I promised that we would discuss the ways we as Caribbean people eat, what we eat and why we eat that way; in short I will be discussing our culinary cultural history and its evolution.
Our present culinary culture has been heavily influenced by many things. First and foremost, the early development of our tourism industry, which brought expatriate chefs to our shores and then, in an even more significant and noticeable way, the advent of television and the shows that are now readily available for all to see. With these came styles of cooking that were basically faster and from totally different cultural backgrounds from those we grew up with. To comprehend the influence and impact they had, it is imperative that you understand our culinary origins, including what we ate, as well as one of the basic things in culinary arts, the methods of cooking.
Let’s first start with the methods of cooking, which refer to methods by which food is cooked. They are basically broken down into two categories: moist heat and dry heat. So, methods such as baking, broiling, pan-searing and grilling, all fall under the dry heat method of cooking and then there is boiling, braising, poaching and steaming, which fall under moist heat methods. So what is the difference? In the dry heat method of cooking, food is cooked without the addition of liquid. Therefore, the moisture which exists in the product being cooked is enough to make it tender.
In the moist heat method, additional liquid is required – and note here I said liquid – so, water, juice, stock, milk etc., any of these can be used as the additional liquid.
The method used is determined by the item being cooked, so, when you think about it, it becomes very obvious that an item being cooked by the dry heat method will be required to reach its tender or cooked stage using the liquid present in that item. Therefore, it must be relatively tender at the beginning of the cooking process, as no additional liquid will be added.
With tougher items, let’s say stewing meats or older animals or birds for example, there would not be enough moisture to cook the items until tender; therefore, liquid would have to be added to facilitate that tenderizing process.
So what does this have to do with the way we cook? Closer examination will reveal that our common methods of cooking were moist heat methods; therefore, rich soups and hearty stews with lots of root vegetables, or, as we call them, ground provisions, would have been our default meals. These, of course, would have been driven by what was available for us to cook.
This takes us back to our very early days of cooking and here we are speaking about the days when slavery was prominent or even before; it was normal for the slaves to eat the entrails from the animals, as well as the feet and all of the parts that would have been left after the masters used the more preferable cuts. Also, the provisions they got would have been what was left behind after the harvest and the condition of these vegetables would then dictate the way they could be cooked. These methods, I am sure, would also have been influenced by the utensils and equipment used for cooking, all of which add up to moist heat methods.
This makes clearer the reason why, in days gone by, in every household, there would have been soups and stews loaded with lots of vegetables and herbs, readily available and, products, in particular meats and poultry, were never fried, baked, grilled or pan-seared in those days, as the quality of the flesh as far as tenderness is concerned would not have allowed for this. So, our parents and grandparents were heavily influenced by the moist heat methods of cooking of their foreparents and not at all influenced by the chefs I referred to earlier, who were brought in to advance our culinary offerings.
Naturally, these expatriate chefs arrived with their styles of cooking which were obviously based on their application to the type of commodity available to them, therefore, much more dry heat methods were used, in this case, grilling, pan-searing, sautéing and the like. I dare say, over-exposure to these situations, as well as the glamour of seeing what was sold on television, had an impact on how we cook. So rich, slow-cooked, hearty stews on which we grew up, gradually started to fade and that played well in our ever-changing, fast-paced world.
Here is where we need to be very careful though, as all of these influences and ideas that easily fit with our modern day society can cause us to lose sight of the methods that made up our traditional culture. Although I am all for change and embracing new things, I am even more adamant that we need not lose sight of our origins or the methods and styles from which our culinary culture sprang and that we should try our utmost to retain them in some form or fashion.
With all that being said, AGROFEST is here again and I am sure, as has been the case every year, some of the food stalls will be offering up some traditional fare. So go on out for the atmosphere and while there, dig into some of the rice and peas with beef stew, cornmeal cou-cou, stewed pork livers, Bajan soup and pudding and souse, which I am sure will be there in abundance.
Remember also that the Sugar and Rum Season is still on, so there are lots of culinary and other types of events taking place.