“It feels like cheese,” she said, this child discovering the wonders of Cassava. Having peeled and grated the Cassava, he’d invited her to touch and taste it. She likes cheese; that perhaps explains the bit of sparkle in her eye on touching it. There’s no mistaking the verdict at the taste, however; her scrunched up face a ready rejection. Hard to believe that this is the same child minutes later, once the grated Cassava has been converted to bread complemented by salt fish. She can’t get enough; and there’s a sparkle in his eye as he watches her eat – the former teacher having once again fulfilled his calling with this display of his Cassava bread making skills.
It’s a skill he acquired out of necessity. Allergic to wheat and held at the mercy of the dwindling population of those who still know and practice this skill, he fell into the habit of making his own bread from Cassava. And as he laments the dying culture – the way of the Cassava bread being only one example of this – he also takes the opportunity to pass it on.
Step 1 – Select the Cassava
It’s all about choice; from selecting the sweet over the bitter (Cassava) and not being fooled by the packaging, to choosing to value the things that have rooted and sustained us. This is very important; the bitter Cassava, just like the wrong choices, can prove poisonous.
Step 2 – Peel the Cassava
In life, as in Cassava bread making, we’ve got to cut away the outer layer to get to the heart of the matter. There’s a way to do it, too, so that too much of the ‘meat’ isn’t lost in the process.
Step 3 – Grate the Cassava…watch your fingers!
Many of us remember as kids being put to shell peas, peel carrots, and grate coconut. How many of our kids know that pigeon peas grow on trees and not sealed in plastic on supermarket shelves? That’s what I thought as he grated the Cassava, how much more organic our relationship was once upon a time to the things we used. We climbed the trees; glued our kites with “turkleberry” picked by our own hands; knew the taste of the mango skin, flesh, seed, and of the mango juice running down our fingers. She, the same she at the start of the story, laments bush baths by her grandmother, but soon becomes fascinated at the knowledge that much of the magic found in a pill at the pharmacy was extracted from the “bush”; that our ancestors who had little, knew the use of this bush or that. I have very little of that knowledge; she, even less. The knowing of so much, of who we are and how we lived, is slipping with each generation.
Step 4 – Squeeze out the juice…cotton cloth is best for this
One of the things people, who had little, understood was how to stretch a dollar. This is a metaphor applicable not only to money, not only to women like my Tanty and my mother who routinely hid away a little something for rainy days and unexpected illnesses, but to a way of life that did not support waste; period. The liquid from the squeezed Cassava was used as starch in washing, he explained.
Step 5 – Crumble and Sift
He used his hands for this, rubbing the now dry but damp crumbled bits of Cassava between his hands till it was as fine as flour and felt, she said, “like (grated) cheese.”
Earlier, he sang the praises of the local Friday night radio programme, Ole Time Somet’ing, where people share their bits and pieces of memory about this and that with each other. It should be transcribed and published, he said.
Culture is, of course, much more than the lifestyle patterns of a particular point in time, but those patterns are informed by the culture. What does it say of our culture now that so little effort is made to preserve the memory of those patterns; notable exceptions are Keithlyn Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour series, which passes on some of this folk wisdom, and Joy Lawrence’s The Way We Talk and Other Antiguan Folkways.
For my part, I was surprised by the way my family’s ties to the earth via coal pot making organically flowed into the book-in-progress that had been compelling my attention these recent years. It soon became clear that this was going to be a recurring motif in the novel entitled Oh Gad! – after a colloquial name for the coal pot. Conversations – including a magazine interview – with my aunt about the process informed the work. So, too, did my observations of her picking through the wetted clay for stones and other debris, shaping it effortlessly with her bare hands into a flower pot, coal pot or yabba as she chatted easily about politics. I’m no historian, but though I do not have the same relationship with the earth, this art demanded re-memory in my fiction writing.
Step 6 – Heat the pan, no oil required
Before time, he explained, tin-smiths were called upon to shape rings. These rings would be placed on a flat metal surface over a lit stone heap; the clay pots were too fragile for this process though the newer metal coal pots could also do the job. The crumbled Cassava is spread into the pan. With no tin-smith’s ring – that’s gone the way of the Cassava-bread-maker – he makes individual breads in an appropriately sized pan. Improvisation, adaptation, making do; call it what you want, it’s part of the culture.
Step 7 – Turn
Within minutes, he turns it. Actually, he took his eye off of it for a few minutes to explain something to the girl and it got some of that nice burn, as imperfect as those point-tipped loaves of bread we regularly bought at bakers like Dagon, Brownies, and Zachariah. The burnt bits tasted just as good as the lightly toasted bits. Better. For some of a certain generation, Sunday breakfast isn’t Sunday breakfast without that local bread to sop up the gravy from the salt fish. Even those who’ve gone to make their life overseas routinely ensure that Antigua bread is “smuggled” in for them.
“It smells nice,” the little girl remarks, warming to the idea of the Cassava bread.
Step 9 – Eat
No instruction is needed here. Visceral memory kicks in: Dipping the tip of the tongue into one’s palm for the first taste of dusty-sweet ashum; swallowing sweet and milky mouthfuls of soursop drink; hovering near the kitchen door hoping to snag from the counter one of the cooling sugar cakes perfuming the air with the scent of burnt sugar and coconut; sneaking a piece of the dry newspaper-wrapped saltfish on the way back from Mr. Benjamin’s shop. You get the idea. We know how to taste life.
Step 10 – Enjoy
I’m not one who equates nostalgia with culture; time marches on. I accept and welcome this. I remember having to use the coal iron after one of the hurricanes and my mother fanning at the coal pot arch, and know myself to be as dependent as anyone on the modern conveniences. I even accept that the girl, my niece, is more familiar with her Lara Croft Tomb Raider video game than the rules of rounders (a baseball-like children’s game, popular in Antigua when I was a child, in which the bare hand substituted for a bat), more in tune with her iPod than the music of the hand games and songs that accompanied skipping.
This unexpected breakfast of Cassava bread and saltfish, though, did underscore how much we lose each day. This used to be the Drive-In, I tell her as we drive past a hill I regularly traversed as a child; having to then explain what a Drive-In was. And, just a day earlier, at the Cassava-Bread-Man’s house, she made using a rotary dial phone look like rocket science, notwithstanding her speedy texting fingers.
Speaking of fingers, one’s cultural practices, the lifestyle patterns of a period in time, are like fingerprints. We use records and remnants of these patterns to study now-dead civilizations, to know them in some way. How they worshipped, cooked, lived.
The stories my mother and other elders told during my formative years – the folk tales, proverbs, superstitions, and jumbie stories they themselves internalized from their elders – inform how I live my life to a degree and provide fodder for the storyteller I’ve become. These stories were handed down like the knowledge – of how to turn fungi (pronounced foonjee) so it doesn’t come out lumpy, how to cut the salt in pickled meat when making pepperpot, how to ensure that custard has the right consistency and doesn’t burn – is passed from mother to child. I’m not much for cooking, but my mother’s pepperpot recipe also ended up in the book mentioned earlier, my fiction again being drawn into the re-memory process. I guess that’s how I make Cassava bread.
An earlier version of this story appeared in Antigua’s afternoon paper, Observer PM. For more on Joanne C. Hillhouse and to read her blog visit http://www.myspace.com/jhohadli