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Praised as “masterful” by the New York Times and “uncommonly talented” by Publishers Weekly and winner of the 1999 Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, Austin Clarke has a distinguished reputation as one of the preeminent Caribbean writers of our time. In Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit, he has created a tantalizing “culinary memoir” of his childhood in Barbados. Clarke describes how he learned traditional Bajan cooking—food with origins in the days of slavery, hardship, and economic grief—by listening to this ...
Praised as “masterful” by the New York Times and “uncommonly talented” by Publishers Weekly and winner of the 1999 Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, Austin Clarke has a distinguished reputation as one of the preeminent Caribbean writers of our time. In Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit, he has created a tantalizing “culinary memoir” of his childhood in Barbados. Clarke describes how he learned traditional Bajan cooking—food with origins in the days of slavery, hardship, and economic grief—by listening to this mother, aunts, and cousins talking in the kitchen as they prepared each meal.
Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit is not a recipe book; rather, each chapter is devoted to a detailed description of the ritual surrounding the preparation of a particular native dish—Oxtails with Mushrooms, Smoked Ham Hocks with Lima Beans, or Breadfruit Cou-Cou with Braising Beef. Cooking here, as in Clarke’s home, is based not on precise measurements, but on trial and error, taste and touch. As a result, the process becomes utterly sensual, and the author’s exquisite language artfully translates sense into words, creating a rich and intoxicating personal memoir.
One afternoon, after school, in days of yore, as I was walking up Bishop's Court Hill with my bicycle, because the hill was too steep even for the lowest gear of my ladies — wheel Raleigh, I was able to catch up to a big mule-drawn cart. The cart was trying to climb the same hill, transporting goods such as flour, sugar, corn meal, Rankin Biscuits, lard oil, pig tails, salted beef neck bones, salt fish from up in Newfoundland and rancid butter from Australia — taking these things from the wholesale merchants in Town to lil peddling shops all over the countryside, retailing the merchants' goods that had been sold to them at high prices and still making a lil profit themselves.
As I pondered this aspect of native economics, the poor mule-cart driver, who worked so hard — fifteen, sixteen, seventeen hours a day — and who was partly chloroformed by the stench of the mule's urine, began to fall off into a little doze. The mule, accustomed to this journey — it was all uphill for miles — soon began to fall asleep too. And then bram! the mule fall down. At the same time one of the cart's wheels hit a big rock in the road. Bruggadown! The bags o' flour fall off the cart and one split-open in the middle of the road.
The villagers heard the report, and the driver, who was on his back in the middle of the road, unable to move, start cursing the mule, the town merchants, their mothers and God, while the mule lay down in the road with his four feet cocked-up in the air.
Federation start. People began flowing out of their houses, alleys and lanes like peas spilling across a linoleum floor. The whole neighbourhood swarmed the mule cart with their bowls, plastic cups and cooking tots, and one woman, who could not find any utensil large enough to carry away the flour, resorted to using her "po," her bedpan, having first washed it out under the warm afternoon water of the public standpipe.
The men and women knew about germs and mules and the public road and public decency, so they scraped off only the good flour from the top. They swept the black flour into the gutter, and washed the road with water from the public standpipe.
The mule-cart driver then washed his face and continued on his journey. He understood the villagers. Flour was the staple of their diet, but during those starving war-days there was none, and the people had been "cutting and contriving." They had had to learn how to make an alternative from grated sweet potato and grated cassava; but it wasn't the same as their beloved Canadian flour.
Once, the Nazzis torpedoed a merchant ship, the HMS Cornwallis, as she lay at anchor right inside the waters of our harbour. The torpedo made the Cornwallis lean on its right side, and the skies became black throughout all of Barbados. The ship's secret cargo — flour — was damaged. Some went to the bottom, but some was salvaged. And the people bawled for murder — not against the Nazzis, because they almost blow-way the whole island, but against the Allieds, who had brought flour right into our harbour, right under our noses, within our reach of begging and of hunger, and were intent on shipping all of it back up to Europe, to feed the "theatres of war." So the people, loyal black Britons before the HMS Cornwallis entered the outer careenage of the harbour, started cussing and abusing the Allieds, and in turn hailed for the Nazzis.
