thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the tag “Trinidad”

30×30: Lesson 5: On being white

Anne Timothy was there the day that I discovered I was white.

I met Anne when writing this article reviewing her Trini kitchen, “Anne’s Caribbean,” at the Broad Street Market in 2010, and — as I tell the story (although maybe she would tell it differently) — I asked so many questions during our interview that Anne eventually threw up her hands and invited me to Trinidad.

“Jon, too?” I said, not sure if I was to take her seriously. But Anne laughed — she’d already met Jon whenever he’d ordered a meal from her one day, asked her how to eat it, and promptly did everything she instructed, down to dousing the white rice in pepper sauce and using the roti flatbread as a spoon.

“Yes, Jon too.”

And that is how I found myself emerging from the airport in Port-of-Spain at sunrise in August 2010, eating doubles before 7 AM with the fog steaming over the Northern Range mountains.

I’ve already written elsewhere on this blog about Trinidad — a rhythmic country of sea and home and liming and fish stew and curry and sky — but what I’ve failed to mention is what I’ve only told Jon: that this may have been the most meaningful trip I’ve ever taken for reasons beyond the friendships, the bake-and-shark, and the bandanya.

In western Europe, where the majority of my travels have been centered, most cultural differences are variations on similar themes. Handshakes exchanged for bises. Wine for beer. Gothic architecture for Romanesque. Within these cultures, if I keep my mouth shut and keep from hesitating, I can pass for German, English, or French. It’s a game I play — a grown-up version of Pretend, of constructing belonging, of creating home.

Trinidad’s population is roughly 40% of African descent and 40% of Indian, meaning there was still a 20% category into which my skin could fall, but after days of traveling with Anne and her family, I would brush a strand of hair from my face and pull back, shocked at the whiteness of my palms.

“I knew knew how white I was,” I blurted one afternoon.

Anne laughed. What an announcement. In the eyes of the vast majority of the world, whiteness (along with maleness) is among the clearest signs of privilege; it is so clear, in fact, that I had lived for 25 years not having seen it. What did it mean that I had managed to completely ignore the historical tensions surrounding race — was it denial? How had my unspoken, socially-bequeathed privilege shaped the way I viewed myself and others? If I could not have seen this until I stepped outside of America within the arms of friends, what else had I missed?

Rain fallin, August 2010

Rain fallin, August 2010


Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

The music, the vibe, the people: All about… Trinidad {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is by Annique Joseph, a Trini native from Claxton Bay. She grew up on the island and moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2010 with her two children to live with her mother. She currently works as a clerk in the Pennsylvania State and Finance building.


When I learned about the Caribbean in school, no one really knew the difference between Trinidad and Tobago. What are the similarities and differences between the two islands? We are two different islands with the same government and currency, but we are definitely different places. People in Tobago have a bit of a different accent, a little bit more like the island of Grenada. Tobago is a bit more of a tourist attraction because they have the picturesque beaches and scenery, but we have all the petrol.

Speaking of accents, all Trinis speak English, but it’s not quite the same as what we speak in America. No, definitely not! If I’m at work, rambling on, and speaking in a normal Trinidad accent, no one understands me. They think I’m not even speaking English. I think one of the problems is that we speak a lot faster than Americans do. Another problem is the different words. “A lime” or “liming” means a social gathering, hanging out and talking, or just going to a club and dancing the night away. Basically, there are a lot of words that a Pennsylvanian wouldn’t understand.

Word order is sometimes different, too. Right. We would say, “The bottle have a yellow label” instead of “the bottle has a yellow label.” Or we say, “Rain fallin'” to say that rain is falling.

And you switch the word order, too. When I was in Trinidad, your mom would often say, “Where Peter is?” when asking for her brother instead of “Where is Peter?” Right! We also say, “What today is?” when asking about the date. But I think in Trinidad, we generally have a good way of speaking. When you are asking someone how they’re doing, they never say, “Fine, thank you.” We usually say, “Not too bad,” which is more true than all the time saying, “Fine.” It’s hard to pass ten to fifteen people at work every day and say, “How are you doing?” when no one really stops in to give you a real answer! All the same, the American way of greeting has kind of grown on me.

Another great part of Trinidad is the Carnival in February right before Lent. What’s that like? Oh, I’ll just have to take you there. Let me put it this way. It is the greatest show on the face of the earth. I think it’s extra ordinary, the music, the vibe, and all of the people, just coming together to dance and celebrate. There’s all the costumes, makeup, music, everything. It’s about relaxing and enjoying yourself — not lying on the beach relaxing, but just relaxing with people and having fun. It’s a fantastic experience that you need to have.

Emmancipation Day. August 1, 2010.

Emancipation Day. August 1, 2010.

There are Carnivals all over the world, so what’s different about your Carnival than, say, the one in Brazil? In Brazil I think the people get a lot more naked than we do while still being able to enjoy themselves, while in Trinidad, I believe there’s laws against that. The entire “Carnival season” has police on duty for 24-hour shifts. This ensures that people have fun but stay safe, although there can be interruptions at times.

