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The Massachusetts Review, Inc.

Indian Cuisine
Author(s): Ramabai Espinet
Source: The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 35, No. 3/4 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 563-573
Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25090562
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Ramabai Espinet

Indian Cuisine
it A nd since that night the taste of fruit cocktail
-/iLhas always
magical been to me, far-off, what
ever that means. It was
far from everything around. I still
get it sometimes. I open a cheap can of the overcooked,

overprocessed, overripe fruit and the whiff of gramarye is

overwhelming."

He sighed and turned away. We were lying on the ches


terfield in his living room, flung out for the occasion into
bed-like proportions. We were talking through the thick
late summer twilight, no lights, no music, only near street
sounds some distance below. "A childhood of privilege,"
was all he said. And I could see it through his eyes too but
it was wrong, all wrong. And how to begin to excavate the
difference from where his head had already settled it?

It had started with idle talk about giving each other Christ
mas gifts?like new lovers, I guess, between no
wavering
gifts and a bounty. One Christmas he had got no gifts.
"I can't remember why now. I was about seven and all I
remember is my mother
cooking ordinary sitting food and
down in the kitchen
and crying. Something must have
happened but I don't know what." He smiled, and I looked
into those crinkled brown eyes that must have refused pain
over and over until it had no place there any more. Some
times I thought I had never known anyone so cold. Strange
too how much I loved his coldness.

Me too, I thought tomyself, but did not say it. One Christ
mas I had got no gifts either. It was odd, my at my
being
cousins for Christmas. (Did something happen too? I don't
know.) Being there was wonderful and exciting and after

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tiptoeing into bed we talked for a long time about whether


Santa Claus would know that I was away from home.
"Don't worry," whispered my big cousin Bella, "if he don't
drop it here yuh bong to get it when yuh go back home."

At about midnight we heard loud singing and music from


the kitchen, bottle-and-spoon music and a cuatro, and
men's voices carrying on. Uncle Samuel's voice was clear,
"Bring out the children and leh dem enjoy de Christmas.
Bring dem out," emptying his pockets, "leh mih get rid ah
some small change."

Esau slept right through; nobody could get him to budge.


But Sonia and Iwalked out sleepily and collected our coins.
People were singing and drinking and everybody forgot
about us. Somebody gave us each a big bowl of fruit cocktail
and we sat there eating it. I was on my own. It was Christ
mas and this was not my house, not my parents, no brothers
and sisters nearby, awake at one o'clock in the morning

eating fruit cocktail, its blandness not missing anything in


the air, breaking all the regular rules of Christmas.

Privilege? I don't know. The grocery used to sell tinned fruit


and one or two times a year everybody used to buy some.
Or so I thought. Strange sounds and smells and memories
of that night. I don't really know what happened. A terrible
row and a real fight, I think, with a woman screaming,
broken glass all over the floor near where a man was playing
the cuatro, my aunt's high-heeled slippers flung into the
middle of the pile, the creeping inexorable smell of deso
lation. Uncle Samuel shouting, getting into his car and
driving fiercely away into the darkness. It's not possible to
keep some and leave some behind. I've kept most of it. It
wasn't privilege, though.

I went back home on Boxing Day and found the others


playing with new toys. My parents had wrapped a tooth
brush stand with aMickey Mouse head in used Xmas paper
for me. The stand was to be attached to the wall above the
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Indian Cuisine

sink. There was room for four toothbrushes, one for each
child. Santa Claus? My mother was offhand about it. "He
lef yuh out? He didn't come by Uncle Samuel to give yuh
no presents? Well," she chuckled dryly, "Rudolph must be
get confused with all the different directions. Anyhow you
know all about Santa Claus. Yuh eh find yuh too big for
all a dat now? Go outside and play."

Much later I found out that the other presents Santa had
brought were really cheap plastic dolls that she had sewn
clothes for, night after night, when we were asleep and he
was out. The little truck my brother got cost a dollar or
two. I was already too big for everything she could make.
And she had got nothing from Santa either. Strange, isn't
it, that what stops me from telling him about all of this
is not thefact of poverty, nor uncertainty, worry or any of
those things, but the familiar home-names of everybody?
Muddie, Da-Da, Papa, Sonia. Just calling those names
would be to expose myself completely. It stayed at fruit
cocktail privilege.

He went to sleep easily, leaving me alone to sort out the


discomfort of my privilege which, now that I think of it,
is a fabulous Bajan dish made of rice and ochroes, salt meat
and saltfish, all cooked-down together. Why did they name
it "privilege"? The time I had it was at a party where every
body brought a one-pot from their own country. Belize had
serre, Trinidad had pelau and Barbados had privilege.
When Barbados set down the s.teaming bowl they an
nounced it as a dish fit for a king. That table was a queen's

banquet alright. And it was all poor-people Caribbean


food.

