Erna Mae Tonge: Recipe for magic

Erna Mae Tonge takes Cooking Magic, Antigua’s long-running culinary TV show, into the future. Joanne C. Hillhouse tells her story

Erna Mae Tonge. Photograph by Nez PhotographyGwendolyn TongePepperpot and fungee. Photograph by Nez Photography

“Come in the kitchen and help me,” Gwendolyn Tonge would say to her daughter Erna Mae when she was still a girl. Now, the girl who learned by watching and doing at her mother’s elbow is cooking up both her mother’s and her own recipes on the Antigua and Barbuda Broadcasting Service TV series her mom started forty-five years ago.

Following “Aunty” Gwen’s death in 2012, Erna Mae — in partnership with her brother Hesketh, a chef in his own right and her co-executive producer — revived the longest running show on local television. It’s the same show, and at the same time it’s not. The production values are higher, and it has a talk show flava like a Caribbean version of Rachel Ray — with a steady stream of celebrity guests coming through to chat, cook, and consume while plugging their latest product. “I like the element of just being able to talk to people,” says Erna Mae Tonge, noting that she often has to remind herself not to lose the recipe in the chatter. Plus, given Erna Mae’s social media savvy, the show’s reach continues to extend as her audience grows younger.

But some things are the same: Spliff, her mom’s last regular co-host, remains an adept cook and roguish sidekick. Plus her mother’s presence is always there; from the copy of her Cooking Magic recipe book on the counter, to the sense of her taking in the scene from Beyond. “I was afraid that I could not continue what mommy had done in a way that would satisfy her,” Erna Mae says. “If she was watching, she’d be watching with a critical eye.”

Nothing new there. As a young girl Erna Mae fished around while her mother prepared food for her catering business or taught one of her adult cooking sessions, but she would never willingly take one of her mother’s classes. Aunty Gwen was harder on her children than on her regular students, Erna Mae says. Still, growing up around her, she learned. “I would always be in the middle, because I was fast,” Erna Mae says, using an expression for a child who is curious, precocious, and, well, in the middle of everything.

She reflects that her mother saw skill-building — in areas such as cooking — not as a contradiction of her feminist activism but as a complement to it: a path to self-sufficiency. Cooking Magic was an extension of her desire to pass on the knowledge she’d acquired through courses in Barbados and the United States.

When the manager at ABS TV approached her in 1964, she was already a well-known figure in communities across Antigua and Barbuda, thanks to her role as a home economics examiner and supervisor in the Education Department. “She didn’t see it as anything more than a labour of love, and a service that she was doing,” Erna Mae says. And it was service in the truest sense, as she was not paid nor given money for expenses until the show’s later years.

In the early days, Cooking Magic was actually filmed at a studio and not at her home, as would later become the case. Erna Mae remembers having to help pack the basket of items to take to the studio — and woe be unto her, she says, if she forgot anything. Again she avoided appearing on the actual show, minus an appearance in 1973 as the Carnival Teenage pageant winner, and a couple of “stressful” co-hosting stints later in life. Each time, she suffered the indignity of being “corrected” on live television.

Now, Erna Mae says, when she steps in front of the camera, “I know if I get it right for her, I’ll get it right for the fans.” They’ve tuned in, and they’re full of encouragement. “Great that you’ve taken up your mother’s tradition, keep going,” one posted on Facebook. They’re full of advice too: “Next time you make the fungee, don’t soak it.”

They also want the recipes, which is good, because Erna Mae is also working on a re-issue of her mother’s Cooking Magic book, which — like the revived show — will include her own creations as well. She may not be able to “wing it” in the kitchen like Aunty Gwen did, but her organising skills could actually be a plus on a project like this.

What she won’t have is her mother at the other end of the line, and that’s something she’s still getting used to. “What has happened to me now more than once — I’d always call her about a recipe, if I’m doing something and need to check a recipe . . . I’ve actually picked up the phone more than once . . . it’s just one of the most difficult things.”

When Aunty Gwen died in 2012, at the age of eighty-eight, Antigua and Barbuda mourned, and a state funeral was held in her honour. There’s no denying that she lived a full life, and lived it doing the things she loved. “Mommy was all about teaching, and always willing to share knowledge, and had no time for people who weren’t about sharing knowledge,” Erna Mae says, noting that Teacher Gwen — as she also used to be called — left many students in her wake. Not least of whom is the most reluctant student of all, the daughter who now carries on her legacy.

Pepperpot and fungee

Antigua and Barbada’s national dish, Cooking Magic style

Pepperpot ingredients
3 lb eggplant
3 lb spinach
3 lb ochro (okra)
3 lb pumpkin
3 lb salted pigtails
3 lb chicken (optional)
Onions, scallions, thyme, garlic, and seasoning peppers
Flour and cornmeal

Method
Soak salted pigtails overnight. If using chicken, clean and season. Wash vegetables, peel, and cut into cubes. Cut up all seasonings and store in airtight container. Vegetables and seasonings can be refrigerated overnight.

Wash and drain meat, and place, along with all seasonings, in a pressure cooker and cook until tender (about 20 minutes). Remove cooked meat from water.

Combine vegetables and cook slowly until soft, adding stock from the meat a little at a time. Add a little cornmeal to the flour and knead together to make the dumplings. Cook in remaining stock. Remove from water.

When vegetables are cooked, use a potato masher and mash into a smooth mixture. Turn the meat and dumplings into the mixture, add butter and black pepper to taste, and simmer for a few minutes. Leave undisturbed for about an hour.

Fungee ingredients
2 cups cornmeal
3 cups water
Salt to taste
3 ochros (okra), cut into pieces
2 tbs butter (or ¼ cup cooking oil)

Method
Bring water to boil with the ochros until they are cooked. Soak the corn meal in a separate bowl. Remove two cups of water and add the cornmeal to the remaining boiling water. Allow the corn meal to cook slightly (until bubbles are seen).

Using a “turn-stick” or wooden spoon, mix the cornmeal and press to the side of the pot to remove lumps. Add the oil or butter and remaining water as required. When the mixture leaves the sides and bottom of the pan, remove from the fire.

Place a teaspoon of butter in a small bowl, place a large spoonful of fungee in the bowl, and roll to a ball. Serve hot.