A friend of mine living outside, Alex Neptune, recently sent me a photo of the Caribbean fruits and vegetables he grows in his backyard in New York and remarked on the number of fruits we have in the region, and that we appear to have lost some. Alex’s note reminded me of my DeSouza cousins from Carmichael Street who used to visit us at Hague when I was a youngster and raided every fruit tree in sight.
It may be a reflection of the strong place of agriculture in Guyana, but most of the fruits I remember chasing as a young “West Coast bai” are still around if you look. The more popular ones (paw paw, guava, mango, watermelon, banana, etc) are in your face everywhere, but you can find the other stuff, too.
Golden apple (pomme cythere in Trinidad; June plum in Jamaica) is abundant, as is starapple (eat too many and it’s laxative time) – Trinis know it as caimit. In West Indian fashion, we have two fruits in Guyana called cashew: one with the little cashew nut on top, and our other cashew is that delicious purple fruit with the snow-white interior that is known as pomerac in Trinidad – the proper name is Malay apple. (With its multilingual background Trinidad has many things named differently from most Caribbean countries.)
When I was growing up, the Canal area on the West Bank was a hive of whitey (in Trinidad, padoo). We used to ride there from Vreed-en-Hoop and come back with bags of whitey slung over the handlebars. It’s not rampant now, but it shows up in the markets. When I lived in Cayman I had three whitey trees in my yard – the only ones in the island; I had smuggled in seeds from Guyana – and when I was rider-mowing the grass, I would roll under the trees, and enjoy a few fruits in the shade. Whitey grows fast and bears a lot, and youngsters love it, but a Jamaican friend told me, “Dat ah bird food, sah.”
Guinep is in season right now – called chenette or even ackee in other places – and is still a big favourite in Guyana. My aunts had a tree on their Hague property that would yield breadbaskets of fruit from one picking. Vendors still walk about here shouting “Guinep! Guinep,” and it’s also available roadside, but ask for a sample before you buy; some guineps are so sour they can make your mouth pucker up like a fish out of water. Guinep, by the way, is family to Lichee, but the latter needs a cooler climate to bear (as in the mountainous part of Jamaica). Ignoring all the experts I planted one in Cayman, but they were right. The tree grew beautifully but never produced a single fruit; not even a flower. I cut it down and planted a mango in the spot.
Awara, with the brilliant yellow skin and that hard black seed, is still with us as is cocorite, which is not as sweet but gives us those big, perfectly round seeds that we would turn into spinning tops. Interestingly, the tops have disappeared, but young children in the country still hunt cocorite.
Our various apple fruits – custard apple, sugar apple, monkey apple, baby apple (that last one is a very tiny fruit that grows on a hedge) – still grow in the countryside. As an aside, there is a new plant called atemoya which is a man-made graft of sugar apple and cherimoya. Created in Florida, it produces a very large sugar apple, with very few seeds – unlike standard sugar apple – and is great eating. Growing wild all over Guyana is the children’s favourite dungs or dunks, that golden yellow fruit on a short, thorn-infested tree. The Jamaican name for it is coolie plum. Psidium, also known for its long fierce thorns, was a special treat for us growing up – you would roll the ripe ones around in your palm to soften them and then pop the fruit in your mouth. I have no recollection of passion fruit whatsoever as a kid, but it’s world-famous these days as is pomegranate, which we used to bus’ off because it’s mostly seed, but pomegranate is now the rage overseas for the wonderful nutrients it contains – who knew, eh?
Soursop is abundant (makes a memorable ice cream), as is carambola, which we call five-finger, and is also known as star fruit, but this is another in that taste-before-you-buy category; some varieties of carambola can rival lime for sourness. In Guyana we still have that bright yellow plum (sometimes called hog plum) that makes a great picture piled high in the market, but for some reason the sweeter purple variety, known as governor plum, is not found here, which is a pity – it’s a delicious fruit and makes a lovely drink.
One of the strangest of our fruits is mamey, with that hard leathery exterior, soft yellow interior, and that rock-hard seed ideal for, in Guyanese lexicon, shying or pelting. I remember a class at Saints where some rebel in the back row fired a mamey seed at the blackboard. The sound, I remember, was like a gunshot. The teacher, with his back to us, almost freaked. Nobody in the class seemed to know what it was all about, but the teacher wordlessly picked up the mamey seed, put it on his desk, and the class went on. Mamey seeds are still around, but I doubt you’ll see them being used that way today.
Another oddity is the aptly-named stinking toe. Apart from the thick, hard shell that you need a hammer to break, stinking toe is unique for its almost dusty fruit that dries up the saliva in your mouth like a sponge. Eating stinking toe is an exercise in oral gymnastics, and the fruit does smell like “foot cheese,” but this is another great favourite with youngsters. One big advantage is that you don’t have to climb for it; the fruit conveniently falls when ripe, and the hard shell gives it you undamaged. The smell is a killer, though; it comes through that hard shell; if somebody has stinking toe in the house, you know. In fact, I’m planning to send Alex one in the mail; it will probably send those sniffer dogs in US Customs running for cover.