Date Read: July 22nd 2015
Published: April 2000 (was re-released in 2014)
Publisher: The New Press
Praised as “masterful” by the New York Times and “uncommonly talented” by Publishers Weekly and winner of the 1999 Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, Austin Clarke has a distinguished reputation as one of the preeminent Caribbean writers of our time. In Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit, he has created a tantalizing “culinary memoir” of his childhood in Barbados. Clarke describes how he learned traditional Bajan cooking—food with origins in the days of slavery, hardship, and economic grief—by listening to this mother, aunts, and cousins talking in the kitchen as they prepared each meal.
Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit is not a recipe book; rather, each chapter is devoted to a detailed description of the ritual surrounding the preparation of a particular native dish—Oxtails with Mushrooms, Smoked Ham Hocks with Lima Beans, or Breadfruit Cou-Cou with Braising Beef. Cooking here, as in Clarke’s home, is based not on precise measurements, but on trial and error, taste and touch. As a result, the process becomes utterly sensual, and the author’s exquisite language artfully translates sense into words, creating a rich and intoxicating personal memoir.
Review – ★★★ (3 stars)
Since today is Thanksgiving Day (in the U.S) and some of you will be feasting in honor of this day of giving thanks, I thought this would be the perfect time to post my review of the culinary memoir, Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit and talk about food!
Barbados born, scholar and writer Austin Clarke takes readers on a ride to explore different Barbadian (or Bajan) foods and aspects of Barbadian culture in Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit. It was insightful to read about the origins of various Bajan meals from the days of slavery and how people of different socio-economic backgrounds cooked differently with different ingredients (or as Clarke says ‘ingreasements’). Austin Clarke’s mother who was known to be a superb cook, is the real MVP of this memoir and she proudly cooked all the meals Clarke enjoyed sans measuring cup and cookbook:
Cooking food is not characterized by strict attention to ounces and grams, cups and liters. A pinch of this and a pinch of that added to a pot, at first by trial and error, and then perfected through history and constant usage, from one generation to the next, is the way I remember food being cooked… It is ironical to be suggesting a book about food cooked in Barbados, because in every self-respecting Barbadian household the woman (who does most of the cooking, whether she is wife, daughter or maid) would not be caught dead with a cookbook. To read a cookbook would suggest that she has not retained what her mother taught her; that she does not know how to cook; that she does not know how to take care of her man… (page 3).
Readers go back to Clarke’s childhood when he used to watch his mother and aunts cook meals like: Oxtails with mushrooms; ‘Priviledge’ (also known as ‘slave food’; contrived from a mixture of random foodstuff. Clarke actually had the privilege of eating this popular meal with the president of Barbados and other members of his cabinet during his stay at Duke University as a professor); ‘Cou-Cou’ (a doughy mélange of cornmeal, okra, fish, peppers); ‘Pepperpot’ (a stewed meat dish, spiced with cinnamon and peppers); ‘Swank’ (a molasses & water drink) and ‘Pelau’ (rice pilaf).
Meats like mutton, lamb, beef, chicken, flying fish and pork make up a large component of Bajan foods and every part of a pig is eaten – from the snout to the tail! Once Clarke moved to Canada to further his education (as a college student), and later to teach in various universities in the United States, he grew homesick and longed for these meals as well the Caribbean sun. From the way the scrumptious meals and the atmosphere of Barbados are described in this novel, who wouldn’t be homesick?
Clarke uses a lot of dialect in his writing as he expects readers to be familiar with the meanings of some dialect words. Even though this was a light read, the heavy use of dialect required me to concentrate in order to fully understand what Austin Clarke was writing, which was not easy as he usually went off on a tangent while he discussed the origins of foods. I think this book would have been more engaging for me if Clarke included pictures of the meals he discussed and maybe even some recipes. I found myself bugging some of my Caribbean friends with questions, as well as Googling and YouTubing most of the meals mentioned in this book. Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit is an insightful book but not as engaging as I had anticipated. This is more of a 2.75 stars rating for me.
But I have a question: do African culinary memoirs exist? If they do, please let me know of some good ones! I would absolutely love to read an engaging culinary memoir/novel on Kenyan, Malawian, Ghanaian, Eritrean, Rwandan, South African, Ivorian, Liberian, Zambian, Congolese, Moroccan… AFRICAN food! There are so many different foods available on the continent, and we all use different cooking techniques and ingredients! I wish our foods were showcased more. Maybe the more we write on our own foods, the more our foods would be recognized and cooked worldwide.
Every time I watch Top Chef, the chefs mostly cook Asian (Korean, Thai, Japanese, Chinese), Italian, Greek, French and of course various American dishes. Back in 2012, on an episode from Season 5 of Top Chef, one of the chefs (Chef Carla Hall) made fufu* and the meal turned out looking far from the fufu us West Africans know it as haha! It would be great to have our foods taken seriously. In Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit, Austin Clarke did an admirable job at revering the foods of his native land – Barbados. Maybe one day an African culinary memoir/novel (not just a recipe book) would be published and foods from the motherland would be put on a pedestal as well. I hope so.
fufu* – Fufu is a West African dish that consists of pounded boiled yam, cassava, plantain or coco-yam tubers; usually pounded into a dough-like consistency and eaten with soup.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Eat an extra plate for me!
★★★ (3 stars) – Good book. I recommend it, I guess.
Purchase Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit on Amazon