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Love and Sweet Food: A Culinary Memoir

by Austin Clarke

It’s like cooking through a plastic bag, the way we spin our food round and round in silent electric mixers and turn to hand-held presses and precision-cut slicers to avoid scenting and staining our fingertips. Technology couldn’t care less about the aphrodisiac powers of fresh basil, the tears shed over onions, or the potato’s storied past. And neither could the people who swear by these gadgets. To appreciate food you have to get close to it or, better yet, to have lived in a land or time that valued the fingers, the hands, the nose, and the tongue as discerning implements for measurement. Barbados-born author Austin Clarke’s latest book, Love and Sweet Food, does just that: savouring, smelling, and “feeling-up” food in delightfully large quantities.

Grooving to a West Indian beat, each chapter describes a traditional meal and its cultural origins in economizing and slavery. Clarke reminisces about the Bajan dishes, the island history, and the strong women who got him involved in cooking. But this is not a cookbook, although readers can prepare these dishes if they know their way around a meat market, are confident working in pinches and dashes, and don’t believe in throwing away their mistakes.

In a culture where nothing is wasted, mistakes are delicacies. Take bun-bun, a Bajan dish you hold back and serve only to honoured guests and close friends. To the rest of us, bun-bun is that layer of rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot.

Barbadians also pride themselves on knowing how to coax succulence into inferior cuts of meat. To cook with choice cuts is a sure sign of losing your cultural roots. In fact, the way they eat still abides by the timetable and hankerings of their ancestors who came home at dusk from the cotton and cane fields looking for something tasty and easy to prepare. Smoked ham hocks with lima beans, pigtails, and rice was the working man’s food and has since become the essence of Barbadian hot-cuisine.

Chopping boards reveal most food writers to be mere raconteurs, but few can capture the flavour and nuance of language, much less the language of food, with the joy and earthy exuberance of Austin Clarke.