On days that I pined for curried crab and dumplings in those white unforgiving Philadelphia winters, there was no better comfort than a call to my Mama for one of her recipes
A Brown Boy Lost, Longing
In the pace of urban Philadelphia life four years ago, I found myself flung far from the lifestyle I knew and alienated from food that I craved. In the bustling and din of cabs, car horns and dense smog, I was a brown boy lost with a longing to once more hear the homely clanking of metal spoons against coal pots as sugar burnt to brown seasoned chicken, while on the back burner a tall pot of potatoes burbled furiously. The caramelised aroma, like a slavering power, permeated my daydream as I journeyed through a myriad of spent days. I savoured every morsel of memory that had primed me to become who I am, a bon vivant of Caribbean cuisine.
Allow me to share with you the story I remember best.
It was a typical Sunday visiting her, my mother’s mother. A routine in my sagacious 9 year old brain. We arrived at my Mama’s house tucked way up high on the face of El Tucuche—Trinidad’s second highest mountain peak—exhausted from the long drive and collectively ravenous.
El Tucuche: Sacred Mountain, Sacred Moment
The sweltering sun consumed the verdant jungle foliage, its sizzling heat vaporising every drop of moisture in the atmosphere. My Mama’s garden was, as it still is, well maintained, with flowering sprays of ixoras, hibiscus, and morning glory—a secret garden in the midst of wild, untamed Caribbean nature. We found Mama, as we often did, hunched between the shrubs of her herb garden, plucking at neat rows of brilliant green chive, pinching at the pungent leaves of chadon beni (culantro), and guiding her knowing hands to locate the ripe jewels of bird pepper fruits.
Mama in her elements showed no sign of tiring. Wiping her brow, she reached out to us in one graceful motion—hands clutching choice chive, chadon beni and peppers. In that moment we were three generations in a familial embrace amid the torrid midday Trinidad sun-blaze. My grandmother led us to the cool shade of her verandah and into a stream of crisp mountain breeze that freely expunged any lingering discomfort from our ascent to the mountains. As we settled, eyes adjusting from the brightness of the day, there it was—our Sunday lunch!
It was nothing short of spectacular. To this day when I recall this memory I see it in perfect detail.
On a long wooden table, daintily decorated by a vinyl covering were spread numerous enamel, pyrex, and ceramic bowls filled with stewed red beans, steaming white rice, sweet fried plantain, and slices of avocado. A macaroni pie fresh from the oven sat atop a cork board place-holder, the sharp molten cheddar cheese bubbling on its golden surface. To the side a ceramic platter was the challis piled with slivers of roasted beef, while at the far end of this heavenly feast one dish sat mysteriously, still uncovered, guarding its gastronomic secrets.
My Mama’s Table
As we took our places at Mama’s table she appeared with sliced cucumbers, seasoned with salt and pepper. Placing it beside the fried plantains she vanished beyond the swirling beaded curtain, again to return with a jar of pepper sauce (this sinfully delicious condiment perhaps freshly blended from the produce she had been harvesting on our arrival). In a final flourish, the white rice was garnished with finely chopped chive and it was time to uncover that mysterious dish— my Mama’s mouth-watering stewed chicken that was strategically placed next to my father—and to dive in and devoured our Sunday lunch in first and second helpings.
From beginning to end it was a sensorial ceremony of a spiced and fragrant culinary procession that filled the afternoon; the sweetness and texture of the stewed chicken, a common yard fowl, paired with the creamy heartiness of the deep macaroni pie brought every mouthful together in a harmonic complement—sides, condiments, meats.
Caribbean Cooking: Mama’s Hand
This moment is emblazoned on my memory. It was first time I truly began to understand the culture of my food as a Trinidadian. During my time living abroad I clung to these memories. On days that I pined for curried crab and dumplings in those white unforgiving Philadelphia winters, there was no better comfort than a call to my Mama for one of her recipes. A trip to the grocery store followed and the unveiling of my miniature cold pot lead to many glorious hours spent recreating that feeling home cooking.
Now back in Trinidad and sitting on my verandah, my realization has come full circle. I am no closer to that feeling now of home than during my time abroad, or even to that very moment at my Mama’s long wooden table when I came appreciate the spectacle of a real hearty Trinidadian lunch. Caribbean food is what we make of it. It may be a dish made from authentic produce, or more often their substitutes; but a key ingredient is always those memories and associations we attach to the special moments when we dine with family and friends. Where ever we are in the world matters little, as long as we continue to recreate the culture of our cuisine where ever we happen to make our home.
So was I able to carve my niche in Philadelphia after that day? Yes. We are closer to culture of Caribbean food in locations around the world than we often realise. Though miles away from the world’s most unique archipelago, in almost every metropolis across the globe one finds elements of Caribbean cooking. And even if it remains a challenge to find a taste of home cooking, one may seek comfort in knowing that your granny may just one phone call away.