Cynthia Nelson has fascinated Guyanese for over a decade and a half with her “Tastes Like Home” articles in Stabroek News. She is an artist of the highest calibre and her supremely creative work in nurturing, creating and promoting Guyanese cuisine with an intensely patriotic enthusiasm, over such a long period, suggests a creative dedication that few can sustain. Cuisine is part of our culture and Ms. Nelson has mastered the unique spirit of our ancestors not only in producing and promoting the foods that they created through struggle, necessity, inventiveness and experimentation. But Ms. Nelson is, by far, the most imaginative interpreter of our cuisine that Guyana has produced. Utilising, combining and manipulating local ingredients and tastes into the most unique and delightful of dishes is no mean feat, and doing so with such dedicated excellence has elevated Ms. Nelson to one of Guyana’s leading cultural ambassadors.
Ms. Nelson must have said it many times, that for a small country, Guyana’s cuisine is a wonderfully eclectic mix. It reflects our history, our ingenious efforts to assuage hunger, our battles against a sometimes hostile environment, creative use of its bounties, our struggle for freedom and liberation, the brief respites of celebratory joyousness that punctuate, all too rarely, the depressing rhythms and cadences of life. For all of Guyana’s existence, it has been a country in which most of the population, its original peoples, the enslaved and the indentured, has been oppressed and has lived in poverty. It is out of the dire conditions that made death the immediate consequence of a failure to invent, create and adapt its distinctive, sometimes scarce, supply of foods, that has driven our cuisine.
Each of our dishes has a particular history that reflects aspects of the community from which they are derived. Casreep, metemjee, cook-up, garlic pork, curry, chow mein and numerous others have different origins and histories and continue to attract differences of opinion about their composition. In a brief conversation with Carl Greenidge recently, as we were gathering up our boxes of lunch during a break in an all-day meeting, which had cook-up as one offering, I complained that cook-up is not complete without fried fish. He was appalled at such desecration. Fried fish has no place in a cook-up, he said, but pig tail and salt beef do. My wife later confirmed that her grandmother’s cook-up was never without pig tail and salt beef. Guyanese know that a Guyanese curry is not the same as an Indian curry. The English or American curry resembles what we know as a stew. How the Guyanese curry and all other foods have evolved over time has to have fascinating back stories.
There are two things that struck me in Ms. Nelson’s article yesterday. She mentioned the foods we miss. I spent some years overseas as a student and one of the main reasons for permanent nostalgia was because I missed my mother’s cooking. Like most mothers, she could whip up any dish, including a fried egg, with the minimum of ingredients, that then, and since then, has tasted like no one else’s. I tried the fired egg but could never capture the texture. I did, however, master the Guyanese curry. When my then girlfriend, now wife, came around for lunch, the attraction was not my company, but that master curry atop a huge plate of rice, which she did not know how to cook. She had never cooked anything. To her credit, she later became a great cook and pastry maker. That curry brought her back again and again and, I believe, was instrumental in eventually winning her over. It is more than fifty years ago that I was preparing that curry. It played such an important role in our courtship that we often remember it. Having lived abroad, I know the feeling of Brooklyn Guyanese around a draughts board or Richmond Guyanese around a card table, reminiscing about their favourite Guyanese foods which, even if available overseas, somehow do not taste the same. The Guyana flavour is always missing.
Ms. Nelson’s article yesterday’s SN is entitled “A love letter to – Guyanese Cuisine.” It commemorates a Guyana Valentine. The act of cooking, performed solely by women in earlier Guyanese history, and mainly today as well, when it is for sharing with the family, is often associated with love and togetherness. That is why one of the main activities of the middle class on Valentine’s Day is going out to dinner or preparing something special at home. Ms. Nelson gave us crushed green plaintain with fried egg and plantain soup. Cuisine is associated with so much in our lives, expresses so much of our character, reflects so much of our history, engenders so much love and affection, but it is often overlooked. The work of Cynthia Nelson reminds us.
My son, Kamal, first drew my attention to Ms. Nelson’s work and made contact with her. His pepperpot is from a Cynthis Nelson’s menu. A few years ago he took us to Herdmanston House restaurant, which featured breakfast of her dishes and at which she spoke. It would be great if one or more restaurants feature, even if periodically, some of Cynthia Nelson’s dishes along with its regular fare.