It's possible that my only real privilege was that our house
was packed with old books. And that made me a reader of
everything: Dr. Chase's Almanac, Alistair Cooke, my
mother's cookbooks, my father's pornography. The house
had a bookcase with some leather-look volumes, bound
copies of theReader's Digest condensed series, The Reader's
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Digest of course, and big fat nice books written by people


like Zola, Marie Corelli, Lloyd C. Douglas and Pearl S.
Buck. Then there was the real stuff packed up under the
bed in cardboard boxes?my father's school books like
Pattern Poetry and The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott, The
Rivals, all of Dickens, Thoreau, Ruskin's Sesame and
Lilies, and a few of Shakespeare's plays. All kinds of trea
sures were in those boxes. The diary of Anne Frank, for in
stance. They didn't bother to put those books on the shelves
because they were old, mashed up, smelling of cockroach
eggs and the occasional mice droppings. And in between
the books there was the hunger that came and went with
the low, low whine of a mangy dog. The hunger came and

stayed although there was never really a day with nothing


at all on the table. always
Something materialised some
how. It's like that with some
levels of poverty. Want, hun
ger, always there, while you're chewing and swallowing:
fried aloo and roti, fried ochroes and roti, dasheen bush and
roti, or ochroes and rice and a suspicion of salt-fish in a

cook-up. Ochroes were our salvation.


split-pea

My grandfather planted them on a narrow strip of land at


the side of the house. They grew straight and tall?taller
than usual maybe because they were half-starved of light?
their slender stems bending with every stray wind that
filtered through "the grove," and they bore extravagantly.
My mother had quarrelled with Papa for digging up the
land at the side because she wanted to set down a rock
there later when things got better. But she was the
garden
first to harvest the ochroes and do unheard-of things with
them?fried, stirred into cornmeal batter with a whisper of
saltfish and made into fritters, dusted in cornmeal and deep
fried. Now that I think of it, cornmeal must have been very
cheap then.

My father, Da-Da, always left home early and returned late.


He hated poor food but Muddie would always heat some
thing up for him late at night when he returned. Although
it was late Iwould awaken and hear their quiet, bitter argu

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Indian Cuisine

ing about money and words like mahjong or whe-whe or


the races. My father was a gambler.

Once Sonia was staying at our house for a while when her
parents were on long-leave in England. When we filled out
the forms at school for the Government examination the
teacher asked where our fathers worked. Uncle Samuel
worked at the Ministry of Agriculture so Sonia wrote
"labourer" on her card. My father worked at a big super
market in the downtown area of San Fernando. He was

always counting and parcelling up money and one day I


was waiting for him in the office when Mr. Jones dropped
in to see him. Jonesie saw him counting out the bills with
that swift downward movement that I loved to watch (I
never learnt to do it, not even now) and exclaimed, "If ah
didn't know yuh was a gambling peong Iwoulda guess by
de way yuh handling dem bills. Yuh really should be casa
man." I had
heard talk about gambling at home. I wrote
"gambler" on my examination card. That day when we
went home we were still talking about out the cards
filling
and about the coming exams. Their anger at home took
us by surprise. Sonia got a stiff boof. I got a cut-arse.
good

With the gambling job you could either win or lose. So


when Da-Da won it was plenty treats and small-change and
swiss-rolls and choc-ices and tomato juice. When he lost
the hunger started
up again. When that happened Muddie
would wake up in the morning and make three or four bitter
remarks to herself before she set to work to manage the day.
She would snip the youngest ochroes from their bushes and
serve them lightly steamed with a dot of butter. In front of
the house a stand of dasheen had sprung out of the drain.
She cut the young leaves of these, mixed them with ochroes
and made a bhaji. A little bit of flour for roti and we ate
a whole meal.

Sometimes the flour itself was scarce. One day there wasn't
even flour. Our walked the two miles to the
grandfather
Chinese shop, took a trust of some flour and walked home
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again with the twenty-pound sack on his head. Papa was


too old to work but he had his small government pension.
Why did Mr. Chinaleong give him credit? When we lived
in Biche, in the country, Papa was always home
coming
with burlap bags full of stuff on his head. He would bargain
hard at the market for produce left over at the end of the
day. When he reached home he would empty the purple
bhaigan or ginghee or tomatoes or with a
string-beans
flourish on the floor of the long front gallery while we
rushed out and fought over what he had brought us. There
would always be chilibibi, nut-cakes, rice-cakes (my fa
vourite) or toolum (Sonia's favourite) mixed up in between
the bhaigan and tomatoes. Once he even brought home a

bag of cutlass-fish and emptied them, all slithery and sea


black, on the wooden floor. Muddie sighed resignedly, but
refused to touch them. Papa gathered them up and cleaned
and gutted them. He even roasted some with sweet potatoes
on a fire built way behind the mammy-sepote trees at the
back of the house. Sonia and I feasted that day.

