Monday, 30 November 2009

Happy *burp* Independence Day (Conversations in holiday eating)

It's Independence Day in Barbados - 43 years since we told England "thanks for the slavery and that but we can take it from here." I hadn't spent an Independence Day in Barbados for some time, before now, but it's one of my favourite weekends of the year, in part because of the conkies, which might possibly be the best food in the Western Hemisphere (next to steamed pudding and sweet bread). This morning, reading the news, I saw that when asked about Kate Moss's statement that "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels", Rihanna responded "I love food because I'm from Barbados." And I thought: what a simple and beautiful truth lies in that statement. The 'because' is the real poetry there. Simple cause and effect: since I am from Barbados, I love food. My love for food is based on my geographical provenance. No need for further examination. It's science.

And it's pretty accurate. Holidays and food go hand in hand in lots of places. But for many of us here, eating is an event. I've been planning activities with friends and colleagues, and after we've planned the menu and assigned responsibility for preparing the various items, the conversation has been known to go like this:

Me: So we have all the food and drinks sorted. What else will we do?
Friend 1: And the cups and ice? And the Banks? (Because apparently Banks beer is crucial enough not to count as a drink, and to merit a separate discussion point.)
Me: And the cups and ice and Banks. What else will we do?
Friend 2: How you mean?
Me: Well we can't eat all day.
Friend 1: *blink*
Friend 2: I don't understand.
Me: Well, we'll get there, we'll spread the blankets, unpack the food, eat it...
Friend 1: People will drink, talk, fall asleep, wake up, eat again, finish the drinks, eat the leftovers on the way to the cars and go home. long have you been away?

And of course it has changed a bit over the years. My generation and subsequent ones are pretty active. We'll set up some stumps for cricket and play paddle ball and volleyball at the beach, but whenever I'm at a daytime holiday event with people of all ages, the food is definitely the star. And it's a challenge if you have certain food preferences.

Say my plate has some rice, a flying fish and fried plantain:

Guy I've seen twice in my entire life: Why aren't you eating?
1st Stranger: You trying to reduce?
2nd stranger, wandering in: She trying to reduce?! Reduce where? Girl you big as a mosquito. (Note, I'm considerably larger than a mosquito.) Eat some food.
Me: I'm not trying to lose weight. This is enough food for me right now.
Twice-seen guy: Oh you sick?
Me: No. This is what I want now. I'll have more later.
Stares from all 3
3rd stranger, wandering over: That is all the food you want?
Twice-seen guy: She trying to reduce.
Pitiful glances from all.

Or, say my plate has a variety of foods but no meat:

Neighbour: Why aren't you eating? (You'll notice there's a very clear definition of eating that is more than just 'ingesting a food item and swallowing')
Me: I have food. All that's left is meat and I don't eat that so...
Neighbour: Oh you don't eat pork! There's lamb and chicken.
Me: No I mean meat. And poultry. And shellfish.
By 'shellfish', I'm mumbling and ashamed.
Neighbour, confused: Oh. There's a lasagna there. That has vegetables.
Me, trying to disappear: Right. That's beef. I'm alright, though. This is enough. Thanks.
Neighbour, calling in reinforcements: She says she doesn't eat meat. No meat in that soup, right?
Stranger: No. Only some pigtail.
Me: Right. That's um...from a pig. But you know, I'm good here. I have plenty.
Both look at my plate disapprovingly.
Stranger, calling in more reinforcements: Straw! What here doesn't have in meat?
Straw, also a stranger, walking over: Ahm. I ain sure. Eat some chicken!
I think he believes that if he says it with enthusiasm, I'll be spontaneously convinced to eat chicken.
Me: No, thanks.
Straw: Eat li'l piece. It can't kill you.
Straw is not even in the vicinity of the point.
Me, backing away lest I be force-fed some lamb stew: I have plenty, though. Seriously. Thanks.
Pitiful glances from all.

Of course, we're a modern society, for what that's worth, and we have our fitness competitions and fashion industry and a desire to be thin that is not pervasive, but exists. (We also, for the record, have a non-negligible vegetarian population, so I never understand why so many people act as if non meat eaters are of some kind of cult.) Fat people are still teased, as are thin people. But in general, the thin ideal is a lot less thin than it is in other places. It's more a kind of medium-sized ideal. Still, this type of food philosophy, though seeming quite food- and body-positive in some ways, is quite intolerant in others. It assumes that it cannot create disordered eating, and so does not really allow for its existence in the way food is discussed and treated among groups of people. That assumption is of course incorrect, and I think we're on our way to realizing that.

But there's a certain level of comfort that we have with food, and a pride in creating it that historically comes from doing interesting, innovative things with very little, laboriously-, locally-grown food. That pride is deliciously experienced around Independence Day, and in honour of this day, I give you the afore-mentioned greatest food of the Western Hemisphere. The Conkie.

