A Discussion: What do we think about our food?

>> Tuesday 6 August 2013

I need to get something off of my chest.

Long before I started this blog, I engaged in many conversations about our food. Caribbean Food. Specifically, the food of the English-speaking Caribbean. One of the themes that stood out for me that is still very evident today, is that there seems to be some underlying embarrassment about our food. It's as if we are ashamed of our food. Generally, we do not think of it as special or interesting, even more so when it gets spoken of among other cuisines. What do you think? Why do you think this is so? These are not rhetorical questions. I am very interested in your answers.

If you've been following this blog for some time now, you know how much I love our Caribbean food and celebrate it. I do all I can to educate people about it and share it with the rest of the world. I want people to know that our food is so much more than a garnish - a reputation we have earned as a result of people of food influence who come to this part of the world, and cook with the ingredients without understanding the many ways they (the ingredients) can be prepared/used or even be fused with other ingredients. So what do they do? They cut a wedge here, make a slice there, adorn the plate and voila - you have Caribbean food. The other truth is that our own Caribbean people of food influence are generally not in the positions that facilitate the kind of change that elevates, celebrates and showcases Caribbean cuisine; and the few that can influence change, well, their interests lie elsewhere, understandably to a certain degree.

Let's discuss:

Do you think that this embarrassment we feel about our food stems from the origins of many of these dishes? Let's face the truth. Due to our harsh colonial past, many of our dishes were created out of necessity and the need "to make do" and to "stretch things". We did not eat high on the hog back in those days. As a result, many of our dishes can be considered peasant food - dishes of accessible and inexpensive ingredients, prepared with great cooking skill, spiced and seasoned to be made flavourful, delicious and edible. Could this be one of the reasons we don't think our food worthy of being counted among other cuisines, or at all?

A few dishes quickly come to mind, which can be considered peasant food:

  • Shine Rice - rice cooked with fresh coconut milk and onions. Sometimes flavoured with dried salt fish or dried shrimp for an umami flavor.
  • Privilege - rice cooked with fresh okra and salted pig tails or bits of salted beef
  • Pot Bakes - dough stuffed with onions, herbs and bits of salt fish and baked in a cast iron pot
  • Cou-cou - cornmeal cooked with okra
  • Foo-foo - ground provisions, boiled and pounded until smooth and formed into balls
  • Rice and Peas - rice cooked with fresh herbs and rehydrated peas/beans
  • Chicken-foot Soup
  • Cow-heel Soup
  • Tripe Soup
  • Callaloo
  • Souse

The thing is that Caribbean food is not only about peasant-type dishes, gosh, we have pies, roasts, pastries, breads, stews, curries, cured meat and many other things too.

Let's discuss:

We know that food and eating, the world over, is tied to social statues and financial resources. Do you think that because we are now in a position to eat high on the hog that we prefer not to be bothered with our food? Could this be why we think so little of our cuisine?

I was sitting in a nutrition class a few years ago and the professor asked each one of us what we had for breakfast, she was trying to gauge if we generally ate breakfast and what it consisted of. A guy in the class said he had cornmeal porridge (aka cornmeal pap - cornmeal cooked with milk, spiced with cinnamon and sweetened with West Indian brown sugar). There was sniggering from some of the students. You see, many of them had bacon, sausages, eggs, cheese and pancakes for breakfast so they felt that because this guy who ate cornmeal porridge had something mediocre for breakfast. I'm not going to get into the nutritional facts and benefits of either or both breakfasts. I just mentioned the incident in the class to make the point about how we think of our food. In this case, the cornmeal porridge was considered boring and bland and not something you want to say aloud that you had for breakfast. In other words, one should not be proud to say they had something so ordinary for breakfast, and especially in public.

I receive emails regularly from Caribbean people living in the Diaspora and wider, asking for recipes for particular dishes they grew up on... sometimes it is a case where they want to recreate a dish to share with their children so that they (the children) can taste what Caribbean food is like. I am heartened by such messages because it says that all is not lost. However, the are many others in the Diaspora that say they don't make Vincy, Lucian, Trini, Bajan, or Guyanese food. They only make Caribbean food occasionally. Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe that one should embrace the food of their new homes and combine it with what they already know so that the dining table becomes a merged space in which they can celebrate and discover themselves through the food they prepare and eat. What I don't understand, or get, is the total abandonment of the food of your homeland because you think less of it. Why?

I firmly believe that the responsibility of representing our food, our cuisine, and putting it on the pedestal it deserves lies with those of use who live right here at home in the Caribbean. We need to start appreciating our own. If we don't, why should anyone else? That change and appreciation has to swell from the ground. Talk is cheap so we most certainly cannot depend on with the power to make change to do anything else but talk. They can be heard up and down the Caribbean touting the food festivals they are hosting. Turn up and see who's cooking, what they are cooking and the ingredients they are using.

For those of you who are contributing in any way to promote, showcase, embrace and celebrate Caribbean cuisine, THANK YOU! Let's keep on persevering.

Please join the conversation and leave your comment(s) below. I admit that I am being selfish. I want to hear your thoughts for my own education and I'm hoping that your comments will help others too. Thanks!

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