How long is Carnival season? Well, Carnival basically starts from the day after Christmas. We call it “Boxing Day.” A fete [party] is also held on the said night, and then things kick off from there. After that, almost every weekend, if not every weekend, is a fete leading up to the two big days. And then the week before Carnival has a fete every night. The Friday before Carnival is called Fantastic Friday when the groovy soca and power soca competitions are held. And then on Sunday night is the calypso competition and the “king and queen of the bands” competition.

What’s the difference between soca and calypso? Soca is real upbeat and dancing music, although “groovy soca” is slower and “power soca” is faster. Both make one feel like jumping and prancing or simply grooving to the rhythm of the beat. And calypso is more of a melody with words about the government, politics, and sometimes things that are happening in the country.

How do the official days of Carnival go? The official days are Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. On Monday morning it starts, most of the time around sunrise. That’s called jouver’t, pronounced joo-vay. There are groups playing old mas and dressed up in traditional mas costumes, like the midnight robber or the blue devil. Then there’s the mocco jumbie — that’s people on stilts. Then there are the bands, all dressed up in different matching outfits, sometimes old, sometimes new. They do mud mas, which is when they throw cleaned and sometimes colored mud or paint on themselves — or on anyone else who looks too clean. So if you’re a spectator, please wear old clothes and be prepared to return home dirty! The bands in the parade, all differently owned, are judged for creativity and leave the streets around 11-12 o’clock noon to give way for the original mas players. There’s the masquerading of the bands on Tuesday as well when people come out in their costumes to play real mas. That’s when you sign up months in advance for a particular group and wear a costume made with a particular costume designer.

Costumes can be expensive, right? Oh, definitely. One can be anywhere from 3000-8000 TT dollars (about $500-1250), according to the band leader or the designer.

Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.

Playing with a mas costume. August 2010.

What do you miss most about Trinidad? Carnival is when I really miss it. Other than that, I miss being outside. I miss it being warm all the time. I miss bare feet and not having to wear so many clothes. In Trinidad, you can go out and call on all the neighbors or just visit a friend, and nobody asks you why you didn’t bother to call first. You can just stop by. In Pennsylvania in the wintertime, you’re inside and you’re inside and that’s it. Also, in Trinidad, you can just go outside and find your own food — that is, if you have a sort of garden. You can dig for yams or pick the green figs from the tree or pick some dasheen bush to make a dish. Go pick some mint for tea or just to season a piece of meat. Mango season? Go outside and pick a mango off a tree. My idea of tea is picking leaves off the bush, putting them in a pot, boiling the life out of them, or letting it draw (sit there for awhile, as the old people would say) and adding milk and sugar if you choose to right before you drink. That’s a fair idea of tea.

Trini countryside. August 2010.

Trini countryside. August 2010.

In the US, most people like Jamaican food, culture, and music. What’s the difference between Trinis and Jamaicans? Trinis tend to be way laid back. “Trini time” means that you’re half an hour late to just about everything. We also have the greatest music here: soca, calypso. For me, the best kind of music is the steel pan. In the days of slavery, they had to make these songs up with rhythm and taste.

What about the difference between jerk seasoning in Trinidad and jerk seasoning in Jamaica? There’s a difference all right! People cook it differently.

There’s also a difference between Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S. and KFC in Trinidad. Yes. In Trinidad, KFC is spicier and more flavorful than it is in the U.S. But there’s kind of a competition. We either eat KFC or Royal Castle (which consist of the same type of food), but they both have their customers. I personally like Royal Castle’s pepper sauce, although Trini pepper sauce in general is too hot for most Americans.

Bread, rice and pepper sauce, and fried fish. August 2010.

Bread, rice, and fried fish. August 2010.

What’s it like, growing up in a place that’s surrounded by water? Well, I can’t swim, but that doesn’t matter because you’re not living in the water or anything. One can go to the beach all the time, but you can get tired of it. When people say, “Hey, I bet you’re always on the beach,” it’s like, “Been there, done that.”

Good point. Here’s another way to look at it. Does growing up on an island make people more or less likely to leave it? We get tired of it eventually. A lot of people travel for work, because $1 in the U.S. is worth $6 in Trinidad. It isn’t unusual for Trinis to get out, travel, work, and send money back home, just to build a big house, to buy a nice car, to buy a piece of land and/or take care of their family. But if it wasn’t because of work most Trinis would want to travel anyway too. We sometimes feel the need to want more out of life, just like everybody else, and there’s just too much of the world out there to see.

Water, snow, sun, and sky: 8 people who define my memory abroad

The following people I met only once and will never meet again, but they helped me along, taught me lessons about generosity and about language — and define my memory all the same.

1) To the blue-eyed man on the Rue de la République in Avignon in 2005: I saw you begging for change every day in front of the Shoppi while I bought bread, and you were the first person that I ever dared give my spare coins to. (I have never met a homeless person before.) I didn’t even have to speak to you in halting French, for our eyes met, and you looked so grateful in a way beyond language. Thank you.

