‘Bakes’ and language

Dear Editor,

I read Cynthia Nelson’s ‘Tastes Like Home’ cooking page every Saturday. It is a page I enjoy because of a shared interest in food, but also because I am glad that someone capable is writing regularly on Caribbean cooking, and staying close to the essence of everyday cooking rather than trying to gloss it up to look like some fancy cuisine for a non-Caribbean audience. Ms Nelson is doing a good job in validating the foods and cooking of ordinary people, and so she is establishing Caribbean cooking as worthwhile area of our culture.

I am also interested in Caribbean language, and in her April 16 column these two interests intersected, resulting in this letter. Ms Nelson says: “You see, in Guyana, we only know about two kinds of bake – fried bakes and pot bakes. I have said this before, we Guyanese are a very literal people when it comes to naming our food…” I write to add some information.

During this academic year, in my Creole Language Studies class at the University of Guyana, we have been studying lexical variation in Guyanese language, looking at variations of names for different activities, rites and rituals, plants, fruits, shrubs, utensils, and so on in Guyana. One of these areas is the variation in the names of some foods, and co-incidentally two students in particular – Rondha Lam-Singh and Renee Spencer – have been recording various names for bakes. These are some of the names that they have found while collecting data from Corriverton to Parika and Linden:

fry bake, oil bake, stuff bake, fry yeast bake, flour bake, cheese bake, potato bake, sal’ bake, sugar bake, sweet bake, yeast bake, float bake, float, roun’ bake, sof’ bake, bake, steam bake, pan bake, pot bake, tawa bake, cartwheel, hard bake, pot bottom, sada bake, budda bake, pram bake, pram pram, big ears, plata plata, spoon bake, drop bake, pluka pluka, sugar ears, granny belly skin, pumpkin fritters, flitters, rabbit ears, teacher-girl bake, lady bake, run pun de pan, titilati, love bake, school girl, monkey ears, flatty flatty, roast bake, tiga bake, plaka, pluku pluku.

This indicates that far from being literal-minded when it comes to naming bakes, Guyanese are quite creative and responsive in various ways to the things they eat. Even a simple analysis will show the following categories of names: literal (eg fry bake), metaphoric (granny belly skin), experiential (eg hard bake), descriptive (eg round bake), onomatopoeic (eg plaka plaka), cultural (eg teacher-girl), analogic (eg bat ears), methodic (eg drop bake), emotive (eg love bake), visual (eg cartwheel), metonymic (eg pot bottom), made-up names (eg titilati)  and so on,  for this food item.

All of these names reflect an unrealized but deep human engagement in, and connection to, this food item; we name bakes by the way they look, how they feel in our mouths, the sound they make while being cooked, the ingredients we put in them, how we make them. We even use them to indicate cultural levels in our society – the students found that the “teacher-girl bake” resulted because the teacher-girls do not want to mess up their hands when they make bakes, so they mix up the ingredients for this kind of bake with a spoon and drop portions of the mix into the hot oil.

Although Ms Nelson also says that in Guyana we know only two kinds of bake, the names the students collected reveal different cooking methods: addition of yeast; addition of sugar; incorporation of other ingredients such as potato and cheese; steaming; cooking on a tawa; cooking in a pot; cooking in oil; dropping the batter into hot oil using a spoon. The bakes produced could be soft or hard, sweet or salt, flat or puffy, small or large, round or irregular. So, there is variety in these two general kinds. But we also have a third kind – we also have the bake made on a tawa (which she calls roast bake).

Ms Lam-Singh  and Ms Spencer have found that there are names for bakes in general (eg plaka, titilati, lady bake, sof’ bake and so on) and also different names for bakes that are made by frying (oil bake, fry bake, float, flour bake and others) and those that are made by baking or roasting (eg roast bake, tawa bake,  flatty flatty).

The names ‘bake,’ ‘pot bake,’ ‘drop bake,’ ‘granny belly skin’ and ‘fry bake’ seem to have the most widespread use, being found in all the areas researched. Linden seems to be the area that has the greatest concentration of variation for names of bakes (42 names found). While the Pomeroon area was not extensively researched, 15 names were found from that area also. These are not conclusive figures, but they do convey a richness in the naming of this humble food across Guyana.

As Ms Nelson mentioned, there is also great cross-naming in naming bakes – different persons might call the same kind of bake by different names, and different kinds of bake by the same name.  Persons reading this will also agree or disagree with, re-categorise, and add to the names that the students have recorded. But, this kind of information, gained from talking with Guyanese from all walks of life, elevates the status of this humble food within Guyanese culture, showing the widespread integration of bakes in Guyanese life.

Yours faithfully,
Alim Hosein

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