Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Food Memoirs: "Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit"

"The incontrovertible truth is that cou-cou, a dish made from corn that you grind-up, fine-fine-fine, into a meal and cook in water that have okras boil in it, was first cooked in Barbados. From there it spread all over the world."
Austin Clarke's memoir Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit has a very loveable persona as its narrator. Maybe this persona is Austin Clarke, maybe not so much. You can see some of this narrator's character in this little quote from page 100. He writes in Bajan English -- although the real Austin Clarke is a highly educated professor and novelist who has lived in the US and Canada. The character who emerges in the telling reminds me a little of Langston Hughes' Harlem everyman, Simple.*

Clarke's narrator insists that Barbados food culture is superior to that of other Caribbean islands. Virtually every dish he describes is original to Barbados, he claims, despite many examples of parallel (or in his view, derivative) dishes elsewhere. Even those commonly credited elsewhere: "I, though, have a way of cooking jerk pork -- which in truth and in fact was invented in Barbados -- which have some Jamaicans trying to change their citizenship and become Barbadian!" he says on p. 200.

Each chapter of this memoir has a focus on a single dish and how to prepare it. The first thing you learn is how a kitchen could be as simple as "three large stones placed on the ground or on an elevated base made of hard rock or concrete," and a cooking vessel could be as simple as a tin can or three-legged iron pot. (p. 16) But if you are cooking his recipes in a modern kitchen in Toronto or Brooklyn, NY, there are suggestions for you -- in fact, there are quite detailed descriptions of how the narrator pictures your life and your kitchen.

Throughout the recipes, you hear how his mother and her peers cooked them in the 1930s and 1940s when Austin Clarke was a boy in Barbadoes, and how people there viewed each dish and its preparation. As the book proceeds, the narrator describes his feelings about women, about education, about Barbados history and slavery times, about race, and lots of other topics -- up to the last chapter when he describes an encounter with Norman Mailer!

Not only do you learn how to shop for the ingredients, what utensils and cooking pots to use, and how to prepare the food, you also learn what music to listen to and when to take a little drink while you are cooking. After you wash the oxtails for Oxtails with Mushrooms and Rice, you are advised:
"Have a drink at this juncture. A lil red wine, preferable. But since this is Wessindian food, there isn't nothing better than a strong rum. Being a multicultural kind o' man, I myself would make a strong-strong, dry-dry martini to take the chill off my bones. Bombay Gin, no ice, and with four nice, big, green juicy olives. I don't lift a spoon or a pot cover unless I have a drink in my hand." (p. 202)
My favorite chapter is called "Killing a Pig to Make Pork Chops with Onions and Sweet Peppers." Lyric descriptions of the delicious nature of pork chops begin the chapter, and the author clearly lets you know he's heading for a description of the local itinerant butcher and his business slaughtering and butchering a family's one and only pig.

But first, there's a long digression about public dances called brams, where "a man could meet a woman and put some sweet talk on she." If he wanted to treat that woman right, "the only thing was to offer the yourng lady one thing. Not a Coke nor a beer nor a ice cream. Not even a Cadbury chocolate bar nor a pack o' Wrigley's chewing gum. He would offer the lady a pork chop. A pork chop! ... The price of a pork chop sold at a bram was one shilling. The pork chop was golden brown and crispy and hot with fire. It was served plain, by itself, on a piece o' brown paper that quickly became soggy from the grease...." (p. 128-129)

Pig Tails 'n Breadfruit is so skillfully written that you hardly know what's happening to you. Just a wonderful book to read.

*If you haven't read Langston Hughes' stories about Harlem dweller Jesse B. Semple, called Simple, you have a treat in store for you: don't waste any time getting a copy of some -- The Best of Simple by Langston-Hughes

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