Ghosts of Our Culinary Past – Legacy of Our People
Who is Sylvia Hunt? If you came of age in the late 80’s onwards you probably haven’t heard her name. Similarly, several years ago, the then-UK based Trini food blogger Can Cook Must Cook posted on “Those Disappearing Pleasures”, the snacks of her childhood which no longer appear on Trini shop shelves. Out of the names she called I could only recognize ‘rock cake’. Bellyful? Shaddock Candy? Kaser Balls? Wha dat?
This made me more than a little sad. Apparently many of these items fell out of favour as Trinidad grew into the heady rush of prosperity that was the oil boom of the 1970s and early 80s. Our tastes turned outward and American advertising influences and shopping sprees took their toll on the local cornershop.
It was at this time that a local lady by the name of Sylvia Hunt hosted an immensely popular and long-running cooking television show and published several cookbooks. For lack of a better analogy Sylvia Hunt was the Julia Child of Trinidad. I only have vague memories of watching her cooking show “At Home with Sylvia Hunt” and wanting to contact her P.O.Box for recipes, except I had no clue what a P.O. box was so I used to dial (remember those?) the P.O. box numbers onto the phone instead LOL! Even as a young child I was attracted to her warm, charismatic persona and soothing voice. She had a way of making every dish seem undaunting, approachable, and effortless. Unfortunately no reruns of her shows appear, nor do any substantial photos or citations exist online. A shameful gap in our indigenous media and culinary heritage.
Although to the untrained eye local snacks may still appear plentiful aloo pies, tamarind balls, chip-chip to name a few, it also seems that there have been many casualties of industrialization and foreign influence. As thebookmann blogged in his entry “Green Paw Paw Balls and Paradise Plum”, even those things we currently take for granted are continuing to die in the face of commercial apathy. As American-styled fast food continues to establish itself as a permanent food group and women (and men) are less able to spend as much time in the kitchen learning and passing on the tastes of their own childhood, the gap between our past and future grows ever wider.
Unfortunately Sylvia Hunt’s own cookbooks disappeared from the shelves almost as quickly as they appeared, amidst a royalty battle between her surviving relatives after her death. This dealt a severe blow to those of us who came of age much later on and want to learn about and prepare these dishes, having never tasted or seen them first-hand. The Naparima Girls Cookbook has been a great stop-gap measure, however the relatively contemporary nature of its debut is reflected in its table of contents.
Now that our economic boom has receded, double digit inflation is nipping at our pockets and we are all looking for more economical ways to prepare food I think more than ever we need to revisit the ghosts of our culinary past to restore some balance to our lives and national identities. Upon starting this site in 2006 I made it my mission to one day own a copy of Sylvia Hunt’s “Proud Legacy of Our People”. I wanted to give her recipes a shot, the way she knew them, and to share those experiences with Trinis and the world alike. The search was much harder than I expected though. Not only were library copies unavailable the only two people who I were aware had copies were both unreceptive to my requests for assistance (sigh). The past 5 years only brought up 2 ‘hits’ where online auctions and second-hand book sales were concerned as well. One auction had closed before I got to it and well that second hand book went for almost $200 USD! (eep). Still, I felt calmly confident that someday I would have a copy in my hands.
That ‘someday’ arrived last month when my father handed me a package that had arrived from St. Vincent! Last year a reader on that island had offered to copy her edition for me and I had shared my contact information with her. I am always touched when someone reaches out to me and I don’t hold a grudge or ‘remind’ them if I don’t hear back. I know lives are busy and circumstances/priorities change so the gesture alone is appreciated. So, I was quite shocked when I opened the package and saw in my hands my own copy of Sylvia Hunt’s “Proud Legacy of Our People”! You’ll forgive me I’m sure if I also add that the enormity of the moment and effort also brought tears to my eyes. Thanks so much ‘C’, you have no idea what this means to me! *bighugs*
I think it’s quite significant that Hunt named one of her books “Proud Legacy Of Our People”, she championed our culinary traditions for much of her life and it is a true loss that several generations have now grown up without any ability to access her works or knowledge of her life. Flipping through the pages I am struck by titles such as Topi Tambu Pie’, ‘Breadfruit Spaghetti’, ‘Granadilla Ice Cream’, ‘Calypso Marmalade’ (made from cucumbers) and ‘Covity Pocham’.
From the Back Cover:
The name SYLVIA HUNT is synonymous with good cooking. As teacher, caterer, television personality she has for many decades been compiling, creating and collecting recipes that represent the cultural heritage of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
Her great love for the culinary traditions of our country has been manifest from an early age when an only child, she joined her mother, Mrs. Miriam Dryce in the family kitchen and learned to make her first sugar cake.
She also had the good fortune to grow up close to an aunt, Mrs. Lydia Gittens who specialised in old fashioned or traditional Home Economics, thus Sylvia Hunt was brought up with an appreciation of handiwork, from needlepoint to homemade wines.
This collection of recipes is a small part of the thousands of recipes she has created and collected in a lifetime dedicated to her country’s cooking heritage.
Where are those ‘thousands of recipes’ now?
As a graduate of Julia Child’s alma mater Smith College, I have in recent years keenly noted how Child’s legacy has been upheld and revered not just by the institution through it’s now annual Julia Child Day, but also the high regard with which the US mainstream and government treated her work. Not only are her programs still in rotation (on PBS and the Cooking Channel), but PBS also has a wonderfully exhaustive portal dedicated to her programs and works. Furthermore, the Smithsonian Institute painstakingly deconstructed and recreated her kitchen for permanent display at Washington DC’s National Museum of American History.
In sharp contrast, not only can I not tell you where Sylvia Hunt may have gone to school, not even a single clip of her shows can be found online (video recorders were not very prevalent in her heyday). Her programs have never replayed since their initial runs, and I have little reason to believe that they ever will. To rub salt in the wound, successive years of Taste Trinidad & Tobago have taken place without any acknowledgement of her name, face, or works and I would be shocked if she is mentioned in Home Economic classes today, as she wasn’t even when I was in High School. It’s a damn shame. It really is. Still I’d like to believe that she is in a way the grand dame of Trini food bloggers such as myself, Chennette, Trinifood and Caribbean Pot. We have all made nods and mention of her in one way or another, as has Trini beauty blogger Afrobella. Where institutional praise is non-existent I can only hope that what she inspired in each of us will be enough to keep her name and face around just a little bit longer.
Sylvia Hunt Bibliography:
HUNT, Sylvia – Menus for Festivals. (Port-of-Spain: Bank of Commerce Trust) 1989. Food. Nutrition. Festivals. Trinidad. A cookbook
HUNT, Sylvia – Sylvia Hunt’s Cooking: Proud Legacy of our People. (Cascade, Port-of-Spain: Superservice Printing Co) viii,58 pages pb, 1985. Food. Nutrition. Trinidad. A cookbook. LOC
HUNT, Sylvia – Sylvia Hunt’s Sweets: Proud Legacy of our People. (Port-of-Spain: Published by the Author) vi,37 pages, [ca 1985]. Food. Nutrition. Trinidad. A cookbook. LOC