Ann-Marie Whittaker slips an apron over her red sleeveless dress and scrutinises a brightly-decorated table the way a painter does a daub of paint on canvas. “You know what’s the best thing to come from all this?” she muses as she surveys a neat row of bottles — her Native Treasures line of gourmet condiments. “I’ve learnt something about myself, something I want to teach my children — that you don’t have to settle for getting married and finding a good job when you leave school; you can create something of your own.”
A laugh spreads across Whittaker’s face; she draws a line in the air with an elegant hand, placing it next to a plastic flying fish on the table at her booth at the 1998 Caribbean Food Festival in Trinidad. She picks it up, raises its fins and explains the popularity of the fish in Barbados. “Bajans are the only Caribbean people to have mastered the art of deboning flying fish.” This, she believes, is why the fish is more popular in Barbados than in Tobago where it is also a common sight.
Whittaker is fanatical about Caribbean food; for the past two years she has been travelling the islands, studying the links that connect the region’s cuisine to its colonial past and independent present. The Guyanese-born mother of two says she didn’t know how to cook until she migrated to Barbados, married and had little choice but to learn. At 23, she discovered she had a flair for taking basic ingredients and creating a regal repertoire of dishes. When the family’s computer business failed under the weight of heavy competition in the mid-1980s, Whittaker revived her desire to create something of her own. At the time, she had no idea the answer would come from her own backyard.
“There is a huge tamarind tree in our yard and it sometimes yields 500 to 600 pounds of pulp every year,” Whittaker says. Because of her Guyanese heritage, “where people have no choice but to be creative with fruits and food,” she started making a tamarind sauce and storing it in buckets under her kitchen sink, instead of letting the fruit go to waste. She recalls how her friends would drop by, mostly on Sundays, demanding “some of that wonderful sauce”. Soon this became a Sunday ritual. “Usually when my friends dropped by they would bring their own containers, but then someone forgot her jar and as I was putting the sauce into a bottle of my own, suddenly a light went on.”
That was the birth of Bassa Bassa sauce, the first product in her gourmet line, where a voluptuous mixture of tamarind sauce is married to fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers. Bassa Bassa sauce and other gourmet products are available at specialty stores throughout the Caribbean, North America and Europe. Some of the line’s biggest buyers include gourmet chain stores: Top Friendly in upstate New York and the Food Emporium in Manhattan. Whittaker’s specialty line of products is crossing ethnic and cultural seas — albeit with some modification as the heat of tropical peppers has been toned down for taste buds unaccustomed to the singe, but that’s as far as the changes go.
Whittaker travels all over the Caribbean, cooking up a culinary message of Caribbean cuisine. She didn’t start out wanting to document stories about Caribbean food. The research, she says, was the easy part; learning about the essence of island food was a bit more complex.
Is there such a thing as Caribbean food? Something that transcends the individuality of the island and expresses the collective ethos of the region? Whittaker gets anecdotal. “In St Vincent,” she says, describing how vendors transform the Trinidadian meal of callaloo, “they sell their callaloo with boiled corn. They prepare it the same way Trinidadians do, with dasheen bush and ochro, but after they boil, it is cooled and then placed into plastic bags. It’s fascinating to see how the Vincentians and the tourists cut the tip of the bag, drink the callaloo and then open the mouth of the bag to get at the corn. Wayside food is typical of the Caribbean; callaloo is to Trinidad what jerk chicken is to Jamaica, flying fish to Barbados and casareep to Guyana.” If you want to know about Caribbean food, says Whittaker, the best thing to do would be to visit wayside vendors.
Whittaker takes these titbits about Caribbean food, marinates them in her mind and serves them up to hungry foreigners who want a taste of the exotic, and to homesick immigrants hankering for a taste of the islands they left behind. At the annual Fiery Food Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a Pakistani professor pushed his way through a crowd listening to Whittaker. He told her he had studied with Trinidadians in England and they had often served him a lusty curry of potatoes and chick peas with generous spoonfuls of chicken. “He told me that the aroma took him back to the time when he was young and carefree.”
“And that’s exactly what we need to tap into,” says Whittaker, “the connection between our food and the spirit of our people.” Whittaker expresses her disappointment when she travels in the region and finds Caribbean food playing a subservient role to the Continental Breakfast. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find ackee and avocados on the menu of the best hotels in Jamaica.” The change “lies in our hotels’ marketing Caribbean food, the wayside food.”
In the meantime Whittaker is doing some reaching out of her own. Her first book, Treasures of the Caribbean, will be published later this year.