IF IT FEELS GOOD, EAT IT

Why does the world believe tasty things must be bad for you? Anu Lakhan analyses the concept of guilty pleasure • Plus a guide to eating on the street

Food map of Port of SpainIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini Seereeram

No pleasure is intrinsically bad: but the effective causes of some
pleasures bring with them a great many perturbations of pleasure.

   – Epicurus

That human civilisation has evolved in entirely the wrong direction is
best evidenced by our relationship to pleasure. Too much is bad, a little
may be forgiven, none is best of all.

Adore the martyr, abhor the hedonist. Great philosophers from
Epicurus to Hugh Hefner have tried to lead us to a healthy appreciation of
pleasure, but to no avail, thwarted on all sides by the doctrines of grandmothers
(after laughing comes crying), televangelists (don’t splurge on yourself,
give your money to us), and Hollywood-inspired diets (don’t eat anything
larger or more satisfying than a paperclip). And yet it is the natural human
condition to seek pleasure; our bodies and minds don’t want to suffer, don’t
want to live in deprivation. This frightful conflict is uncomfortably resolved
in the phenomenon known as the guilty pleasure.

From B-movies and soap-opera rags to reading our horoscopes and gossiping
about co-workers, life is full of guilty pleasure, but nowhere is it more
profoundly covert (and, naturally, all the more delicious) than in things-we-eat-that-make-us-really-happy.
The level and nature of the guilt we experience depends on what we are
eating and why we have deemed it socially unacceptable.

The fallen dieter

You’ve lost weight, your skin looks great, you can climb a flight of
stairs without clinging to the handrail and clutching your chest with every
step. At lunch, your colleagues order pizza or whip out last night’s leftovers.
Stick by stick, you draw your celery out of its Zip-loc bag. They think
you are very impressive. Such dedication, such self-restraint. Unconsciously,
this opinion seeps into their overall perception of you. No doubt you’re
in line for a promotion, see how serious you’ve become?

It is not obvious to them that you are serious, indeed grim, because
you have eaten nothing but the loathsome celery for two weeks; your mouth
is set in a tight line not from your newfound focus and determination, but
from distaste. What you really want is a bucket of fried chicken dripping
with grease and other unknown threats to your new life. Under cover of night
you go to a drive-through far away from where you live and work, and ferret
the intoxicatingly wicked treasure home. With the curtains drawn, you plunge
in with both hands, foregoing crockery, cutlery, and common sense. Sated,
you bury the evidence at the bottom of the trash, and stay up waiting for
the garbage truck. You can’t risk putting it out where curious dogs might
dislodge your secret.

The infra dig delicacy

A person of refined sensibilities — enjoys a good symphony, prefers Jane
Austen to Austin Powers, grows exotic ferns in her spare time — is not
expected to pig out on pork rinds. Why? What could be more egalitarian
than food? This is the kind of stratification that makes for a dissatisfied
society. It’s OK to disdain something if you can’t afford or pronounce it,
but then, if you can, you must reject all that is common and cheap. I imagine
prime ministers marooned in their official residences, longing for chicken-foot
souse ladled out of a plastic bucket into a styrofoam cup, steaming and
peppery. Or restaurateurs surrounded by gourmet dishes, craving corn curls
and hot dogs.

Coming under this heading, too, are foods-you-are-supposed-to-have-outgrown.
Bright, sugary things, of course. Snacks high in food colouring and preservatives,
shaped like animals extinct or extant. Sour fruit like cherries, plums,
and mangoes, for which we develop a taste in later childhood. (A note on
the sour fruit issue: in Trinidad, children will pursue the youngest, greenest
specimens to their peril. Half of the joy comes from the arboreal adventure
itself. Adults, whose fully developed limbs and sense of fear inhibit them
from such pastimes, have compensated by developing various fruit pickles
called “chows”, comprising the same young fruit seasoned with salt, pepper,
and vinegar.)

That’s disgusting!

A sensitive area. Always remember, one person’s vile is another’s
escargot. I may not be especially enamoured of armadillo, but does that give
me the right to shriek and faint when I accidentally pull one out of the
freezer at my parent’s house? Unfortunately, not everyone has had the benefit
of a liberal culinary upbringing. The Caribbean abounds in local specialties
with a high ick content: cow heel soup, mannish water, roasted goat’s head.
The very idea of eating the reproductive organs of an ungulate sounds nauseating,
but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it — the texture is unlike any other
and, prepared well, they offer a gentle sweetness unusual in flesh.

How do West Indians living in one of the metropolitan diasporas bring
themselves to ask for the ingredients they need for these tastes of home?
I fear many do not. They are mortified into blandness until they come home
on holiday. Risk of cultural faux pas aside (no, we do not say eek!
when offered fried monkey brains), I have long been warned against public
derision of someone else’s eating habits. In fact, if more people were willing
to be less judgemental about what others consumed, we might begin to move
away from the guilty pleasure to just plain pleasure.

My final word on this is: no one who has ever eaten a sausage has the
right to any facial contortions on account of what someone else is eating.

That’s so not good for you

Why is it that the moment we begin to enjoy something, someone is sure
to tell us it is bad for us? The French have tried to discourage this line
of thinking, going so far as to get scientists to corroborate the benefits
of their wine-swilling, cream-imbuing ways. We resist because we were raised
in cultures where pleasure is synonymous with bad. As a child, I fancied
a spoonful of butter every now and again. I didn’t do it every day,
so surely it wouldn’t kill me. I also ate a lot of Vicks VapoRub (as, incidentally,
did another sibling), and have lived to enjoy the absence of ill effects.

This, possibly more than any other reason, drives people into the shadows
with their favourite foods. I am acquainted with a sensible lady of somewhat
advanced years who will eat condensed-milk-on-bread only in the dead of
night, when everyone else is asleep. If something is bad for us and we persist
in eating it, then we are self-destructive, lack self-control, are gluttonous.
Evil. There’s no place in the world for such people. Except, I guess, France.

There is another dimension to these guilty pleasures that flies in the
face of secrecy and shame and all the problems associated with eating a
whole box of cookies with the blanket pulled over your head. That is, there
is a rare and hard to understand pleasure in subterfuge. There’s a thrill
that comes from getting away with something others might disapprove of. These
days, just about everything is acceptable, out in the open, and heading to
mainstream: environmental sensitivity, gender ambiguity, quirky cultishness,
teen-angst rock. The guilty pleasures of our diets may be the last stronghold
of real radical underground culture.

On de road: Port of Spain

Carnival is no picnic. That is to say, “it not easy”, and,
quite literally, gingham and diagonally cut sandwiches are not the order
of the day. The drink, the sun, the endless traversing of street and stage
take everything the human body has to offer. Sustenance must be readily
available, and everywhere along your Carnival route the noble food vendors
of Port of Spain respond with abundance, variety, and lots of condiments.
This is food on the go: no reservations, no tipping, indeed, no seating.
Get in line, get your food, and give way to the starving person behind you.
Rough-and-ready, yes, but, as you’ll see with the rest of the festival, some
of T&T’s finest hit the streets on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Of the
hundreds of options for hungry revellers, here are some reliable suggestions.

– Anu Lakhan

1 Roti: Small shops and roadside stalls abound. In St James, the
very reliable Mum’s is just across the street from the ever-popular bar Smokey
and Bunty. Shiann’s on Cipriani Boulevard is a short walk from the Savannah.
2 Breakfast Shed: Good variety of Creole dishes, ample portions.
3 Royal Castle: Fried chicken, Trini style.
4 Doubles: Curried chick peas folded into a fried bread. Popular
at breakfast and after fetes. Vendors are everywhere, and everyone has a
favourite.
5 Shark and bake: Though a Maracas beach staple, come Carnival
it’s everywhere. Dressings include veggies, pineapple, and a multitude of
sauces.
6 Boiled or roast corn and corn soup: Always available at panyards
and around the Savannah. Richly seasoned whole corn on the cob, or cut
into pieces and made into a hearty soup.
7 Chinese food: Small restaurants are everywhere, and a good meal
can come in a box sold out of something much like a bread van. Swan on
Maraval Road is excellent, and worth the wait. Ask Kenny, the chef, to
show you how the map of China is like a chicken.
8 Creole food: Pelau, macaroni pie, stewed chicken, and other
Trini staples can be found in stalls around the Savannah or along judging
routes. Just as likely, a friendly family bearing enormous pots will offer
to share.
9 Souse: This spicy, peppery soup of pickled pig or chicken feet
seems to work well with loud music and lots of alcohol.
10 For vegetarians: Chinky’s in St James serves delicious ital
fare at night. Hardline Vegetarian, besides having one of the best eatery
names, also does great fresh juices.
11 Escape: If you need to be a hermit for a while but don’t want
to go too far, try Battimamzelle in Cascade or Solimar in St Ann’s. Renowned
chefs, exquisite, imaginative dishes, prices to match.

Secret treat

The topi tamboo is not a musical instrument. It is not a folk
dance. It does, however, turn up in Trinidad around Carnival time, and its
name sounds like it should be part of old-time kaiso lingo. The topi tamboo
is a plain little root encased in parchment-coloured skin with a two-textured
flesh: the core has an agreeable water-chestnut-like crunch, while the outer
layer is more like a partially cooked, floury potato. And when the topi tamboo
puts in its brief appearance — a couple weeks at most, in January and February
—  its fans fall upon it with zeal.

There seems no good reason it could not be treated like any other root,
but it is usually boiled in salty water and eaten by itself. The skin, not
to be swallowed, is nevertheless good for chewing upon meditatively. The
topi tamboo is mild and non-specific in flavour, but a good example of why
the world needs salt. Think of what salt does to peanuts, and you’re on the
right track.

If you are a visitor to these parts at Carnival, you are unlikely to
be besieged by topi tamboo offers. But if you’ve had your fill of other
seasonal favourites like corn soup and souse, this hard-to-find little treat
is worth looking up.

Jamie Elliot

Out of the frying pan, into the melting pot

A feeling of uneasiness overcame me as I buckled into my seat. My tray-table
was stowed, chair in the upright position, and carry-on firmly secured
in the overhead compartment (the bags of red mango and frozen roti hidden
out of sight). Everything was set and ready for lift-off. Everything except
me. I could feel my throat sink into my stomach as the airplane began its
ascent. I was on my way to Miami for my first semester at Florida International
University.

Well-written college brochures supplemented by gripping episodes of MTV’s
The Real World had painted a marvellous picture of the exciting
college life that awaited my arrival. I was young, independent, and ready
to experience all that life on my own in a foreign country had to offer.
Was it going to live up to all my expectations?

O the innocence of that first flight. Life in Miami proved the opposite
of anything I had imagined. College life was no piece of cake for any of
the countless Caribbean students living on campus, but somewhere along the
line we managed to cook up the perfect recipe for survival. It didn’t take
long for us to realise that while we may have come to FIU planning to experience
a new culture, it was holding on to our Caribbean heritage that kept us
from quitting and catching the next flight back home. A large helping of
heartbreaking homesickness forced us to make our existence here as homely
and warm as we could.

And it’s no secret that a West Indian home is where the food is. You

find yourself walking around campus trying to be inconspicuous, knowing
that you stick out among the Cuban-American faces of Miami, then you hear
someone shout at you with great confidence, “Ay! Where yuh from?” A smile
breaks across your face as you answer, “Trinidad.”

Two questions quickly follow. First: “Yuh from north or south?” Then
the more pertinent: “Yuh know where to get doubles?” After many encounters
of this kind you discover that you are not alone here. The Caribbean community
at FIU is full of entertainingly eccentric West Indians hungry for any
taste of home.

Ever had to explain to a Bahamian what saheena is, or have
a Jamaican tell you about otaheite apple? In Miami, I learned more about
other Caribbean cultures than about America. Thanks to our healthy appetites,
my friends and I were not destined for the infamous college diet of ramen
noodles and TV dinners. We would be too ashamed to tell our grandmothers.
We were even tempted to curry one of the campus ducks. However, out-of-state
tuition costs and a $500 fine for harming government-protected poultry dictated
that we pool our resources to come up with a home-cooked meal.

At the supermarket, I moved aside the jars of salsa to find my Chief
green seasoning and Ocho Rios pepper sauce. A nice big bag of brown rice
and a significant amount of chicken filled up my cart. I settled for canned
pigeon peas and aesthetically pleasing baby carrots. I strolled along, wondering
if this popular supermarket chain might contain any more treasures. Then
in the teas and coffees aisle I see it, sitting calmly on the lower shelf:
“The Food Drink Of Champions!” I could hardly wait to get into bed with a
cup of warm Milo resting comfortably in my contented stomach.

“Oh gawd, gyal, dis ting real lashin’!” The Trini slang came from my
Haitian friend. I smiled to myself as I looked at my friends playing all
fours and kalooki, and enjoying hot plates of pelau. How unfortunate that
the colourful mix of dialects excluded the rest of the hall residents.
They stuck their heads in, drawn by the smell of food, but were soon frightened
away by the cantankerous laughter and quick peppery tongues of our group.
We were unfazed, arrogantly content with what we had here, a Caribbean
family. A family of young people comfortable with each other’s cultures
and ways of life, the flavour of each island complementing the others to
form the perfect blend of spices. Who said federation wouldn’t have been
successful!

Food can always bring us together. There’s nothing like the strong aroma
of  curry to bring every West Indian in a two-mile radius to my small
dorm room, hoping for a taste. Heedless of the enforced “quiet hours”,
soca, dancehall, reggae, and chutney start pumping, and we are in our element.
The guys sing along at the top of their lungs, while the girls gyrate suggestively
as only curvaceous Caribbean women can. Certainly the curry is not the
only thing spicing up the room!

I don’t know the origin of the slang term “lime”, but it should be no
surprise that something edible was chosen to embody socialising Caribbean
style. Other college students spend their money clubbing in South Beach or
dining at pricey restaurants in Coconut Grove. We West Indians much prefer
to bubble a pot, crack a deck of cards, and buss a lime.

Now when I catch the non-stop BWIA 484 to Miami, I’m better prepared
than on that first trip. The anxiety is gone, the expectations have changed,
and my suitcase is packed with coconut milk powder and frozen Golden Ray
butter.

Nerissa Hosein with Kwesi Tarradath