2) To Romina who robbed me in Strasbourg in 2007: Because of the blue-eyed man, I thought that trying to help you on a cold winter’s morning while I ate roasted chestnuts would have helped me understand something noble about me and love and poverty, but instead, you humbled me and made me grow up a little. I still wonder about you and hope you’re all right.

3) To French tourists in Avignon in 2005: A group of friends and I were standing among the cafés on Place Pi in the darkness of early evening when you approached and asked me in French where to find a particular street. You have no idea how much it flattered me that I could be mistaken for someone who knew, but the fact was, that I did know, and I directed you to where you needed to go. In the time of my life when I felt furthest from home, you showed me that I was already there.

Avignon, France, Spring 2005

Avignon, France, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

4) To the newspaper boy in south London in 2007: I know I asked you for directions three times in the growing dusk, and I’m sorry I kept trying to imitate your accent — and then kept trying to stop myself from imitating it — in a way that made me sound neither American nor French but German, as you properly pointed out. I was pretty stressed at the time. I hope you realize I really did have a bus to catch and was not intentionally blowing you off when you suggested we grab a drink. Anyone who was willing to help someone so flustered would have been awesome to know.

5) To the couple in the campground near les Chemin des Dames in 2010: Lynn Palermo and I had been hiking all day under the July sun on a road without trees, and I was slumped up against a shade tree next to your campsite with the summer heat press against my throat and cheeks like a fever, and at this moment you emerged from your trailer with two cups of ice and a full liter of water to share. I do not even know your name. This was the most singular event of kindness that I think I have ever received.

6) To the elderly shopkeeper in Greystones, Ireland, in 2007: When I walked up to you on the edge of the town to the sound of crashing waves by the sea and asked you if it was a far walk to Bray, you chuckled and said, “Nooo, tisn’t, as long as ‘ou gott two strong legs.” I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me, but I have been absolutely charmed — and I mean charmed — by your accent ever since.

The English Channel between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

The English Channel, viewed from a coastal hike between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

7) To the Swiss farmer outside of Grindelwald in 2008: You leaned on your pitchfork inside a warm barn while snow flew across the Alps outside, and you listened to me as I translated my father’s questions about dairy farming into haphazard German. When I spoke the words for “I see one cow, two cows, three cows…” and then gestured toward your herd, your eyes lit up and you said, “Ahhh, ich habe fünfzehn Kühe,” and I understood you. We somehow talked in German for an hour during which I managed to grasp that you had a neighbor farmer with our ancestors’ last name, and that you took your cows into the mountains in the summer and let them roam free because of their bells. Your patience — despite the fact my father and I had simply parked the car in a blizzard and walked into your barn — still stuns me.

8) To the man in the sea near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, in 2010: I was swimming at dusk with friends in a little alcove near the bay, and you bobbed up behind me and said, “Welcome,” in a voice as deep as the sea. I learned for the first time what it was like to be known as a foreigner by the color of my skin, but when you welcomed me in, you were smiling, and that made all the difference.

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Friday Photo: Cornucopia: A brief history of sweet corn and field corn

Trinidad, August 2010

The Americas’ relationship to corn is an interesting one. From elementary school up, we’ve heard of how Squanto used fish to help the Pilgrims grow corn in the new world, and corn today — at least in my family — is still part of our traditional Thanksgiving meal, along with mashed potatoes, turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing.

However, sweet corn — as opposed to “field corn,” or a variety of corn that’s harder, starchier, and primarily used for animal feed in the US — really is an American phenomenon. According to the blog “Food for Thought,” the United States is the leading producer and exporter of sweet corn in the world, meaning that other countries do not have the same relationship with sweet corn as we do.

I was shocked, for example, to find that it’s still uncommon to eat cooked corn at a French meal. Even though France is the fifth largest producer of corn in the world, they export 75% of it canned or frozen (no July corn on the cob for them).  My students in Talange — located in the northeast of France, while sweet corn is primarily grown in the southwest near Spain — were so grossed out by the notion of eating corn for dinner that one of my first activities as their teacher was to buy canned corn, heat it in my apartment, and serve it with butter out of Dixie cups. “Le maize, il est pour les cochons,” said a student — “corn, that’s what pigs eat,” and he’s right — sort of. I remember trying to explain the distinction between sweet corn and field corn but translating “sweet corn” as “sugared corn,” which made the student’s face sink into even a more-concerned frown.

For the US, the typical difference between “sweet corn” and “field corn” is the one is humanly edible and the other is not (appropriate for ethanol, scattering to chickens, and grinding into silage for my father’s cows), respectively, but other cultures further muddle the borderlines. For example, in Trinidad, field corn is boiled in coconut milk, a little sugar, salt, and seasoning for 30 minutes (much longer than the 3 minutes my grandmother recommends for sweet corn). It is so popular that boiled corn is sold in stands along the shoulder of the interstate highway. In this Friday Photo, my friend Anne is purchasing these slightly-savory ears of corn through the open car window.

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