The Feast Must Go On

In the Caribbean, no holiday is complete without mountains of food

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini Seereeram

There’s them as can feed the masses with a few fish and some bread. The rest of us have to be a little more cautious with our catering. Long accustomed to the dining vagaries of a very large family, my mother no longer tries to determine whether she’s meant to feed three or 30 — there’s always enough for either our family or a small circus; one and the same, really.

There are no smidgens in my family: there are dollops, handfuls, and globs. My family kitchen resembled the storehouses of those early American frontiersmen who stockpiled food for months at a time. Sacks of flour, gallons of freshly ground seasonings, cases of milk. But however excessive our day-to-day provisioning, it was nothing to what transpired on holidays.

I like to think of them as “feast days”. I think I came across the term in a medieval history lesson when I was about 11. A day of rest, of plenty in a life of deprivation: the flowing mead, a smile from the tyrannical lord, the frolicking serfs. The serfs may have cherished the down-time, but most important, to my mind, was the feast itself. I imagine slain cattle roasting on spits, gargantuan loaves of bread and wheels of cheese . . . the image stops abruptly. Medieval cooks, at least in my Form One history book, didn’t seem especially inspired. The fare may have lacked art, but at least it was abundant. This happy picture makes me think of special family occasions.

The year grumbles towards its end, and I with it. (Both grumbling and feeling close to my end.) The holidays are upon us. In the cultural schizophrenia of Trinidad, that means first the Hindu festival of Divali in late October or early November, followed by the Christmas frenzy of December. Between the festivities, the mandatory proximity to relatives of all kinds, and the shameless displays of gluttony, there is no escape.

There is no easy way to say this: Divali, as a Hindu observance of great significance, is a vegetarian scene. Hard enough to reconcile myself to on an ordinary day — it seems counterintuitive to work so hard and cook so much and for all of it to be plant-like in origin. But once a year this is my lot.

I am the lowliest of my mother’s sous chefs, with responsibilities largely limited to fetching and ferrying, carrying instructions to senior cooks, and peeling the odd potato. But even in this frenetic atmosphere, like that of a hotel kitchen, it is impossible to miss the great beauty of obscene amounts of food. Here are the spices: not dashes and pinches, but a forest of bowls and bottles of leaves, grains and powders; dark velvety greens, deep brilliant yellows; coarse browns. There are sacks of potatoes; hills of tomatoes, carrots, sweet peppers; armfuls of dasheen bush; rows of sturdy, impressive melongenes. Onions, garlic, chives, and hot peppers seem to pour out of everything — minced, whole, sliced, alone and commingling. Best of all, there are pots in which small children can learn to swim. Far too big and heavy for the average stove top, these are set on single-ring gas burners on the ground, and stirred with something more like an oar than a cooking utensil.

What makes cooking for a couple hundred such an experience? It’s not just the thrill of achieving the impossible. Is it the joy of feeding a few, exponentially increased? No, it’s like working in a different medium. Cooking for a few has as much in common with cooking for many as wood-carving has with building a house. The same ingredients are involved, but what you do with them is another matter.

While cooking for two is cosy and intimate, and cooking for one is a kind of focused artistic exercise, trying to feed a gazillion is an intense, utterly self-absorbed mission. You cannot, if sanity is to be spared, take into account the infinite permutations of tastes and preferences. Cooking for just your family leads to omitting nutmeg because of your sister’s allergy, or crushing pumpkin so that it is concealed within the complexity of a soup, thereby avoiding your father’s wrath. In other words, when you are on fairly intimate terms with your diners, you are expected to compromise your recipes. (Do we begin to appreciate the despair of the chef who receives a request to banish the orange from his duck à l’orange?)

It’s different with nameless hordes. Because you are ignorant of their needs, you care nothing if your cauliflower korma makes them blow up like puffer fish, or if they must confine themselves to plain rice because they are unable to digest anything cooked in ghee. This is about nothing but the food: are the seasonings right? Is it enough? Is it attractive, or at least identifiable? Does the menu make sense? (Or have you made six curries and a pasta dish?) It is, all told, one of the purest experiences you can have.

There is, sadly, one more thing that must be thrown into the mix, if we are to be honest about the whole food-for-the-masses business. Sure, so far it all has a pre-Raphaelite gorgeous lushness — but beware the dark side. I refer, naturally, to the strained co-existence of parents (both kinds), seven siblings, spouses of siblings, and assorted smaller personages. All frighteningly competent in independent civilian life, and here, en masse, engaged in a true test of wills. I have been reduced to despair by the merciless bullying of a sister who found my anti-clockwise stirring unnatural. But my instinct for survival is keen. I submit absolutely. I am spared. I am safe.

Postscript

By a quarter to six in the evening the kitchen is silent. Damp and warm from steam and fires, it will, for maybe another hour, rest this way. In the festive evening, there will be other distractions: friends in flowing attire will attempt to self-immolate (saris, scarves, open flames: who thought this was a good idea?); children will trample carefully tended flower beds, furniture, other children; a hundred people you’ve never seen will foist themselves upon you, claiming kinship of which you are unaware. You brave all in the comfort of the ancient wisdom that it will not last forever. Though it will feel like it.

Later, the kitchen, where you have hidden for longer than was seemly, will be the scene of the inevitable. As must all things, this day must end with a herculean clean-up exercise. The Olympic-size pots will be washed and returned to their homes, upside down, like so many giant tortoises. Leftovers will be pressed on unwitting passers-by (enough dhal to sink a ship; rice to save the . . .). There will be sweeping, scouring and scrubbing aplenty. Children, in various stages of wakefulness, will be identified in remote rooms, under staircases, in the shrubbery, and returned to their parents.

In the early morning light, last night’s wind-danced lamps will become oily, sooty, little clay bowls as you try to find the garden under the rows of deyas. It is a new day.

And then there’s Christmas to look forward to. Joy to the world.

Recipe: Cauliflower Korma

1 largish cauliflower

1/2 cup yoghurt

1/2 cup cream

3/4 cup coconut milk

2 or 3 cloves of garlic, crushed butter

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 pinch paprika

salt

handful of chopped cashews

Trim the cauliflower into florets and steam them until no longer raw (i.e. tender but firm). Drain. Sauté the garlic, cumin, cardamom, and ginger. Add cauliflower and cook for about five minutes (or less, if anything threatens to burn). Stir in yoghurt, cream, and coconut milk, and cook for about 15 minutes on medium heat. Add the tomato paste, then salt and paprika to taste. Sprinkle in the cashews.

Hard to imagine it could be much easier — but it can. There are some very, very good bottled korma pastes available at groceries; they are not to be scoffed at.

Lagniappe: add mushrooms at will.