DARA E HEALY
“From the early 1960s through the mid-eighties, At Home with Sylvia Hunt…involved ingredients like eddoes, cassava, and dasheen, coconut in all mediums (from liquid and jelly to shredded chunks), breadfruit (fried, roasted, or served in flavourful sauces), plantain, pigeon peas, and local vegetables cooked down with salted cod or pig foot.”
– Patrice Yursik
ONCE AGAIN, global realities are forcing us to reconsider our relationship with food. In 2022, conversations about food security are no longer a preoccupation of developing nations. Drought, water pollution and inequitable access to healthy food are the focus of conversations now taking place between leaders of the wealthier nations on our planet.
At home, it seems global food instability is encouraging wider interest in farming and cooking with local ingredients. It is reported that thousands attended the recent Agri-Investment Forum and Expo, eager to experience and understand how to incorporate local alternatives into their daily diet. As the international environment becomes more unstable, is it possible that the sinister reign of foreign fast food in our country is nearing its end?
As a nation, we experienced other difficult periods related to food. During the war years, food was rationed, as shipments of staples such as flour became more difficult. In fact, the “shortage of flour gave rise to some of the most blatant forms of profiteering.” For example, shopkeepers began selling only sandwiches rather than loaves of bread. At one point, plots in the Queen’s Park Savannah were even offered as wartime gardens.
But according to the calypsonian, the real problem with rationing was corruption. Executor registered the disgust of the people when he sang: “The Government food distribution/Has reached a scandalous situation/If they just give me the authority/I’d settle this matter immediately…And then I’d appoint a board/What to do? To control the Control Board.”
In the immediate post-war period, independence movements intensified. The Pan-African movement agitated for self-determination for peoples of African heritage. Politics and survival became intertwined as, in the Caribbean, hopes for collective prosperity were placed on a federation of Caribbean nations. In 1960, Dr Eric Williams, the new head of government, led a march to demand the return of Chaguaramas from the Americans. Woodford Square became a centre of learning, as “the Doc” delivered speeches which located TT in the global movements for change.
The national television station was critical to the mood of national pride. TTT (Trinidad and Tobago Television) started in 1962 and At Home with Sylvia Hunt began airing not long after.
Ms Hunt also owned an eating establishment on Frederick Street where the food was unapologetically local. In those days, we would have enjoyed fruits that are hardly seen any more, such as balata, downs and caimite or star apple.
Today, we are known for our innovation in food. Inspired by our many cultural influences, we have created new dishes or our own interpretation of ancestral recipes. From African heritage we have perfected callaloo and added a new twist to the rice and the pounded provisions in the form of pelau, pound plantain and coo coo. Doubles is a loving creation inspired by our East Indian traditions; even the way we cook curry is intrinsically TT.
But perhaps Christmas is when the interconnectedness of food, culture and heritage is really striking, as we enjoy an explosion of flavours from pastelle, paime, sorrel and black cake to baked ham and ponche-de-creme; influences from South America to Europe and the Middle East. And to wash everything down, local wines and, yes, Peardrax, from the UK, but still enjoyed as part of our food legacy.
Food is embedded in the fabric of who we are as a people. Yet successive administrations have not cultivated a link between food and national identity.
Interestingly, 80 years ago, as debate erupted over food shortages, a member of the Executive Council declared: “I ask those honourable members pressing government and the Food Controller…to use more effort to get our people to realise that this land can be made self-sufficient in food in a very short time.”
As we celebrate 60 years of independence, not only can we learn to feed ourselves, but we have it in our power to develop sustainable industries based on food. Properly organised, we would be able to entice the world to our shores to experience the mystery and unique heritage of our food. Let us create the legacy Mama Sylvia Hunt and others envisaged. We can do it. We need to do it.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN