reproductions/ must be.”

As the Naipaul reference suggests, food is frequently a signifier of ethnic identity, though it can also be one of the main tokens of cross-cultural contact. Food is usually the very last cultural form which assimilated minorities lose (and mostly don’t lose) as is seen in the histories of Indian minorities in St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada and to a lesser extent Jamaica. Verene Shepherd’s Transients to Settlers: The Experience of Indians in Jamaica 1845-1950 records the significance of food as the most central and durable of the cultural retentions of Indians there. She notes the survival of ‘Dinners’ and ‘Feasts’ as the vestiges of a more complex cycle of religious ritual, now linked more to harvest and marked by the serving of distinctly creolised Indian Jamaican food such as curry goat, but still retaining the distribution of parsad and food to the poor. For Indo-Guyanese in the 1980s, the restrictions of food imports that cut off Indians from wheat flour for rotis, and the staples of lentils and channa, was perhaps the most bitterly resented action of the Burnham government.

In several of the African diaporic stories in Angela Barry’s Endangered Species food has a similar role as a guarantor of ethnic identity. In ‘The Ceremony of Innocence’, the homemade brown soup and the foo-foo that Adjua eats every night ‘no matter what filet mignon was going on in the rest of the house’ is her declaration that she is still African, not French. In ‘Doudou’s Wife’, the dish of domada, ‘its reddish-brown sauce unctuous and piquant with limes and hot peppers’, that Penda makes for Doudou after he brings her back to England from the Gambia, seems like the perfect symbol of the Africanness he has sought to restore, though Doudou has other ideas.

The same sense of conflict is present in Jan Shinebourne’s novel, The Last Ship (2015), where food is at the centre of the ethnic and cultural fissures within the household of Clarice Chung, the iron-willed matriarch trying to hold on to the illusion of pure Chinese identity. Real Chinese food is reserved for her own children and denied her daughters-in-law, whose familiarity with and taste for Creole and Indian foods is proof of their ethnic and cultural degeneration. This use of food as a signifier of ethnic boundaries is also present in Indo-Caribbean writing such as Sheik Sadeek’s Bundarie Boy and Sasenarine Persaud’s The Ghost of Bellow’s Man where in the concern with purity, creole foods are stigmatised, at the opposite pole, as ‘messy’.

Yet in other work by Indo-Caribbean writers, food is most closely associated with the idea of a gift that can cross boundaries, as a symbol of generosity. Rooplall Monar’s stories are full of the communality of food in wedding feasts. In ‘Massala Maraj’ (in Backdam People) and in ‘Cookman’ (in High House and Radio), Monar emphasises the central role of food in Indo-Guyanese culture. For Massala Maraj it is his skill with a ‘massala fowl-curry and dal-purri [that] go stifle you nose… and you tongue going cha cha cha’ that suggests to him a way to escape from the toils of cane labour, by giving Big Manja missie ‘de real taste ah de coolie magic’, and indeed, Maraj and Big Manja missie come ‘thick-thick like conkie’. Pandit in ‘Cookman’ is another whose magic with mutton curry makes him famous on the East coast. But when Manager Douglas, patron of the estate cricket club, and so addicted to Pandit’s curry that ‘them chaps had to lift-off Mr Douglas from his chair that afternoon’ tells Pandit that he will find him a job as a chef in a big hotel, Pandit is secretly offended. ‘Hotel chef! Ever see such eye-pass?’ he thinks afterwards. His happiness is in cooking for the cricketers and at wedding feasts, not for a wage.

For Lakshmi Persaud, in Butterfly in the Wind – a book so aromatic in its descriptions of food that it is best not to read it hungry – food is a major signifier of the cultural richness of the Hindu world, a cultural substance that links both worshippers and the gods, and provides the subtle bonds that keep communities linked together. Kamla learns this when she accompanies her mother in carrying the portions of food to be distributed to the neighbours after a katha. Similarly, the scene where Kamla and her mother buy sweetmeats before going to the temple is a lesson both in the role of food offerings in Hinduism, and the nature of duty in the work performed by the sweet-vendor, Rama. The centrality of the chulha as a signifier of traditional Indianness is lovingly described in the chapter, ‘Pasea Village’ as are the scents of spices that rise up from the home and hearth in the ‘rich warm aroma of wood smoke’. But as the ‘Christmas Eve Night’ chapter shows, families like Kamla’s were not averse to the delights of the Creole foods of Christmas, and the rituals of renewal in the house. But as a woman, Lakshmi Persaud doesn’t forget that food has to be prepared by someone, and the hard labour suffered by Daya, her family’s cook, who has to rise at five to feed her husband before coming to work, is one of the unfairnesses of the lot of women that the young Kamla notes.

