Caribbean Food: History served in a polystyrene cup

Breadfruit pie and chicken foot souse are Tobago staples. Try them, and you get an immediate - and bitter - taste of the island's slave past

Nikita Gulhane
Saturday 11 December 1999 01:02

`Do I like pig tail?" There's a twinkle in George Leacock's eye as he looks at me. "Very much!" he answers, "Coconut come down with breadfruit, and a piece of salt pig tail, that's high-class food, man!" He laughs, and licks his lips. Three days earlier, while wandering through the central market in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I was intrigued to see plump pig tails on display. They weren't curly as I'd imagined they should be, and they weren't as cheap as the joints and chops next to them.

I'd asked the Trini Indian stall holder what you might do with a pig's tail. "Aw, pelau an' ting, y'know." I didn't know, and that was why I was here, beside George, at the top of a tower looking out over Tobago's capital, Scarborough, as it stretched to the sea. George knows exactly why pig tail is special - his great-grandmother Lydia told him so.

"In the old days massah would have an after crop fete. He would have a big cooking, with a hog or two slaughtered. Of course the best bits were going to massah. It was only the head, the feet and the tail that was given to the slaves."

The Caribbean wears its past proudly and these meaty extremities, whether salted, fried or soused, have become today's delicacies. Visitors can easily forget that this island paradise was once the residence of abductors, torturers and rapists. The Tobagoneans are a polite people and slavery is never talked about accusingly. Instead, past and present intertwine subtly with every helping of "oil down", "corn coco", and "buljol". Variations of these heritage foods can be tasted throughout the Caribbean.

The Leacocks are one of Tobago's oldest and most respected families and George, who is 83, traces his ancestors back to slaves who arrived on the island almost 300 years ago. His great-grandmother was the daughter of a Scottish "massah" who had exercised his droit de seigneur with a slave. After the abolition of slavery, this great-grandmother earned enough gold to buy Franklin's estate, the plantation her forebears had slaved on.

Her grandson, George's father, became the highest ranking police officer on the island. George Jr owns and runs the island's radio station, Tambrin Radio - named after the only musical instrument the slaves were allowed to play.

George himself has spent more than 60 years collecting items of his family's past at his home, a collection that has now been recognised with funding from the United Nations. Last month, George opened "Cosy Comfort" to the public.

"Look you here," says George, "This coin bears the original Tobagonean coat of arms, before she became annexed to Trinidad. The inscription is not a language I know but I was told it says `She becomes more beautiful'. It's the only one on the island. The House of Assembly wanted to borrow it but I wouldn't take that chance!" He chuckles and nods his head knowingly.

The coin may be more than 150 years old, but Tobago hasn't changed much in the beauty stakes. This is the Caribbean of my imagination; an island you can walk around yet large enough to have a feeling of being unexplored. With tropical forest and idyllic beaches, it is also now a package holiday Mecca, especially popular with the British - though, aside from contact with diving instructors and taxi drivers, the holidaymakers tend to leave the locals alone. On a cultural level, therefore, the island has remained relatively "untouched".

For the curious, one of the best times to sample the local culture is on a Friday night. The weekend only kicks off after a cup of souse - sold by women all over the island who set up outdoor shop, with plastic buckets holding various parts of animals boiled to a jelly, soaked in lime juice and flavoured with chilli, chives and "shadow benny" (similar to coriander). Jane Winchester's stand in the south-east of the island is one that attracts a following. "I've got chicken foot, pig foot and cow skin souse," she coaxes and I stare at a woman walking away with a polystyrene cup, full to the brim with tiny claws.

I buy six dollars worth, and a small crowd gathers, sensing my bravado is a sham. "You got to bite right through it, there's flavour to the bones," snorts Jane with amusement. The chicken foot is cold and clammy, with a slightly scaly feel. There's about a millimetre of skin before my teeth hit bone. One of the claws fragments in my mouth. I chew it and find my tongue covered in little splinters. I detect no "flavour to the bone" so I give the rest of it to a small, smiling boy. He wolfs it down in one. I fare no better with the cow skin or the pig foot, for which my new friend is also grateful.

Heritage food can sometimes leave a bitter taste for locals too. Breadfruit was originally brought from Polynesia as cheap slave food. Partly through protest and partly through unfamiliarity it was rejected and there are still people today who will not eat it, regarding it as "poor people's food", fit only for the pigs.

Harriet Martineau, one of Tobago's most famous cooks, swears by breadfruit, though. She has nothing but praise for this versatile fruit. One evening I joined Harriet in her yard for breadfruit picking. Standing next to the tree while her son probed the branches she said: "Ripe or unripe you can do so much with it. Breadfruit pie, breadfruit salad, "oil down", "sancoche", or, just eat it as a fruit..." She tails off and stares at the tree. "Y' know, this is one tree that God made an original. The bread and the fruit." She pauses, still staring. "Yes, it's a big, tasty fruit."

There is a beautiful irony in her words. A fruit originally reviled by the slaves, now revered by their descendants. As if on cue there was an immense crashing above our heads and a huge breadfruit dropped.

From George's home , which was once part of the British garrison, I spotted a huge cruise ship offloading more holiday makers into the harbour. They take almost the same the route into town as the slaves did, dragging themselves up the hill to the small square in front of the garrison house, which is now part of Tambrin Radio. In this square, under the shade of a salmon tree, the plantation owners would watch the slaves being branded with roman numerals on their backs.

The salmon tree still stands. Likewise, George is convinced that, despite the newly arrived American fried chicken shops and the popularity of pizza, heritage food will remain part of daily life, just as the past and present exist side by side.

The Tobago Heritage Parlour adjoins Tambrin radio station and is open Monday to Friday between 8.30am and 4.30pm. Entry costs TT$10 (pounds 1). Only BA flies to Tobago - 0n Saturdays - and Grenada - twice a week - from Gatwick. You will pay around pounds 450 return

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