Last week when I was reminiscing about some of my favourite Bajan foods, I mentioned the food that was readily available and inextricably linked to a once very popular Bajan weekend activity — what was commonly known as “dance food”. I never expected the response which I received from this phrase nor was I aware of the fact that so little was understood about it.
This only emphasized how much we take for granted when it comes to our local cuisine, as “dance food” has to be a major part of our culinary culture for, you see back then, it was as popular and quite the in-thing as Baxter’s Road or Oistins and the fish-fry are today. Some folks even went to the dance location only to purchase the food, as they had little interest in the genre of music being played or the company attending the event.
Some of the questions asked were “…what is dance food?” “…how is it different from other food and were the flavours any different from the flavours we have today?” Some persons even asked about the comment made in reference to dance food in the hotel industry, where anyone who made a mess of the stew would be admonished with “…do you think you are cooking dance food?”
Let’s look at the questions that were posed: “What is dance food?” Dance food was simply the type of food that you got at a dance; it was also available at some rum shops during the weekend. Remember, back then there were no fish fries or souse limes, even though pudding and souse was also available at these rum shops, served from an enamel bowl, on a wooden tray, covered with a white cloth.
To answer how “dance food” was different from other food, this difference resulted from the way it was cooked and, to some extent, from the choice of ingredients. Most of the time, fresh local meat, which was taken from any part of the animal and cut into chunks, was used. Also important was the cooking method; usually, after a pre-seasoning, which is rubbing the diced meat with salt, pepper and fresh herbs and allowing it to sit for a while, it was plunged into water, which was then brought to the boil and flavoured with more herbs, fresh from the garden – not processed or packaged – and cooked until the meat was tender, at which time it was thickened with flour water and, the final seasoning with fresh hot peppers and salt took place.
Whole cloves and spices were sometimes obvious in the stew, giving it that uniquely earthy flavour. The combination of different spices used, therefore, and the resulting flavour provided a tell-tale sign of the person who prepared the “dance food” for the particular dance. Oh yes, even back then, there were specialists in “dance food” preparation; in fact, there were people contracted every weekend to prepare this “dance food”.
There was something quite different about the flavour of dance food, a flavour which to my mind is not present today. Whether this is as a result of a change in the flavour profile of the herbs, spices and vegetables being used and their application or just me being nostalgic, wishing for the return of what can be considered a much easier time, is still to be determined.
This is a stark difference from the way it was done in the industry, where the meat, which was mostly imported, was usually browned in a hot pan and flavoured with dry spices and herbs before flour and tomato paste were added with diced vegetables and thoroughly browned before including the liquid. You will be amazed at the difference in the final flavour that these varying styles of cooking produced.
That admonishment “…do you think you are cooking dance food?” represented what the industry thought of our local style of cooking as it was used in a derogatory way. However, this style referred to how our parents and fore-parents back then cooked their stews. This, I could say, is one of the negative impacts that the hotel industry has had on our culinary culture, as new and different styles were brought in to replace what our ancestors were doing all along and our traditional style of cooking was never protected in any way. One would have thought that these styles could have been juxtaposed and our local style of cooking retained even if only as a reminder of how it used to be.
This, by the way, to my mind, is only one of the instances in which the industry unintentionally assisted in creating the culinary crisis that we experienced, as I do believe that if these traditions were maintained, that they would have led to a much stronger culinary heritage and an even more unique style and flavour to our national cuisine.
So that, my friends, is the story of “dance food” for those of you who were so amused by the term and totally surprised that it existed. And here I should say thanks to the once popular Bajan dance for contributing to our culinary development.