Flour was usually the last thing left in your larder no matter how poor you were. So flour was the backbone of your diet, your nutrition. It was precious, like air. If you had flour in your larder, you never went hungry. You could always have bakes: flour, salt, sugar and lard oil. The cheapest meal in the world to make. Nobody can be so poor that they can't have a nice meal o' bakes.
"When you don't have a bake to fry," my mother always said, "then you know you're blasted poor. Poor as a bird's arse!"
Bakes! Basic, beautiful, black Barbadian hot-cuisine. A food of great historical significance that can be found in the lexicon of Barbadian sociology, with a strong anthropological association with the days of slavery, thereby giving bakes a most serious cultural-culinary antecedent in the life of this great little nation of Barbados!
Basically, flour and water is all you need. Well, almost. If you don't have sugar, too bad; but it's not the end of the world. If you have salt, you'll need just a pinch. And for this small expenditure of effort and money, the satisfying result of a full stomach is extraordinary.
If you is a hard-working, working-class person, you would know how to make the real ethnic or lighterman bakes, which are heavy and thick and filling. Lighters were big Venetian-like barges that uses to go out from the wharf into deep water where the ships had to anchor, to bring back the cargo of the merchant vessels that were too big to come into the shallow water of the careenage and wharf. The lightermen uses to pull the big big oars of the lighters, oars so big that it take two big men to pull one oar!
All the lightermen uses to eat bakes for lunch. Big, fat, thick bakes made from flour, sugar, salt and water, fried in lard oil. They were half an inch thick and two inches in diameter, and would "cloyd" the lighterman, meaning they uses to full up his stomach quick-quick and stay long-long. He uses to wash down these bakes with "swank." Swank is a drink made from molasses diluted with water, and with a piece of chipped ice in it, if he had ice. This lunch would give the lighterman all the strength he needed to pull them massive oars of the lighters. And as he pulled, he uses to sweat bucketsful o' perspiration.
"Pull! Pull! Pull-pull!" they would cry out, as they rounded the corner, coming full steam into the careenage, dreaming of lunch and bakes.
"Row, row, row-yuh-boat! Pull!" The lightermen learn that song about pulling barges through their fondness for flour bakes and from English sea shanties.
The flour that was imported into Barbados in those days came from Canada, in nice, white, cotton flour bags with the name and address of the mill that ground the flour printed in red and blue lettering. The lighterman did not throw away his flour bags. During the days of slavery and colonization, nothing was thrown away. Nothing.
The pig's ears were not thrown away. The pig maws were not buried like your navel string. The pig feet were not cast asunder. Neither was the pig's blood. Not even the pig's bladder. Small boys blew their breaths into the pig's bladder, till their eyes got big and red from the pressure and the bladder was on the verge of bursting, at which point they twisted its neck, tied it and made it into a football and pretended they were beating the English six-nil in a Cup Final at Wembley Stadium in London!
So, too, with the flour bags. Cotton was the best thing to wear next to the skin in the hot sun, and the bags were regarded as nice dress material for the poor. Before they were sewn into shirts, short pants, skirts, aprons, sliders for men and bloomers for women, they were bleached. If in those clays you looked into any backyard in any poor neighbourhood, you would see some rock-stones arranged on the ground, in a group, and on those stones you would see flour bags spread out, bleaching in the sun.
The bags were washed by using a lot of blue, a lot of white-head bush, and a lot of blue soap imported from Away. For days and days, patient as the sun travelling through the blue skies, women would put these flour bags through the bleaching and washing process many times, until they turned into a miraculous snowy white.
What a sight! What a wonder! Pure white. Almost like the sea-island cotton from St. Vincent, only thing, these flour bags had no silk in them.
