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


  1. Fabulous!! I laughed through the majority of that and I salute your ode to conkies, says she as she gobbles down her third for the day LOL

  2. Just great. Enjoyed the writing which has me laughing and yearning for breakfast time to have another conkie.

  3. This is so brilliantly written, sis.
    Love from your fan and friend,


  4. A brilliant ode to the conkie mongoose! But I particularly identify with the recreation of the encounters us non-meat eaters have at Caribbean food-infused gatherings. Were it not for the conkie recipe I would have called it "The Perils of Vegitarian/Vegan/Portion-Size Conscious Eating at Christmas in the Caribbean"!

    Another beautiful reminder that who we are and what we stand for (whether we agree with it all or not) is a fine and wonderful state of being. Thank you for helping us celebrate that.

    And I comin' fuh my conkies JUST now!

  5. Still rolling pon de floor! Hilarious! When I eventually pick myself up I'll be booking me a flight home. You know what put de final nail in de homesickness coffin? Dat last pic of de unwrapped conkie WITH BITE MISSING! wuhlaaaaaaaah!

  6. Very nice - an understatement really. I laughed throughout the reading. As a veggie who has given in to eating some forms of meat when out - just to have something to eat - I can relate. I am also a Conkie Junkie with it at the top of my list of favourite foods (sugar cane being #1 and conkie tied in 3rd place with great cake because of price only), eclipsed only by cassava pone in #2. N.B. only bajan foods factor in at the top of my list. And our menu isn't nearly as long as an Italian's!

  7. Hilarious post! Conkies are my favorite things about Novembers in Barbados, next to NIFCA performances. Glad I found your blog.

  8. You hard like Rihanna.
    Pure genius:
    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.


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