The acres we had left behind in Biche were valueless and


beautiful. The wooden house sprawled at the front near the
land while behind it, stretching up a hill on one side and
down into a ravine at the back was land, lots of it, with
trees, a chicken-coop, a duck-pen, a pig-pen and stables
from long ago. The avocado tree had low branches swoop
ing to the ground where we rode horse, then there was the
forest of ochro bushes where we played cowboy-and-Indian,
and the cigarette bushes near where we played shop.

It was different in the growing suburb of La Plata, just


outside of San Fernando, where Da-Da had built the new
concrete house. Everyone lived on small lots of land al
though some were landscaped cleverly to suggest an imag
ined spaciousness. Ours was not landscaped?YET?but
my uncles had experimented with some imported grass seed
and now our tiny front lawn was covered with devil grass.
Everyone on the street had a car and a refrigerator; we had
neither?YET. We borrowed ice from the neighbours be
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Indian Cuisine

cause there were no shops or country parlours in La Plata.


Auntie Semoy gave us ice some days; Mr. Collins on others.
Once while I waited outside Auntie Semoy's kitchen and
neat living room for the ice, she asked in her friendly way,
"How your mother always picking ochro so, eh? All yuh
like ochro, eh!" She followed this up by asking Muddie who
confirmed that we were almost passionate in our taste for
ochroes.

In La Plata it was not ok to carry a gallon of the pitch oil


we used for cooking the long distance on foot from the
Chinese shop to our house, while the pitch oil leaked
against your legs and the gallon tin dug into the vulnerable
area near the back of your knees. Everyone else had gas
stoves and had their gas delivered in huge cylinders. And
it was not ok for Papa to walk that same distance with a
20-lb. sack of flour on his head for all the world, as Da
Da put it cruelly when he heard, "like a old bong-coolie."
Da-Da kept himself out of reach of all of this because his
job at the supermarket as a gambler was very important.
Everything Da-Da did was ok because he dressed well, spoke
well and did his job very well even though he lost some
times. The day Papa brought home the sack of flour, Mud
die made individual sada rotis on her tawa and crushed
some garlic and fresh Spanish thyme into a little margarine.
She served it up with panache and we ate and ate.

I think it was around this time that I swallowed a cookbook.


I remember it well?it was the Boston Cooking School
Book, with a faded buff cover and red lettering. At the front
was a column for planning meals, followed by two whole
chapters on method. I devoured material on how to bake,
broil, saute, shir, braise, roast, how to make puff-pastry and
how to identify a variety of fruit and vegetables like turnips,
kale and kumquats although I never saw these until many
years later. The food on my plate turned into cookbook
magic. When Muddie cooked a semi-stew of eggs, saltfish
and tomatoes with bake, the food on my plate turned into
shirred eggs, braised tomatoes and saltfish souffle. Or
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plantains dusted with lemon juice and dessicated coconut


while one slice of ordinary blackish fried plantain stared
at me from behind neatly cut quarters of roti.

Times were hard. Muddie got a job in a little store down


the street from Woolworth. She and Da-Da worked on the
same street but they came and went separately. Da-Da was
ashamed of having his wife work, especially as a low-paid
storeclerk, so he pretended that she wasn't working at all.
She pretended she wasn't working too so everything in the
house was supposed to run as usual. All of the cooking fell
on me although I was twelve years old and had to go to
school like everybody else.

I got tired of cooking the same things over and over. And
Muddie had forgotten about a thin blue hard-covered West
Indian cookbook hidden in one of the cardboard boxes. The
first day Imade coo-coo with ochroes and cornmeal out of
the cookbook I got a terrible boof and nobody would touch
it. They said it looked stiff and slimy and that the stewed
saltfish was too oily. Late as it was, Muddie had to quickly
make up some sada roti and butter for them. It was Da
Da who saved me. His gambling job finished late that night
and he came home hungry. He ate and ate and ate. Muddie
must have been watching him suspiciously I heard because
the hiss in her voice, "Yuh know bout coo-coo? Where yuh
know bout coo-coo?" I was still doing home-work on the

big table outside and listened attentively. I had heard a


neighbour whispering toMuddie that Da-Da had a Creole
woman and that itwasn't really the gambling job that took
up so much time. When he had finished eating, Da-Da
called me and gave me a big hug. That was my licence to

practise.

