Foreign tastebuds and decline of food traditions

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


The main yardstick of an advanced society is its ability to embrace the changes which are characterised as modern and in the process divest itself of traditional practices.

While both continue to coexist in societies, it is clear that there is a collision between the two modes of operation.

The level of a society’s adaptability is determined by the speed with which it is able to give up the old-fashioned ways, which are considered both outmoded and inferior to the newer practices, which are considered improvements.

The passage of time has illustrated that the transformation from one mode to another is not as simple as previously assumed and it has been painfully realised that some of the modern practices are retrograde steps which have negative consequences for the population.

In addition, in the heights of modernism, in an ironic turn of events, heritage has acquired increased value. As a consequence of this renewed appreciation and respect for traditional ways of doing things, there is a thrust to hold on to aspects of traditions.

In Tobago, the contradictions between modern and tradition are most evident with regard to the island’s culture, and there are compelling reasons for a specific focus on the island’s food culture.

First of all, the focus on heritage to boost the island’s tourism offerings demands preservation of food culture. Secondly, it has been demonstrated that some of the shifts to modern food practices have been inimical to health and environment. Thirdly, there is a national policy to stimulate agricultural production which has been supported by an exhortation from the Prime Minister to the people of Tobago, to “grow what you eat and eat what you grow,” and underscored by the covid19 pandemic. In other words, it is a call for Tobago to return to its food traditions.

Historically, Tobago has had a strong agricultural sector through which the population fed itself and exported food items to Trinidad.

However, the situation has been reversed and the island is heavily dependent on food imports from Trinidad and elsewhere. The change emanated from a change in cultivation patterns as well as a change in tastes which has resulted in the development of a classification of food which equates with the island’s social classification.

The poorer section of the population was seen to be using outdated methods to produce what is considered “poor people food,” which is to be avoided as individuals move up the social ladder, and if it is prepared, it should be hidden from visitors to the home, because it was most undesirable that people knew that was the class of food you were consuming. The “modernised” tastes of the Tobago population helped to strangle the island’s agricultural production.

The island’s shift from food exporter to food importer was influenced by the adoration of the “foreign” which was initially propagated by the introduction of some items to feed the American troops during World War II which were shared with the local workers. These served to change the food tastes of locals.

This change was further propagated by media images laced with foreign foods, which were served on the cinema screen and in magazines. The presentations of the meals of middle- and upper-class Americans made the imported items appeare more desirable than the local fare.

The growth of the island’s tourist industry, which was initially based on the doctrine that tourists should be fed foods to which they were accustomed, stimulated increased importation, which led to increased local availability of, exposure to and demand for foreign food items, which filtered down through the society. The modernised taste led to a determination that imported foods were better than local and were the foods most suitable to the upper class.

However, the demand for these food items increased across the social classes.

The other factor which affected the increased demand for imported food items was based on availability. The island’s production of some items was limited by economic theory which determined that it was cost-effective to import an item from a cheaper source than to produce it for yourself.

One of the first casualties of this mode of thinking occurred with the production of bene. Tobago, is well known for the production of bene balls, and the island used to produce its own supply of the seeds. Bene is the African name for sesame seeds (
Sesamum indicum). which were said to have been brought across the Atlantic in the ships which transported captive Africans to labour on the plantations.

The plants were primarily cultivated on the western side of Tobago, where bunches of the mature plant were hung on the kitchen walls to dry out. When they were completely dried they were shaken over a container in which the seeds were collected and used for making the candy. The cultivation of bene continued on the island up to the 1960s, after which, in accordance with the dictates of economic thought, it was replaced by a cheaper and less laborious alternative, to import sesame seeds from China.

Similarly, the cultivation of ground nuts, which were used to produce nut cake, was terminated in favour of cheaper imports from large-scale producers. Neither crop has since been cultivated on the island in any significant quantity.

One of the most inescapable indications of the preference for foreign items is the availability, sale and consumption of fruit on the island. The demand for foreign fruits is reflected in the fruit stalls which line the major thoroughfares, which offer large quantities of apples, grapes, and pears and, in addition, strawberries and cherries are also available all year round, in the supermarkets. These fruits, which are put in the lunchkits of schoolchildren, have led to a virtual abandonment of the locally grown fruit. As a consequence, some of the fruit which used to be popular on the island have disappeared and are not known by the present population of children and young people.

The list of the unknown fruits include: pingwing, (
Aechmea Magdalena) a tasty fruit from a plant which is also valued for the fibre which is extracted from its leaves and used for making bags, rope and twine; and water lemon (
Passiflora laurifolia,L), which is also called Jamaican honeysuckle, a relative to the passion fruit.

Very limited numbers of some of the fruit trees which were very popular with children up to the 1980s can be found on the island. These include custard apple, sugar apple, caimite, cashew, downs, mandarine and breadnut/chataigne, grugru bef, balata/gooseberry, governor plum, fat pork, mammee apple, Jamaica plums, Chile plums, guinea tamarind, pommerac, shaddock, plumrose, pomegranate and sea grapes.

The sad reality is that there has been little attempt to resuscitate the cultivation of these plants despite knowledge of the health dangers posed by the chemical sprays used on imported fruit, the wax coating on apples and, in the case of sea grapes, the negative environmental impact of the removal of large sections of the trees for various developmental works. Urgent intervention is required to restore the island’s fruit heritage.


"Foreign tastebuds and decline of food traditions"

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