Mummy’s sweet hand

“I will always think of her when I cook,” says Franka Phillip of her late mother, in a moving tribute

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

Some of my friends will start the New Year with champagne, scotch, and lavish meals at parties, while others will stay home and cook peas and rice, the traditional Old Year’s Night fare in Trinidad and Tobago. I will do neither.

To start 2013 and every subsequent New Year, I will have a bowl of tomato soup. It might seem simple and a little odd, but I have a special reason for this. My mother Marjorie passed away last May, and the last thing I cooked for her was tomato soup.

Mummy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and in the weeks before she died, her appetite had diminished a lot, so I determined that whatever she ate at home had to be bursting with flavour. I made that soup with so much love and care, it felt like one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. When Mummy tasted it, her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, this is good.” We made a joke about my cooking being “not so bad,” and I looked at her enjoying each spoonful. I painfully acknowledged that our time together would be short.

Many of my memories of my mother are about food. From her, I learned not just about cooking, but also about managing a kitchen. It wasn’t always fun seasoning chicken and fish on a Saturday morning, when I really wanted to just laze around, watch TV, or read a book, but now when I buy meat I get the cleaning and seasoning out of the way as a matter of course. I follow her very practical habit of bursting peas in the pressure cooker and freezing for future use.

When we spoke almost every Sunday, she’d ask about my lunch menu, and then try to make me jealous by boasting that she cooked something I really liked. At Christmas or Easter, or in fact whenever I was planning a big get-together at my home, I’d call beforehand to get her thoughts on the intended menu. She was also usually my “phone-a-friend” option when I got into a strong debate about the finer points of Trini cooking.

I loved going to the market with Mummy, because it wasn’t just about buying the next week’s food. That was our quality girl-time, because we both loved the characters, sights, and sounds in the hubbub of the market. One morning, as we walked though the Central Market in Port of Spain, we overheard an animated conversation between two vendors, which ended with one shouting scandalously, “Me eh know what do she nah, why she doh go with she flambeau crotch!” Mummy shot me a glance, and when we were a safe distance away we both burst out laughing and joked about the images evoked by said “flambeau crotch.” A visit to the Central Market would thereafter be called “going by Flambeau Crotch and the posse.”

Mummy was loyal to certain vendors, who ostensibly always gave her the pick of the produce. There is an Indian lady at the San Juan Market from whom she bought potatoes, garlic, and saltfish. Whenever I went with Mummy, the lady would always say something like, “Look you and your big daughter, allyuh like sisters, eh?” When I was leaving for Britain in 1999, the Potato Lady (Mummy never remembered her real name) gave me a bottle of delicious mango anchar, a condiment made from shredded mango and lots of spices, particularly cumin. And every time I flew back from London, Mummy reminded me for weeks in advance to “pick up a jersey or something nice for the Potato Lady.”

It wasn’t surprising that when Mummy came to visit me in London she quickly charmed the vendors at Borough Market, my then weekly haunt. Tony the greengrocer was smitten, and she left the market laden with some of his finest fruit and fresh porcini mushrooms — for free.

Mummy didn’t just teach me the mechanics of cooking, she demonstrated cooking with love. This was most apparent in her baking, especially of Christmas black cake and her tour de force: coconut sweetbread.

The legend of my mother’s sweetbread was so great, it was eulogised by one of her friends at her funeral, who said he was proud to receive so many loaves of “Madge’s delicious sweetbread.” The sweetbread even had a nickname! My friend’s father called it “One Day”, because that was the average time that a loaf would last in their house.

My good friends used to call Mummy “The Hot Madge”, because she was always busy and socially active. She was involved with the credit union or the Lions Club, and I often got roped in to help make sandwiches or go with her to the grocery to shop for one of many fundraising events. It was from her that I got my love of entertaining and cooking for people.

Although she wasn’t a huge fan of Panorama, the big steelband competition that takes place every Carnival, she ensured that when I went, my basket and cooler were always packed to the max. We spent the evening before the Panorama lime making sandwiches, baking chicken, and squeezing oranges for fresh juice. She also had an excellent memory for what some of my friends liked, so Martin was assured his potted meat sandwiches and Joanne got her sponge cake.

When I played mas, a few select friends and I knew we could always count on pelau, sandwiches, and sweetbread for lunch on Carnival Tuesday. Mummy and her friends usually watched the parade of the bands in the stands at the Queen’s Park Savannah, the main judging point, and we visited in the afternoon, where Mummy would be waiting with a big smile and our food. When a friend offered money to offset the cost of lunch, Mummy calmly said, “No money needed. I just like to make sure you all have something nice to eat on Carnival Tuesday.”

I will always think of my mother when I cook. I can’t call to ask for her advice anymore, but somewhere in my brain, there’s a collection of tips and knowledge gained by osmosis that I can fall back on. I may never make a sweetbread that is as legendary as the “One Day”, but I hope I can always cook with as much love and generosity as she did.

 

Tomato Soup

Ingredients

2 medium onions, chopped roughly
2 tablespoons sugar
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 scallions, chopped
2 sticks of celery, chopped
A few sprigs of thyme
6 medium tomatoes, diced
1 cup vegetable stock or water
½ teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon all-purpose seasoning
½ teaspoon ground coriander
Handful of chopped herbs (chadon beni, parsley, Spanish thyme)
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for cooking

Method

  1. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
  2. Add onion, and sauté until translucent on a medium heat.
  3. Sprinkle sugar evenly over the onions, cover with a piece of parchment paper and turn down to a low heat.
  4. Cook onions until they start to brown and sugar is slightly caramelised.
  5. Add chopped tomatoes and thyme, stir and cook for five minutes.
  6. Pour enough stock to cover, and leave to simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes.
  7. Remove thyme sprigs, pour soup into blender and puree.
  8. Strain and return to pot, add paprika, all-purpose seasoning and coriander and simmer for five minutes.
  9. Add chopped herbs and salt and pepper to taste.
  10. Serve with garlic bread or your favourite crusty bread and butter.