>> Thursday, 3 July 2014
Hello Everyone, welcome to another instalment of MY FOOD!
MY FOOD is an online research project into my ongoing interest in Caribbean food culture and food heritage. The project seeks to explore how we connect, communicate and use food as part of our identity. These interviews are the raw data gathered which will be analysed at the end of the interview phase of the project. If you would like to more details and want to know how to participate, click here for full details.
From Kennesaw, Georgia, please join me in welcoming Sharlyn Mitchell-Taitt.
MF: Welcome Sharlyn, where in the Caribbean are you originally from?
ST: Trinidad and TobagoMF: How long have you been living in the United States of America?
ST: 5 years.MF: Given that you have not been living overseas that long, I take it that you still identify yourself as Trini/Trinbagonian?
ST: Yes. Wherever I am, I will be a Trini!MF: Is there a dish or two that you would say particularly identifies you as Trini?
ST: I don't believe there is any dish as unmistakably Trini as Pelau. It's a colourful fish (consisting of rice and pigeon peas, usually featuring chicken or beef, all simmered in coconut milk. It's perfection! Pelau is full of flavour and spice and that's as Trinidadian as you can get. Another dish I would pick is Callaloo, as it is prepared in Trinidad and Tobago, with dasheen bush, disced pumpkin and ochro (okra) as we say in the South, a scotch bonnet or habanero pepper (that's fished out at the end of cooking) and blue crabs thrown in for that extra bit of perfection. No matter where in the world you are, you know there's a Trini somewhere in the mix if either of these dishes show up.MF: Is there any food where you are currently in the US that you feel drawn to?
ST: While I am Trini through and through, I do love the food of the South - black-eyed peas, collard greens, fried chicken and waffles and Southern-style biscuits. I think its because people here prepare their food in a similar way and with the same sort of love and sense of family and fellowship that Caribbean people do. I remember hearing someone say you can tell when someone prepares food with love, and it is certainly true here. When it comes down to it though, I love a good American barbecue. My husband and I enjoy grilling outdoors in the summer. We do all the favourites - hot dogs, burgers, chicken, seafood and even ribs on the occasion.MF: What food or drink for you is a taste of home?
ST: This is a tough one since there are so many dishes that qualify. But I'll pick the Christmas favourite - Pastelles. Pastelles are cornmeal stuffed packages, usually containing some variation of ground meat, olives, capers and raisins and wrapped in banana leaves. I've spent a few Christmases without them for one reason or another, and last Christmas I was determined to remedy that. Making pastelles can be tedious and time-consuming, but it it so worth it in the end. Although they did not originate in Trinidad and Tobago, pastelles have become a major part of Christmas for us. When it comes to the drink, Mauby is king. There's nothing like a nice, tall glass of homemade mauby on a hot summer day. Yes, I said homemade… not that fizzy, store-bought stuff. Georgians love their iced tea in the summer. Me, I'll take the mauby.MF: When you're entertaining, what are some of the Trini dishes that you make?
ST: It usually depends on the gathering and time of the year. For instance, at Christmas, I usually make Coconut Sweet Bread and Ponche de Creme (eggnog blended with dark rum). For my son's 2nd birthday party in 2012, I decided to make pholourie (spiced split peas fritters which are considered a street food in Trinidad and Tobago) with a tamarind dipping sauce and it turned out to be a huge hit with the kids and adults alike, that people kept asking me when I was going to make it again.MF: When you are entertaining at home and the people are not West Indian, do you still make dishes from home? If you do, do you explain what the dishes are, how they are made or to be eaten?
ST: Absolutely! Even if it's one dish, something has to have some sort of Caribbean flair. I would certainly explain what the dish is and I'm always pleased and encouraged to see that there's interest in the food and people often ask for recipes, which I'm always willing to share.MF: When you go to potluck get-togethers, would your choice be to make a dish from back home or something in keeping with your new home?
ST: If I am asked to make a specific dish, then I make that dish, regardless of where it's from. If it is left up to me, more often than not, I would choose a dish that's Caribbean, or, specifically from Trinidad and Tobago.MF: What are some of the rituals, traditions or practices associated with food from Trinidad and Tobago that you upkeep? Why?
ST: Probably the way we clean and season chicken. It hurts my head to see people just toss chicken straight from the package into the pot/pan and then just add salt and pepper. Also, using coconut oil in cooking. There has been a resurgence in the use of coconut oil in recent years, because people are just discovering or rediscovering the benefits, but I grew up around people, including my mother, who made their own coconut oil on the stovetop.MF: What was the food you missed most when you first moved abroad?
ST: This may sound funny, but what I missed the most, up to this day, are mangoes, particularly since I grew up with a Julie mango tree in my yard in Trinidad. I can honestly say I have yet to eat a mango here that comes remotely close to a ripe, syrupy-sweet Trinidad mango. The ones we get here come from Florida, Costa Rica and Mexico etc., but they just don't compare. However, I admit, they are great for other Trinidad and Tobago delicacies like Mango Chow and Mango Chutney.MF: What are some of the must-have pantry-items that you always have stocked to make Trini food?
