Confessions

CONFESSIONS OF A LEFT-HANDED
TRINIDADIAN COOK

By Anthony Milne


One evening in a Port of Spain bar an extraordinary young woman looked my way and said: Do you cook?

I immediately began a lecture on the joys of creole cooking and my theory that the male Trinidadian creole (I actually meant French-creole, local white, in the broadest sense) is often a fine cook. I cited the culinary talents of my grandfather, uncles, and male cousins and said that I too had inherited the gift.

I had missed the point, of course, and the opportunity. I lack the killer instinct. I am too theoretical and impractical, too caught up in my own cloudy, imaginative world, too absent-mindedly insensitive. A lazy, left-handed procrastinator, my short-term memory is appalling. Many years too late I see she was asking: Will you cook for me? And I would have, of course.

But I really do have some hereditary culinary talent, enhanced by experimental inclinations which spring naturally from that cloudy imagination of mine. I needn't go into detail about the special dexterity required of left-handed cooks, since every single kitchen utensil is designed for those who work from the other side.

My father claims to have taught my mother to cook, though I have never seen him create anything more original than a fine pair of toasts. Somebody else, I understand, taught her how to drive. In the end she chose the cook over the driver. She doesnt regret it. My father's father, when he took a break from prosecuting people for tax evasion, made excellent black-beef stews, with plenty of burnt brown sugar. He was still cooking well into his eighties. His buljol and souse were unparalleled.

My uncle Terence, when he is not drawing deeds or preparing briefs, is an absolute master in kitchen, especially with morocoy, quenk or lappe. I once got into trouble with the environmentalist lobby by quoting his recipe for stewed morocoy. Four or five of my male cousins are excellent cooks. One of them has helped manage a restaurant, another is a chef in one of London's best hotels.

Another uncle, a hunter as well as a cook, built his own large, two-burner, stainless steel device to cook big soups and wild meat. He kept it in the garage and worked there while he imbibed and played Wagner records at a volume way above the legal limit.

My aunts, of course, are all superb creole cooks. What I would have done without my aunts I will never know. Theirs has been an undying, always forgiving, welcoming, belly- filling love.

I myself am nowhere near as talented as my uncles and cousins. But black-beef stew I too do well, sometimes with dumplings, sometimes with many other things. I can roast a fowl, seasoned uniquely, though I am really a flesh person, not a bone person. In this way I am unlike most members of my family. When they are through with a chicken leg there is nothing left. No trace of bones, feathers, nothing. I can make a reasonable pelau, though the rice may sometimes turn out too soft or too grainy. It's a matter of timing. The best cooking is done slowly. As the French say: Avec de la patience on arrive tout. Often I am too hasty. The blood rushes to my head. Another creole trait. It has got me into trouble in other ways. Ask the Four Roads, Diego Martin, police.

My fried bakes are something to behold, and often to taste. I make a good cup of coffee, and I dont mean instant, which I never use. Otherwise I survive on oats, unboiled, with raisins, sugar, and milk. I doubt anyone in Trinidad has consumed as much raw oats as I have. It is one of the few foods I eat that is really good for me. I detest all greens and most fruits, especially when ripe. In my early youth, I am now ashamed to say, I slaughtered an immense number of birds, lizards, crabs and other creatures with a Diana .22 air rifle. Some of these creatures I plucked, cleaned, fried carefully, and devoured. I can tell you there is very little flesh on a ground dove or bluebird. But, being close to the bone, it is sweet. Keskidees I never tried. I will one day soon if they persist with the racket they make outside my bedroom window at five in the morning.

Once or twice I have taken the life of a ramier or manicou with a shotgun. I kept a small snake once and used to strike down mabouyas with a broom to feed it. I wouldnt do this again. The truth is that I now find it almost impossible to kill. I make an exception for mosquitoes, big cockroches that fly into my bedroom at night, and fat rats. When I have had enough of them I carry out a pogrom.

My pacificism has reached the stage that I won't even go fishing. This is only partly out of principal. Mostly it is a matter of emotion. I am terrified at the thought of suffering and the finality of death. My own and others. This includes plants. I have seriously thought of starting a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plants. No one thinks they have feelings. I dont know why.

This does not mean I am a vegetarian. I tried it once but the withdrawal symptoms, the need for cooked flesh, were too great. Like my desire for a daily dose of rice. Let someone else do the killing and dressing. I'll do the cooking. I became a vegetarian partly out of necessity, when I was a student. The philosophical impetus came from a reading of the Mahatama's autobiography. But he was celibate and ended up eating only fruit and nuts. That was going too far.

In fact, as a home-body I have an interest even greater than cooking: plants. Especially wild, exotic plants found in the forest. Everyone laughs when I tell them about my potted timarie. They stop laughing when I tell them that people in Holland pay quite a lot for what they call the "sensitive plant".