If you were watching a cricket game and your eyes were good, you would often spot a small speck of blue, as large as a comma or a period, on a player's shirt. And you would immediately recognize that the shirt was made from a flour bag. All that bleaching and blueing and the rays of the hot sun had failed to obliterate all the letters. That spot, that lingering fraction, perhaps part of the letter C in the word Canada, would be all it took to stamp this young, ambitious cricketer with the poorness of his social origins. Any prowess he demonstrated that Saturday afternoon on the playing field, the flash of his bat in a cover drive, like Frank Worrell, would be second in significance to the fact that he was "discovered," during his début with the First Eleven team, to be dressed, turned out, in a flour-bag shirt!
The flour bag and the game of cricket — that English pastime symbolizing order, class, fairness and Empire, played by the aristocracy of the colony, of the dominion, and of the Mother Country — certainly did not go together! Blame would rest at the door and in the washtub of the poor cricketer's mother. And the cricketer would suffer the teasing and the many reminders of class and poverty for years and years afterwards, until he was welcomed into his grave.
"Boy, you are wearing flour bag!"
The condemnation of this insult was as loud as the voice of the speaker.
"A flour-bag shirt to Sunday School? You poor as a bird's arse, boy!"
This statement of salutation could, and did, define a man's sartorial unsophistication; and it marked him for life.
Today, in these times of harking back to and clutching at one's cultural roots, you see young people wearing flour-bag shirts or skirts — especially during the carnival season in Barbados, in London, England, in Brooklyn up in Amurca, and in Toronto during Caribana. And this festive attire proudly bears the brand name, the name of the mill and the country of manufacture in bold colours in the most conspicuous locations, such as the chest. Nowadays, this is style, a proclamation of pride in national ethnicity.
And the same thing with bakes. I remember some students who took bakes to school for their luncheon. They were easily detected as bakes-eaters because the grease from the lard oil in the bakes would always leak through the brown paper bag that held them. The poor boys' social status would be exposed and shame brought upon their heads and upon their families' circumstances.
Nowadays you can make bakes with an easy, bold heart, and invite the high and the mighty in society to dine with you, to show them that you know and love your culture. So now I'm going to tell you how to turn ordinary flour into a marvellous meal of bakes.
You can cook bakes even on a Sunday if you have nothing else to cook, although bakes are usually eaten on a Friday, when almost all the things in your larder are gone.
To think of having to cook bakes on a Sunday, the day when you are supposed to have the best meal of the week! But don't mind, things are hard with everybody. The economic situation is bad, jobs scarce, and the government not making things any more better for people. People unemployed. When you are hungry and poor, it doesn't matter what kind o' food you eat on a particular day, so long as it is food and it taste sweet.
These bakes that I'm going to tell you how to make are bakes that middle- and upper-middle-class Barbadian people does make. With bakes, so too with everything. Food has always been tied up with social status and historical protocol. A middle-class person would add in certain other ingreasements with the flour, salt, sugar and water to reflect her status in society. The better the ingreasements you have in your bakes, the higher those ingreasements can lift you, even beyond the class to which you already belong; and they will make your bakes turn out lighter, too. Complexion of skin and social status, and the lightness of bakes, go hand in hand.
You'll need a large bowl, plain, ordinary white flour, a touch o' salt, a tablespoon o' white sugar, a touch o' baking powder, a fresh nutmeg to grate off a few grains, a wedge o' butter, one or two drops o' vanilla essence, an egg beaten up with a fork, some water and some lard oil, or lard, or cooking oil — not olive oil.
Pour about half a pound o' flour into the bowl. Flour, notwithstanding the snobbery of class, is still the backbone. Flour does not change. Not unless you buy your flour in countries that are members of the Gee-Sevens economic club. If you buy your flour in First World countries, it won't have weebulls in it. But if you are of the Third or Fourth Worlds, in a place like Barbados, the weebulls in your flour will also be in the flour of the Governor General and the Chief Justice. Your flour and their flour will be in the same shipment that came from Away, and that is held in the bonds in Town. Flour that is left to stand too long in these bonds attracts weebulls and ants and mice. So arm thyself with a fine-meshed sieve!