2 cups corn flour
1/2 cup flour
3/4 lb finely grated pumpkin
6 oz margarine/shortening melted
1/2 lb sweet potato
3 cups grated coconut
1 tsp salt
4 oz raisins (optional)
3/4 lb brown sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp spice
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp almond essence
Banana, Plantain or Fig leaves (singed over fire)*

*They'll say you can use wax or foil paper if you have no banana leaves, but They lie. No, you can. But you shouldn't. They simply won't taste the same.

Banana leaves are used to wrap the conkie mixture, so you need leaves that aren't shredded. Strip leaves from stalk with a sharp knife. Leaves are very delicate and tear easily. To use them in your recipe, you must make them pliable by briefly singeing them over an open flame. If your leaves start to curl up, that means they've been on the flame too long. If your leaves spontaneously combust, that means you're using old, dried up leaves. So, you know, don't do that. Use green leaves.

Tear singed leaves into individual squares for wrapping your conkies. The standard size square is 8" x 8", but they can be bigger depending on how big you want your conkies to be. Cut the leaves into desired pieces.

• Combine grated coconut, sweet potato & pumpkin.
• Mix in sugar, spices, flour, corn flour, salt and raisins.
• Add milk, margarine and almond essence.
• Mix ingredients well. Mixture should be thick and drop slowly from a spoon.

• Place 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons in the centre of each banana leaf square.
• Fold the banana leaf neatly around the mixture. Be careful not to tear the leaf, or the mixture will leak.

•Steam conkies over rack of boiling water in a large saucepan or steamer until firm to the touch.

And vIola! Here's your unwrapped conkie goodness:

These lovelies freeze very well. My mother once made them on Independence weekend and froze me a batch until I came home in May the following year. I don't think I did any grocery shopping that entire first week I was back.

Happy Independence Day.

Recipe and photos adapted from

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Durned bloggin' 'n' such

I've just returned from a panel discussion on The Role and Responsibility of the Writer in Shaping the Identity of a Developing Society. And it was hilarious for a lot of reasons, not least among which was the refusal of one of the panellists to engage blogging as a legitimate medium of writing. He was outraged - or rather feigning outrage because one senses that he often uses the theatrical to make his point - that here we were meant to be discussing writers, the greats of literature, and we were wasting our time mentioning blogging and other such new-fangled nonsense. He kept saying 'blogging' with much disdain, like one might say 'phlegm', and I started to wonder if he even knew that blogging was actually writing, or if he thought it was some completely unrelated and tiresome young people's pastime - like skateboarding. I began to invent all kinds of things that blogging might actually refer to in his mind. Maybe he thought it was derived from "breadfruit logging"? The wanton cutting down of breadfruit trees? Or "blue fogging": driving around vehicles that send huge puffs of blue smoke into homes and communities, which sounds ridiculous but would surely be at least as effective as regular fogging in killing mosquitoes (i.e., not at all), and would be much prettier and hilariously random.

But assuming he does realize that blogging is writing, then I have to wonder what he's so upset about. Could it be that we're so used to the elitism of traditional literary/news/opinion media that it sticks in our craws that we have no control over who gets a voice these days? That we aren't ready to release the privilege traditionally required to publish and achieve literary greatness (or at least some kind of audience) and its associated power? That we want it to be hard, goddammit, because then anyone would have access and then what would be the point of our privilege and overpriced, overinflated educations and egos? No. That probably wasn't it.

We talked too about the importance of fair, unbiased reporting, which we seemed to be saying was the current standard of print journalism. We neatly separated this accounting of fact from 'creative writing', as if some of the writing we see in our newspapers isn't the most intentionally scandalous, subjective, created (as apart from creative) thing you've ever seen. The entire discourse reminded me of fourth form English class, where we were taught the definitions of fact and opinion, and then took sentences and assessed them for their content of each. It was disingenuous in its kind of Journalism 101 vibe, and when it came time for audience questions, I wanted to take the mic and say "I'm sorry. Are you people at all serious?" Are we really saying that a newspaper that often runs quotes like "A HOMOSEXUAL TRYST that turned into robbery and ended in death went before the No. 2 Supreme Court yesterday", describes the fact that a man didn't kill his cheating wife sooner as "restraint in the face of adversity" and spends entire paragraphs on stories covering wrongful death/police misconduct cases on whether the alleged victim was gay and promiscuous is committed to some apparently invisible ideal of non-sensationalism and impartiality? No, we can't have been saying that.

In the end, I didn't say anything at all. I've not really outed myself as a writer in this community, at least not in that way where people gather around cheap wine and bemoan the fact that we haven't produced another George Lamming. (As if anyone wants another George Lamming in 2009, or ever. Or another Derek Walcott or Austin Clarke. I don't want another of any of those. We already have them.) And I don't know that I will, because all that bellowing messes with my process and keeps me in my own head, which can't be good for writing. But also because writers talking about writing is potentially some of the most tiresome navel-gazing you could imagine. The people behind the event seem to have great intentions, and I'd like to see them keep going, with perhaps a little more focus next time. But I'm not driven to charge to the fore of this particular movement. I'm not sure I get where it's moving.
Creative Commons License
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence