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FLAVOURS OF A PEOPLE
Judette Coward Talks To Anne-Marie Whittaker, An "Accidental Historian"
Documenting Caribbean Food. Is There Such A Thing As Caribbean Food? Something
That Expresses The Collective Ethos Of The Region?
Ann-Marie Whittaker slips an apron over her red sleeveless dress and
scrutinises a brightly-decorated table the way a painter does a daub of paint on
canvas. "You know what's the best thing to come from all this?" she muses as she
surveys a neat row of bottles - her Native Treasures line of gourmet condiments.
"I've learnt something about myself, something I want to teach my children -
that you don't have to settle for getting married and finding a good job when
you leave school; you can create something of your own."
A laugh spreads across Whittaker's face; she draws a line in the air with an
elegant hand, placing it next to a plastic flying fish on the table at her booth
at the 1998 Caribbean Food Festival in Trinidad. She picks it up, raises its
fins and explains the popularity of the fish in Barbados. "Bajans are the only
Caribbean people to have mastered the art of deboning flying fish." This, she
believes, is why the fish is more popular in Barbados than in Tobago where it is
also a common sight.
Whittaker is fanatical about Caribbean food; for the past two years she has
been travelling the islands, studying the links that connect the region's
cuisine to its colonial past and independent present. The Guyanese-born mother
of two says she didn't know how to cook until she migrated to Barbados, married
and had little choice but to learn. At 23, she discovered she had a flair for
taking basic ingredients and creating a regal repertoire of dishes. When the
family's computer business failed under the weight of heavy competition in the
mid-1980s, Whittaker revived her desire to create something of her own. At the
time, she had no idea the answer would come from her own backyard.
"There is a huge tamarind tree in our yard and it sometimes yields 500 to 600
pounds of pulp every year," Whittaker says. Because of her Guyanese heritage,
"where people have no choice but to be creative with fruits and food," she
started making a tamarind sauce and storing it in buckets under her kitchen
sink, instead of letting the fruit go to waste. She recalls how her friends
would drop by, mostly on Sundays, demanding "some of that wonderful sauce". Soon
this became a Sunday ritual. "Usually when my friends dropped by they would
bring their own containers, but then someone forgot her jar and as I was putting
the sauce into a bottle of my own, suddenly a light went on."
That was the birth of Bassa Bassa sauce, the first product in her gourmet
line, where a voluptuous mixture of tamarind sauce is married to fiery Scotch
Bonnet peppers. Bassa Bassa sauce and other gourmet products are available at
specialty stores throughout the Caribbean, North America and Europe. Some of the
line's biggest buyers include gourmet chain stores: Top Friendly in upstate New
York and the Food Emporium in Manhattan.
Whittaker's specialty line of products is crossing ethnic and cultural seas -
albeit with some modification as the heat of tropical peppers has been toned
down for taste buds unaccustomed to the singe, but that's as far as the changes
Whittaker travels all over the Caribbean, cooking up a culinary message of
Caribbean cuisine. She didn't start out wanting to document stories about
Caribbean food. The research, she says, was the easy part; learning about the
essence of island food was a bit more complex.
Is there such a thing as Caribbean food? Something that transcends the
individuality of the island and expresses the collective ethos of the region?
Whittaker gets anecdotal. "In St Vincent," she says, describing how vendors
transform the Trinidadian meal of callaloo, "they sell their callaloo with
boiled corn. They prepare it the same way Trinidadians do, with dasheen bush and
ochro, but after they boil, it is cooled and then placed into plastic bags. It's
fascinating to see how the Vincentians and the tourists cut the tip of the bag,
drink the callaloo and then open the mouth of the bag to get at the corn.
Wayside food is typical of the Caribbean; callaloo is to Trinidad what jerk
chicken is to Jamaica, flying fish to Barbados and casareep to Guyana." If you
want to know about Caribbean food, says Whittaker, the best thing to do would be
to visit wayside vendors.
Whittaker takes these tidbits about Caribbean food, marinates them in her
mind and serves them up to hungry foreigners who want a taste of the exotic, and
to homesick immigrants hankering for a taste of the islands they left behind. At
the annual Fiery Food Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a Pakistani professor
pushed his way through a crowd listening to Whittaker. He told her he had
studied with Trinidadians in England and they had often served him a lusty curry
of potatoes and chick peas with generous spoonfuls of chicken. "He told me that
the aroma took him back to the time when he was young and carefree."
"And that's exactly what we need to tap into," says Whittaker, "the
connection between our food and the spirit of our people." Whittaker expresses
her disappointment when she travels in the region and finds Caribbean food
playing a subservient role to the Continental Breakfast.
"You'll be hard-pressed to find ackee and avocados on the menu of the best
hotels in Jamaica." The change "lies in our hotels' marketing Caribbean food,
the wayside food."
In the meantime Whittaker is doing some reaching out of her own. Her first
book, Treasures of the Caribbean, will be published later this year.
Reprinted with permission from Caribbean Beat May/June 1999
and as it first appeared in the Boston Carnival 1999 Magazine.