After that nothing was too hard for me, after all I had
swallowed a cookbook. Paimie or blue drawers,
already
pastelles, callaloo, and shark-fin soup mixed up with dhal
and rice and fried bodi with pigtail, dumplings and stew
beef, macaroni with stewed dhal and tomato chokha.
pie

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Indian Cuisine

Pinwheel rolls, chequered cakes, steamed cucumber slices


with cheese and lemon, stuffed eggplant au gratin. The day
I made kitcheree for Good Friday I was proud, proud. I
didn't get that in any cookbook. It was Mousie from the
country who came on a visit and told me how to do it. Mud
die didn't know too much about real Indian food and there
were no cookbooks for that. I added shrimps to Mousie's

recipe and served it up with tomato chokha on the side.

One day I noticed that a set of vines had started to run on


the wall behind the back steps. In Biche we had endless vines
and bush. We used to make wild cucumber chow, suck the
bright red seeds of wild carilees, eat fat-pork off the bushes,
and make juice from inkberries. La Plata was boring. The
vines on the wall were almost all old bush, I thought, until
I saw some bright red color peeping through. It was the
tiny wild carilees, finding their way from Biche to La Plata,
laden with small firm fruit. Only Papa ate fried carilees
because he said they were good for high blood-pressure,
cancer and rheumatism. But the only thing we had for din
ner that day was rice and dhal so I tore down about two
dozen small carilees and curried them with black massala
and little red bird peppers. Everybody ate. Some days later
I tried my at kaloungie
hand because Papa had said, "If
yuh could cook
massala carilee so good, yuh might even

manage kaloungie." Papa could cook only one thing?thin


crisp kurma that Sonia called sugar sticks. But he knew
what kaloungie looked and tasted like and explained it.
Quickly, and disgorging from the insides of my big cook
book, I worked backwards. The first time the kaloungie
stuck to the pot and got black all over and very dry. But
the second time it was perfect, stuffed on the inside, crispy
succulent and slightly burnt on the outside. After that I
knew I could cook anything.

Muddie never even tried theWest Indian cookbook because


by this time she had given up on the kitchen. I suppose
it was a strange life, me and my mother sharing the kitchen
like equals; she would make breakfast and I would make
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sandwiches for everybody for lunch. She would go to work


and I would have dinner cooked before she came home.
Exactly like co-wives. But it wasn't strange; it was just our
life. It wasn't privilege though.

Privilege is the life I lead now. I can do just about anything


I like in this city because I earn enough and am my own
woman. I don't like having too much, though. It makes
me feel to run out and squander it on the nearest vagrant
or on the nearest handy act of vagrancy. I'm told that this
is a permanent feature of deprivation and that without
camouflage I can be unmasked. I could care less. Sometimes
I just like to waste. Perhaps it's just indifference because
of old fruit cocktail privilege.

Privilege is also my hobby as a designer of cuisine. Word


of mouth is how it got started but now I get all kinds of
weird and wonderful jobs. I design cuisine to integrate every
aspect of a person's special event so that the table looks like
your life quilt laid out as a feast for eyes and palate. Home,
childhood, history, nationality, personality, seasonal pro
duce?no stops allowed. Depending on the circumstances
I charge a fortune or nothing at all.

The menu for the party of one of my dearest friends, a

Jamaican actress, now famous and hitting the no-holds


barred forties, went like this:

appetizer

Pakoras 8cTamarind Dip


Mini Accras 8cHot Bhaudhaniya Sauce

SOUP

Cream of Tannia with Spinach Puree 8c


Chopped Coriander
ENTREES

Jerk Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Arugula 8c


Water Chestnuts

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Red Snapper Creole


Ital Stewed Peas

vegetables/side dishes

Seasoned Rice
Braised Cassava with Tomatoes 8cPeppers
Anansi Roast Plantain
Sauteed Debe Pumpkin
Fresh Pomme Cythere Chutney

SALAD

Avocado Layered Salad

DESSERT

June Plum Crisp 8cCoconut Ice-Cream

A tad over the top, I thought. But then so is my friend?


feisty and fabulous.

I have more requests than I can handle so I pick and choose.


The other
day one
of my wealthy client/acquaintances
asked where I was trained. I laughed.
"Well," I said, "when Iwas twelve years old Iwent through
periods of excruciating hunger. So I swallowed the biggest
cookbook I could find."
We both laughed.
"No, really," he insisted.
I answered with a straight face, "I received most of my
training at the school of Indian Cuisine in La Plata. Itwas
a real privilege to be trained there."
He nodded, satisfied.

So privilege it really was, fruit cocktail and all.

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