In Persaud’s Sastra, which is set at a slightly later period, traditional families are offended by examples of unwelcome innovation (meat and western-style wedding cakes in the food at weddings) and there is a greater emphasis on the importance of respect for right ingredients, the proper rituals of preparation and knowledge of the significance and place of particular foods. This concern with correctness becomes a signifier for concerns about the future of Indian culture as a whole, which some of the characters feel is under political pressure in a militantly creole Trinidad, but it is not one that in the novel is circumscribed by ethnic boundaries, since one of the best cooks of Indian food is a Black woman, Milly.

The idea that food and its preparation can provide a tool for thinking, a philosophy of life, is developed in Lakshmi Persaud’s most recent novel, Daughters of Empire (2012). For the Vidhurs as a twice transplanted Indian family from Trinidad, finding the vegetables and spices of India in neighbouring Burnt Oak in England, is a day of joy, of connections restored. Both within the family and between the Vidhurs and their neighbours, food is a gift, the communicative exchange that opens hearts and reinforces love. But food also becomes a vehicle for what the novel has to say about true learning and the need for human culture to continually renew itself. We see this in the episode where Amira remembers the school of Lily and Palli in Penal in South Trinidad. In the relationship between these women, African and Indian, nurse and teacher, food is the bridge between cultures, but far more importantly it is what the two women teach about the making of food that provides the novel’s vision of how a good life can be made. What they teach is not merely a knowledge of the character of ingredients and the application of methods, about what will go with what, and how much, but a “way of thinking” about the relationship between understanding and invention, freedom and necessity, respect for tradition and the courage to make innovations. Lily and Palli do not simply to teach their pupils how to cook, but enable them to discover the means of learning and thinking and to apply that reflectiveness to all aspects of life. If that sounds solemn, it is not, for in this episode of memory, there is the comedy of discovering aspects of Amira’s character that reverberate through the rest of the novel. The young Amira is only too ready to demonstrate her imperfect understanding of what she has learnt.

Perhaps one of the “wrong” ways of thinking that stands in opposition to everything Lakshmi Persaud’s two teachers might say about the integrity of food is its use as a marker of class superiority. It is there in the experience of the country boy in Ismith Khan’s ‘Pooran, Pooran’, in A Day in the Country, when one of his humiliations at school in Port of Spain is the mockery of the roti and spinach he eats at midday (‘it’s cardboard and grass… that’s what this native boy is eating, cardboard and grass’) and when he decides that he cannot face any more, it is the way ‘Morning awakened with smells of eggplant frying in coconut oil and smoked herrings in the embers of the earthen fireplace’ and his mother ‘squatting in front of it, blowing gently into the embers through a hollow bamboo stalk’ that confirms for him who he really is, even if this means a life in the canefields. You can see this too in Peter Kempadoo’s, Guyana Boy where the visit to the manager’s wife’s Christmas party is painful catechism for Lilboy in the rules of race and class, in the correct etiquette of eating (or rather not eating), of the agony of being made to turn down second helpings of the cakes and scones by his mother desperate to show they are not ‘nigger-yard’ people. In Angela Barry’s story, “Voices of a Summer Night” in Endangered Species there is nothing in the slightest Caribbean in the dinner party that Eve prepares to mark her husband’s accession to power in the law firm he works for, and that, of course, is the point. Similarly in Ifeona Fulani’s “People for Lunch” in Ten Days in Jamaica, Corinne rejects with a shudder her friend’s suggestion that she should treat her husband’s distinguished business guests to traditional Jamaican food. It is too close to the past she has escaped. The very thought of green bananas brings “ashes in her mouth, the taste of poverty on her tongue.

Politically, food can stand a signifier of both Caribbeanness and the continuity of traditions that stand counter to the invasion of American junk foods, a topic that Kendel Hippolyte explores as an issue of cultural imperialism, of ecological stupidity and of bodily health in poems such as “Birthright” and “Home Economics” in Birthright (1997). This is a stance echoed in Vladimir Lucien’s poems “Donbwe” and “Ital” in Sounding Ground (2014), whilst in Jennifer Rahim’s ‘The Revolt of Yam’, in Between the Fence and the Forest, is a witty parable about the gift of a yam which is neglected, that begins to sprout and has to be planted, about the way she neglects the yam for “Those quick-pick meals shipped all the way/ from cooler temperatures”, only for the natural energies/old time traditions of the yam to have the last word.