ST: Gosh, too many to mention. Chick peas, curry powder, amchar masala, roasted geera (cumin) for my curry dishes. Rice and canned pigeon peas for Pelau. Salted cod, tomatoes, onions and pimento peppers in the fridge for salt fish buljol. In the back of the pantry - CRIX! CRIX is a vital item. Anything paired with Crix crackers automatically and magically becomes Trini. That being said, Crix and Chili sometimes. Yum yum!MF: What type of food do you make and eat as part of your everyday and weekend routine? Caribbean food or American… ?
ST: It usually depends on my mood and that of my husband and son. Sometimes we're in the mood for Caribbean, sometimes Italian, sometimes Mediterranean etc., I do cook a lot, even it if means cooking a couple of days or freezing leftovers. I also use my slow cooker quite often. Anyone who thinks they don't have time to cook should get themselves a slow cooker. I believe it's much healthier to cook your own meals as often as possible so that you can control the ingredients and know what you're putting into your body.MF: Do you have a favourite Trinidad and Tobago dish?
ST: I still have to think about this because I love so many of our dishes. If I were forced to pick one, it would be Pelau. Pelau with some coleslaw and a slice of avocado on the side is heaven to me.MF: How would you describe the food of Trinidad and Tobago?
ST: It is everything that we are - diverse, unique, colourful, flavourful, spicy and memorable.MF: How important/not important is it for your son to know the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago?
ST: It is very important because it is a part of his culture and our legacy to him. My husband is also Trinidadian and he feels the same as I do. Our son is 3 but he already has been introduced to many Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean dishes and likes a lot of them. Of course, we would like him to have an appreciation for good food from as many other countries and cultures as we do also. As with any young child, his tastes vary daily, but I am pleased to see that he has a real appreciation already for the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago and I hope that as he grows older, his appreciation continues to grow as well.MF: When you visit home (TT) and are ready to return to the USA, what are some of the foods/ingredients that you take/bring back with you?
ST: I always wish I could bring back an entire suitcase filled with food. I certainly would bring back every ripe mango I could get my hands on! But alas, the prices airlines charge nowadays for baggage keeps me in check. I bring back things that are hard to find here, like curry powder and the other spices for curry that I keep in my pantry. Dasheen bush, cocoa blocks (for Caribbean-style cocoa tea), pimento peppers, macaroni, because all they sell in the grocery stores here is the elbow macaroni, which is fine but a Trinidad macaroni pie just ins't the same without the long macaroni you get back home. I also bring back the ingredients for the mauby drink and Promasa cornmeal, which is the only brand of cornmeal you can use for pastelles.MF: Is there any street-food or shop-around-the-corner snack that was your favourite or makes you recall a fond memory?
ST: Yes! Hands down that would be phulourie for me. Right outside of my primary school, there were two tuck shops run by 2 ladies - Ms Patterson and Ms Pope - out of their home. I, along with many other students, would eagerly anticipate the recess and lunch bells so we could run through the neighbouring secondary school (which I ended up going to eventually) to these shops where we would spend our pocket money on sweets and various homemade snacks, including warm phulourie which we could buy - 5 for a dollar. They were served in small brown paper bags with plastic bags inside containing either mango chutney or tamarind sauce to dip the phulourie in. Such a treat! Today that won't be considered a healthy snack in the least for school kids, but back then we burned lots of calories in the school yard playing. This memory is as vivid today as it was when I was 10. I still remember the aroma, the texture and the colours!MF: Is there any food or drink in America that you have taken and made your own? In other words, put your Trini/Caribbean stamp on?
ST: I sometimes add salted pigtail, culantro/chadon beni, sliced corn and cornmeal dumplings to roasted squash soup to pay homage to Trinidad corn soup.MF: Is it important for you to keep a connection to your homeland through food? Please explain.
ST: Absolutely. As I said before, I believe our food is a significant part of our culture and legacy. It's a strand in the tapestry of our lives. Those dishes, techniques and flavours were handed down to us from those who came before us, and that in itself is a glorious gift.MF: What an excellent note to end on. Thank you so much Cheryl, your answers are very helpful and insightful. Thanks for sharing your food with MY FOOD.
Would you like to share your food with MY FOOD? Leave a comment below or inbox me directly. This project is open to anyone that falls into any of the categories below.
- Caribbean/West Indian living at home
- Caribbean/West Indian living abroad
- Non-Caribbean/West Indian married to or partnered with West Indian folk
- Non-Caribbean/West Indian, however, the region has been home for at least 5 years.
Join the conversation below or on Facebook. It's easy to participate, click here for details. The next instalment is a fortnight from today.