The word timarie is French-Trinidadian patois: Ti-Marie, from the French Petite Marie, "Little Mary". Some distant realtive of mine must have thought its tiny leaves, closing when touched, looked like praying hands. If I had any entrepreneurial spirit I would start a timarie farm and export the best of them to Amsterdam. But without any business sense, I follow the timarie's example and merely pray to win the lotto.

My timarie is just one of a number of selected plants I keep. Though I don't sweep or cook as often as I should, I think I've inherited my maternal grandmother's green thumb. She must have got it from the long line of St Kitts planters she was descended from. A couple hundred years ago, one of them, a Miss Burt (their family name) married a friend of the great Dr Johnson. Her husband, a physician, spent most of his spare time writing a five-volume poem on sugar-cane.

When I told a colleague I liked going into the bush to find wild plants, he said I was one in a million. That may be true, but not in this instance. There can't be only half of another person like me in the Republic.

Avid orchid collectors often risk thorny undergrowth, mapepires and tarantulas in search of specimens.

All plants come originally from the bush. They were all wild till somebody tamed them. Then botanists produced hybrid versions. The undiscerning eye looks at the forest floor and sees only tangled weeds. Look more carefully, distinguish them individually, and you find the most beautiful things.

I have a shrub with pale green leaves that turn silver in the sunlight. I don't mean the familiar little shining bush, though I have one of those too. A man in Tamana, describing the mysteries of the hill, told me there were trees with silver leaves. I knew right away what he meant.

I like ferns too. Many kinds are found all over Trinidad, especially at high elevations such as along the road to Maracas. If you go high enough, up to El Tucuche, say, above 2,000 feet the air and vegetation change abruptly. I got a miniature balisier there which thrived well in the garden but hardly ever flowered.

At the Aripo savannah there are curious specimens, like the tiny insect-eating sundew and a rare little ground orchid with yellow flowers. I broke all the rules and took home one of these orchids. It did well till its pot fell over one day. At Fig Walk, deep in the Matura Forest there is a tree like a banana you probably won't see anywhere else. A friend and I once walked so far into this forest we had to overnight. Luckily, there was a clear stream nearby full of fat crayfish, and nothing crawled over us while we lay in the bush, trying to sleep.

The next day an old hunter said he often slept in the forest, curled up between the the big roots of a mora. My friend walked out of the forest the next day carrying a young fig tree. I took it to a botanist as an excuse to see and talk to her, and we fell in love. But I was never sure whether she preferred the fig tree or me.

People in Trinidad judge plants, trees especially, for their usefulness and tradition. When you build a house you must have an orange, a mango, and a zaboca. These are all fine trees, but if I ever have a house I will plant a flamboyant first.

I like growing trees in pots. I can't claim to know much about bonsais, though I have a book about them. I have a banana tree in a big pot in the verandah and a magnificent flamboyant in a much smaller pot. Also a small palm, and a frangipani I've thought of planting out at the family plot in Lapeyrouse. (For some reason there are frangipanis in cemeteries all through the West Indies.)

Have you ever been into a field of flowering coffee trees? The air is filled with the sweetest scent. I kept a coffee tree once. It lived for years but didn't get taller than three feet and never flowered.

One of my favourites is the bois canon, with a long, slender white trunk and leaves that look like crumpled hands when they fall to the ground and turn brown. (A man from Guyana told me it is called conga pump there. In Jamaica it is called the trumpet tree and makes a weeping sound before a hurricane hits). I planted one recently in the deep window box in the verandah. It is still small and the landlord doesn't know, so don't tell him. Someone warned me it was bad luck to plant a bois canon but I decided to chance it.

My tulsi bush, which Hindus consider sacred and plant beneath jundi poles, should keep evil forces at bay. It is also meant to keep away mosquitoes, though I can't testify to this.

Also in my window box are two vines, a creeping plant with white-veined green leaves, and a pau pau tree about six foot tall. I don't think it will get any bigger. A concerned aunt advised against leaving it there. She said pau pau trees use up a lot of oxygen. I told her I don't need much.

The pau pau tree has flowered, but there is no sign of fruit. It may be a male. The usual advice in cases like this is to cut off the top and place an upside-down container on it to stop water running down into the trunk. This will change its sex. But that is the last thing I would want to do, so we are both likely to remain childless bachelors.

Also on the verandah is an old bougainvillea with white and purple flowers. It was there when I moved in. It grows on the burglar-proofing, with a little training, and is forming an arch over the gate.

Looking after these plants, watering them, pruning them and watching them grow, means I have little time for other household chores. But I don't think you can die of dust and a bowl of uncooked oats, raisins and sugar is wonderfully nutritious.

(Anthony Milne (anto@fm1.wow.net), was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)