Of course, home food can also become something of a cliché. There are a good number of forgettable poems about the baking of bread as a symbol of motherhood and other domestic and stalwart peasant virtues. There’s a famous one by Eric Roach (“To My Mother” in The Flowering Rock) that has the line, “Kneading and thumping the thick dough for bread”) that has been much imitated. Other poems have renewed the image. E.A. Markham has a poem called “Don’t Talk to Me About Bread” in Human Rites which imagines the servant’s erotic life outside the house and her desired revenge on a rival: “She slaps it, slaps it double with fists/ With heel of hand applies the punishment/ Not meant for bread and the bitch on the table sighs/ and exhales a little spray of flour”. Something of the same spirit is there in Jennifer Rahim’s poem, “Anger Bakes” in Between the Fence and the Forest, where a mother’s sometimes dark moods make her family “dread the taste of her feeding” because “Flour never rises without hymns, Fried bakes, flat as river stones, are sawed open and chewed for hours, while we weigh and sift her silence”.

Historically, plenty in food has always been associated with power, and in Diana McCaulay’s Huracan and Andrew Lindsay’s Illustrious Exile (both novels that deal with the Great House on the sugar estate at the time of slavery), there are images of the vulgar opulence of the slave owner’s groaning tables that reference such horrified accounts of those of Maria Nugent in 1802 who noted in her diary how white men in Jamaica “eat like cormorants and drink like porpoises”. Even so, Kevyn Arthur may well have hit on a truth about the creation of a creole cuisine that became common ground for all, blacks and whites, when in his historical novel, The View from Belmont, the clever and privileged house slave Kano rejects the offer of freedom in England because of what he knows about the weather and the food. There is a parallel to this in Anthony Kellman’s historical novel, Tracing Ja Ja where the good Bajan creole food that his housekeeper feeds the king both restores him to health and takes the edge off his anguish (as does Becka’s body) over his house arrest and forced exile from his native Opobo in Nigeria.

That connection between food and sex is present in Lelawatee Manoo-Rahming’s poems in Curry Flavour (2000). In “Come Dine with Me”, there is the invitation to “Roll my belly in guava duff/ Knead my breasts into johnny cake/ Season my lips with Spanish thyme”, and in “Curry Flavour” it was “the flavour of garlic dripping from my lotus flower/ that took you back to Fyzabad/ that made you cry in your coming/ for your mama’s curry”. There are similar eroticisations of food in Opal Palmer Adisa’s collection, Caribbean Passion, and in Anton Nimblett’s erotic title story in Sections of An Orange, readers must discover for themselves how oranges play a part in foreplay between two gay lovers.

Food as communication plays a crucial part in Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s novel of life among the Trinidadian elite, Mrs B. For the daughter returned from the USA, Mrs B. prepares chicken salad sandwiches; to impress her husband (unsuccessfully) she cooks the dishes eaten on their vacations to Milan, Paris and Madrid. When Ruthie, the daughter wants to remake her friendship with Monique and test her feelings about her homecoming it is shark and bake on the beach, and at the end of the novel, when Ruthie departs in the midst of a family crisis, the generally self-centred Mrs B. suggests to her long-suffering husband as they leave the airport that they should eat Chinese, and “Charles smiled because he knew she didn’t really like Chinese, but all the same he was ready to accept this gesture of kindness.”

And food as a gesture of intimacy and kindness is at the heart of a number of moving scenes in recent Caribbean fiction. In “Making Pastelles in Dickensland” in Barbara Jenkins’ Sic Transit Wagon and Other Stories, the wife and children of a man who is in London from Trinidad for the treatment of the cancer that all know will kill him, rally round to prepare for him a last supper of pastelles, because it is just before Christmas, a rite they manage despite the difficulty of finding the ingredients in central London. In “Marjorie’s Meal” in Sections of An Orange, the “Old Man” prepares a last supper for his dying wife, and not only does the story narrate his labours in gathering the ingredients for his blue crab dish, but provides a detailed recipe and instructions for making the meal. And though Marjorie can eat very little, the Old Man reflects: “… for the first time since he has known this woman who has brought him so much, he feels that he has given her a real gift.”

Food as sacrament.


Tracing JaJa Anthony Kellman
Huracan Diana McCaulay
The Godmother and other Stories Jan Lowe Shinebourne
Irki Kadija Sesay
The Way Home Millicent Graham
The View from Belmont Kevyn Alan Arthur
Ten Days in Jamaica Ifeona Fulani
Sounding Ground Vladimir Lucien
Seduce Desiree Reynolds
Sections of an Orange Anton Nimblett
Sastra Lakshmi Persaud
Butterfly In The Wind Lakshmi Persaud
Birthright Kendel Hippolyte
Another Crossing Khadijah Ibrahiim
Angel Merle Collins
New Day V. S. Reid
Mrs. B Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw
Ad-liberation Sai Murray
The Last Ship Jan Lowe Shinebourne
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