Sprinkle a lil salt into the flour, then the white sugar. Throw in a touch o' baking powder and grate off a few grains o' nutmeg. Mix up these ingreasements; and when they mix in good, add in a wedge o' butter. Drop one or two drops o' vanilla essence on the flour, and after you beat-up the egg, pour it over the flour mixture.
Start stirring. Stir until everything mix in good. Whilst you are mixing up the batter for your bakes, you could always spend your time dreaming that you are in a more better social class, with the financial position to go along with it, to be able to cook something like bake chicken, or even a fry pork chop on a blessed Sunday like today. But humble as they are, bakes are still the groundsill of dietary happiness. If you don't have a penny in your pocket, you can still thank God, 'cause you have flour.
Now, you have the water in a glass; you don't need no measuring cup. You'll need enough water to make the batter smooth, but not too watery or too stiff as if you're making dough for bread. Pour the water evenly over the flour mixture and stir with a pot spoon. But supposing you don't have any baking powder? You can use club soda instead of plain water, 'cause you want bubbles in your bakes, to make them light, man!
When your batter smooth, get a frying pan and pour in some lard oil or lard or cooking oil until it almost cover the bottom of the pan. Now, the thing to watch is this: make sure the element on your stove even, or flat, or level. Adjust the frying pan to suit. To test that the frying pan ready, all you got to do is to hold the back o' your hand over the pan -- not inside the hot oil! — and you can test the hotness. When the oil get hot, but not hot enough to burn up the bakes, gently drop tablespoons o' batter in that frying pan. And the minute you drop in enough tablespoonfuls to cover the bottom of the pan, get your fork and put it underneath each bake, to prevent it from sticking.
When the edges start getting fried, you know it's time to turn each and every bake over, on the next side. And that is all it take to make bakes.
But still you might wonder: "What more can I do to make these bakes taste less like real bakes and more like pancakes? I hear that people up in Europe and North Amurca, in places like Brooklyn and New York City and Toronto, does-eat bakes that look like pancakes. Perhaps, if I can get these bakes light and fluffy like those Aunt Jemima pancakes, I could christen my bakes by another name, and call them `fries' or `floats'!"
You are not making bakes any more. You are talking about fries, if you please. High-class bakes. So fry them not in lard oil, but in butter. You could even use the thick, yellow, rancid butter imported from Australia. High-class bakes are thin, and yellowish in colour because of the egg, and light as a feather — too light to full-up the stomach of a lighterman and help him pull those oars!
If you are in possession of only a little flour, a little salt and a little lard oil, which could even be white lard melted down, you can only dream of having fries. These ingreasements can't make bakes of middle-class lightness.
Now, what are you going to serve with your bakes? The culturally traditional accompaniment is salt fish. Roasted salt fish. Salt fish with the skin still on it and the bones still in. But if things with you are not too grim, and you are indeed a member of the middle class, you could soak the salt fish in water overnight, take out the bones, and "sawtay" the salt fish in a saucepan with some butter, onions and a sliced tomato, and serve this with the bakes.
Ironically, and as every Barbadian knows, bakes taste more sweeter a few hours after they're fried, when they are cold; and better still when they are left over till the next day. The oil and the sugar and the flour would have had time to work on one another and "co-aggillate," so that when you bite into one, you will hear a clicking sound. And this is the sign for you to close your two eyes and don't open them until the bake is finished off, completely eaten.
But who in the whole of Barbados, in their right mind, with nothing more to cook but flour and lard oil on a sacred day like Sunday, would leave the bakes for the next day, merely because they taste more sweeter when cold? And cause yourself to expire from hunger, on a blessed Sunday?
|Smoked Ham Hocks with Lima Beans, Pig Tails and Rice||78|
|King-Fish and White Rice||92|
|Breadfruit Cou-Cou with Braising Beef||113|
|Killing a Pig to Make Pork Chops with Onions and Sweet Peppers||126|
|Souse (but no black pudding)||147|
|Oxtails with Mushrooms and Rice||196|
|Omelette (made with sardines)||227|
|Frozen in Time||245|