So It Go
I don’t consider myself an expert, but I like to cook. I enjoy getting involved with Chinese and Italian food, and some Caribbean specialties like pelau, curry, pepperpot (the Guyanese variety; not that soupy stuff), and some lesser known things like cardamom bread and geera pork. As a result, I’m constantly looking for tried and true recipes (Google is a great source) and if something grabs my palate in your house I’m likely to ask you for the recipe.
However, the fact is that, close family aside, people are often very reluctant to give you their recipes. Frankly, I find this odd because if I make something that you enjoy, like my cardamom bread, and you want to try it, I’m only too glad to let you know how it’s done. But it’s true; people guard their recipes like the Crown jewels.
Case in point: I write an annual comedy show in Cayman called Rundown, directed by my good friend Henry Muttoo. It’s been running for 18 years. During the run last year, one of the actors, Alan Ebanks, brought in some corn bread for the cast made by a fellow named Nelson Christian from the eastern part of Grand Cayman. Let me tell you; this stuff was delicious. Henry Muttoo, who is always watching his weight, had two pieces. It was the best corn bread I’ve had in years, so I promptly asked Alan to get the recipe for me, and he said, “No problem.” Two nights later, Alan comes sheepishly to the theatre with two huge pans of corn bread, courtesy of Mr. Christian, but, guess what, no recipe. Alan was apologetic: “Mr. Christian says he’s happy to make you a cornbread, but he doesn’t give out his recipes.”
The wider point is that the Caymanian gentleman is not alone. These recipe guardians are all over the place. Some years ago, when Tradewinds was a popular touring band, one of our regular stops was Barbados where we made a lot of friends, and there was a Trini living there, Henry Gomez, who made a fry bake that was mouth-watering. (Trinidadians and Guyanese would know this stuff; it’s eaten with avocado or saltfish, and as one of the lines in Rundown says, “it can mek yuh foot bottom lif’ off de ground”.) But, despite all my pleading, Henry would not give me the recipe. “You don’t need the recipe. Any time you come to Barbados, I will make it for you.” But I only come to Barbados once or twice a year. “Well, you should come more often.” But Henry. “Look, man. Just eat the bake, and shut your mouth.” It’s been 30 years, and I still can’t get the guy to relent.
Guyana has a restaurant called The Rice Bowl, and I don’t know if they still have it, but they used to have a wonderful pepper sauce in bottles on the tables. I’m in there one day, and I asked the owner, Ian Lye, how it’s made. Ian’s reply was, “I can get some for you.” I said, “No, I want the recipe so I can do it myself.” Ian comes back, “When are you going away? I’ll get a couple bottles for you.” I try again, “Ian. I need the damned recipe so I can always have the stuff.” Ian is like Chanderpaul; he drops anchor: “It’s two big bottles, you know. It will last you until you come back to Guyana, and I can give you some more.” I gave up. Worse yet, Ian now lives in Florida and the pepper sauce recipe is probably locked in a Bank of America vault.
Year before last during the Pirates Week Festival in Grand Cayman (it’s a lot of fun; you should check it out one November), a police friend of mine Mannie Myles was operating a food stall selling some kind of coconut fish concoction that was a knockout – one of those dishes when you start eating you can’t stop. I pestered Mannie for the recipe. Once again, blank wall. People in Cayman who know him will confirm that Mannie is more slippery than an ochroe. He turns that big smile on you, puts his arm around your shoulder, and gives you the gears. He calls me “Dave O”, and hands me this line about “Yeah, man, Dave O. After Pirates Week, we’ll fix up.” But Dave O wasn’t fooled. I know a recipe guard when I see one; up to now, I’m still waiting to fix up.
And the attitude persists. Here in Guyana, for example, I have come to know a lady named Carol Anne who works magic in the kitchen, and after sampling some of her fried snapper I enquired about the recipe. Well there are some recipe guardian behaviours I have come to recognise as, “You’re not getting my recipe, buster.” One is the arm around the shoulder and the grin, like Manny Myles. Another one is the averted gaze, and the nervous laugh, and the modest line, “Oh, it’s very easy.” Carol Anne dropped that last one on me, then casually changed the subject, and there was I, once again, left recipeless. (I suspect I just coined a word.) By the way, in case you’re wondering, I deliberately omitted Carol Anne’s last name; the lady is a friend and I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harrichan running her down for her recipe. But here’s a promise: I will keep going at this, and if I ever worm the snapper recipe out of her I will relay it to you in this column. I ain’t giving up on that fried fish, buddy.
However, as I think about it, maybe I’ve got this wrong. Maybe I should be joining the trend and guarding my recipes, too. I mean some of this stuff I make will also “mek yuh foot bottom lif’ off de ground”, and I am passing out the recipe left and right, when, at the same time, here I am with no corn bread, no pepper sauce, no fry bake, and no coconut fish. The equation isn’t working out to my advantage at all.
So if you’re planning to call me for my cardamom bread recipe, don’t bother.