Revisiting the Legacy of the School Vendor:The Way We Were

By Lear Matthews

Lear Matthews is Professor, State University of New York, Empire State College. A former lecturer at the University of Guyana, his recently published book is “English Speaking Caribbean Immigrants: Transnational Identities”. He writes on Diaspora issues.

Street food vending, considered the cornerstone of many cities’ historical and cultural heritage, has existed for a very long time. Like many other occupations, it has gone through transformations in personnel and technology.

View from the Diaspora

In North America, food vending has evolved from simple wooden push-cart merchandising to an artistic commercial, culinary activity conducted in technologically equipped mobile kitchens, attracting casual, uninhibited, and nutrition-conscious customers. It also provides a growing source of revenue for cities’ coffers. It is not uncommon to see long lines of patrons, from construction workers to formally attired professionals at lunchtime in urban commercial areas throughout the U.S.  No longer are the vendors predominantly immigrants peddling ethnic dishes and snacks from their ‘lunch carts’, but now include generation X’s and Millenniums as vendors and customers.

The School Vendor: The Guyanese experience

The school vendor’s role has been unique in the street vending industry and deserves special recognition. As I reminisce about this topic in the Guyanese historic-cultural context, I am reminded of two categories of unheralded purveyors of this perceptively ‘lowly’ trade, namely, the ‘Primary school vendor’ and the ‘Lunch Lady’.  Little is known of the working conditions these small-scale entrepreneurs endured, or the joys, sacrifices, influence and satisfaction of serving and interacting with children and adults throughout the country.

Whether it was Ms. Murray, Ms. Stefie or Auntie Greta, her presence represented an impressionable dimension of the educational environment of primary school students in particular throughout the Caribbean since the 1950’s and to a lesser extent, today.  She was a daytime fixture occupying an unsolicited “spot” outside the school building.  She would “set up” a make-shift stand, near a lantern-post, under one of the country’s massive oaks or a tattered umbrella, sheltering from the beaming sun or torrential rain.

Typically, she was an unassuming middle-aged woman wearing a plain dress, matching “head tie” or straw hat and apron with side pockets. Fondly known by some of her youthful patrons as “de sweetie Lady”, this veritable street vendor was a beloved seller of a potpourri of local snacks.  She peddled a variety of succulent and tart indigenous fruit (arguably of some nutritional value), sweets and beverages displayed on a shallow, well-worn, unpainted wooden tray.

The tastes we cherished: Oh, how sweet they were!

Popular items were green mango, tamarind, golden apple, guinep, dunks, sugar-cake, coconut ice, chip chip, hard sweetie (nevah done), lump, tamarind balls, plantain chips, chicken foot, mittai, fudge, channa, phulourie, buns, flutie, and custard block. The latter stored in an oversized thermos flask.  Favourites included “tambrun”, plum and gooseberry syrups, served in brown paper, which was often unintentionally chewed, with little concern about the health consequences.  Although “stinkin toe” (locus) was not a preferred choice, due to its pungency and clamminess, it was occasionally sold by this solitary vendor.  Salt, pepper and “sour”, were an essential part of her repertoire of flavouring condiments.  She carried a sharpened kitchen knife used primarily for peeling and “cuttin up” fruit, which she did with remarkable savvy, dexterity and well honed culinary skill.

As if those indigenous goodies provided extra vitality or mental alertness, pupils would swarm her during mid-morning “recreashun” and at lunch time.  Seemingly energized, many could be seen standing around or gleefully playing while chomping, savoudring and sharing snacks, for which they paid no more than a few pennies or would “trust” (credit) until Friday.  Others patronized her on their way home,

licking sticky fingers and wiping them on khaki short pants or well-pleated uniform dresses.

Hidden dimensions: intangibles and unintended consequences

Some retrospective observations about the interaction between vendor and pupil are noteworthy.  This extraordinary matron of commerce, this unsung heroine, was not only well respected, but known to defuse conflicts, often with a calm, yet stern “yah’ll don’t fight man”, offering solicitous, motherly advice to her unwitting juvenile uniformed female and male patrons. Her personality, characterized by patience and maternal caring, reflected her trade. Unheralded, she was like an extra-mural school attaché. However, of no significance to us was that this adorable seller intermittently wiped her hands on what appeared to be a permanently smudged apron, repeatedly collecting and making coin change, while handling the delectable snacks.  She also broke “hard cyandy” with the sweat-saturated wooden knife handle.

There must have been moments of ambivalence about the sanitary conditions under which those appetizing building blocks of our youthful biological make up were prepared, handled and stored. Little was known about where she came from and how she got to her station outside of the school building. An unexplained mutual trust seemed to have developed. Notwithstanding, we survived!  Some believe that immunity to potential nutritional hazards was developed over time.

Dee ‘shave-ice man’: friendly competition

Although they co-existed amicably, her only real competition was the shave-ice man.  Precariously balancing a huge crocus-covered block of ice on a Carrier Bike, he provided a “crushed” treat that helped to cool us off from the broiling sun and tiresome school yard activities, such as lass lick, catchuh and bat-an-ball.  The first few sucks on a piece of shave-ice, partially molded with his bare palm, doused in thick red syrup (whatever the source of that runny ruby brew) was a heavenly experience. Oh, how sweet it was!

Do you remember the time when a desperate pupil would hurriedly “lick” his/her shave ice or otherwise contaminate it to avoid sharing a piece? Or when a young man could afford to be extravagant and treated his girlfriend to a sugar cake or a shave ice? Oh yes, a time of true innocence. The days of that brand of school vendors may be long gone, but not forgotten.

The ‘Lunch Lady’

My colleague, columnist Claudius Prince reminded me that the ‘lunch lady’ label was used to describe the post-emancipation role of some village women, who sold snacks to take care of their family when the men left the villages, until they were able to gain employment and send home cash. Items such as fish-and-bread, local fruits, black pudding and fruit drinks were prominent on her menu. She was known for her “sweet han” and business acumen. Later, the lunch lady became popular among office workers in urban centers.

I hope that this re-created journey down memory lane has whetted readers’ appetite to re-live the way we were.

Post Script: School vendors in Guyana today are subject to health checks and food hygiene certification as prescribed by the Ministry of Health. According to a report from the October 28 New York edition of the Guyana Chronicle, the Mayor of Georgetown, Patricia Chase-Green recently announced that street vendors will soon be required to have licences from the City Council and must comply with their medical certificates, with registration and having a TIN number.

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