While his unexpected accent was what first drew my attention to the man who would become my husband, I rarely think of him as an “immigrant.” But for the first time in our twenty years together, after a recent trip back to his village in Trinidad, that is how I’ve been thinking of him. Back home, he was more relaxed, at ease… happier than I had seen him in a long time. We navigated the potholed roads and dirt paths of his village. He shared seed pods with our little girls, and showed them how they’d pop when exposed to water (“this was what Dada played with when he was a boy.”) He and his brother laughed as they recalled the spontaneous combustion of petroleum in the field behind their house, leaking from the pumping jacks that seeped oil from their own backyard– of which their family owned only the surface, not the oil. He happily explored the jungle of plants in the yard, which boasted an unimaginable bounty of tamarind, mangoes, bananas and papaya. He laughed and joked as he asked after friends he hadn’t seen in decades, his memories of high school pranks as fresh as if they were yesterday.
So much had changed in our lives since my first trip with him home to Trinidad, twenty years back. At that time, we were both still in school, and Trinidad was completely foreign to me. My then future mother-in-law (herself a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad from Canton) served me some curry tattoo for my first meal. Confused? So was I. Tattoo is the local word for armadillo (yes, you read that correctly). Despite having recently completed a vegetarian phase, and despite the still visible markings on the flesh of the armadillo’s bony plates, I tasted it. You could call it a taste test, under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze, with the emphasis on “test.” This taste was the beginning of what was, on that visit to my husband’s home village, Fifth Company Village, in the South of Trinidad, an eye-opening journey to a land of fusion. Trinidad is full of hybrids in music (calypso, soca, steel band); people (mainly Afro-Caribbean descendants of slaves, descendants of indentured laborers from India, descendants of British plantation owners, a sprinkling of Chinese shop owners, and myriad combinations of the above and more); and food. The local patois, too, is a hybrid of English with the inflections of the island’s diverse residents and of its proximity to South America. The two unifying forces in the diverse populace are a love of music, and above all, food.
On that first trip, which happened over Christmas, I was led from home to home, eating a full meal at each stop. My favorite stop was at Auntie Doll’s. Auntie Doll, my husband’s Indian great aunt, must be one of the finest cooks in Trinidad. She brought out plate after plate of curried dishes (chicken, goat); condiments (kuchila, a green mango pickle; tamarind sauce; and pepper sauce (made of the local fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers); Caribbean dishes (banana leaf-wrapped pastelles, similar to tamales, but with a savory-sweet filling of minced meat, olives, and raisins; pelau, chicken with pigeon peas and rice); and sorrel, a drink brewed from dried hibiscus flowers, or what is known as Jamaica in Mexico. All of this bounty was lovingly homemade. After lunch, I sat down with Uncle to hear stories of my husband’s childhood. The stories were mesmerizing, so much so that I fell asleep.
Coming back, I found Auntie Doll’s house to be much the same as I remembered it, tiny but tidy, everything in its place, lace doilies draped over backs of sofas. Uncle had passed away between my two visits, but Auntie Doll, despite getting up in age and accumulating maladies, still leads an active life, singing in the church choir, visiting friends, all in her brightly colored ensembles. And despite her relative infirmity, she still cooked up a storm. There was homemade black forest cake, dozens of savory puffs, shrimp curry, curried pumpkin, and an amazingly light whole grain roti of her own invention (with oats, whole wheat flour, flax seed and the magically light touch of her “sweet hands”). Auntie Doll said, “Eat,” and just as on my first trip, I obeyed, even though we had just come from lunch. Sated, we lazed on the sofas of her living room. Our gazes found childhood photos of my husband scattered on shelves, and one of the two of us from our first trip there. My husband was once again home.
His family’s house, while less dainty, was vibrant and lively when I first visited it, and the adjoining shop, though no longer in operation, was still intact. This was the family business, a dry goods shop, and years after closing, still contained a world of treasures ranging from cheap rubber flip flops to expensive European olive oil.
This time around, everything had changed. Unlike Auntie Doll’s house, which was blissfully arrested in time, time had not been kind to the family home. Since my mother-in-law had moved out to spend most of her time in the States, the house was barely a shadow of its previous state.
I was saddened by the ruins of the house my husband had grown up in, eaten away by time, the elements, and vandals; but he smiled as he pointed at the hand-painted exit sign over the door of the rum shop that adjoined his family’s general store. (I didn’t know that he had poured rum as a teen.) He displayed traces of discontent as he encountered some of the inefficiencies of island time– unnecessarily long waits in line, improbable excuses for promises not kept. But despite it all, for the first time, he wondered aloud, what if he had stayed?
The subtext of his question was multi-layered. Would he have been happier? Was working as hard as he does worth it, or would he have been happier with the life his friends lived, full of family and friends, music and limes (casual parties)? Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to wear socks or jackets?
Our journey back to San Francisco was a jarring jolt back to the life we live now, as a family with two busy parents and two busy children, with the closest extended family thousands of miles away. It included delays and mixups in our airline bookings, followed by the shock of the final leg of our trip home via a high-speed drive on the freeway. Nothing could be in starker contrast to the meandering drives on potholed roads, and the lack of a need to rush– because, after all, there’s not that far to go on a small island. The warmth of the tropics dissipated too quickly. My husband’s happy glow faded. Reality check. “It was vacation,” I told him. “You wouldn’t want to really live there and work. You’d be frustrated by island time, island life.”
He was unconvinced. “How do you know?” he asked. Unlike his compatriot, V.S. Naipaul, who in his mind and his ascot is more English than the English, my husband is always proud of his heritage, and now I understood how much he missed home.
I can’t bring the Trinidad of my husband’s happy childhood memories to San Francisco, but I can do my best to recreate its flavors. In the years between my first and most recent trips to Trinidad, I’ve learned to make many of his favorites tastes of home. For New Year’s Eve, which itself is called by a different name in Trinidad, Old Year’s– I make him Black Eyed Peas. This is a traditional dish eaten for good luck on Old Year’s in Trinidad. It’s similar to Hoppin’ John, eaten on New Year’s Eve in the American South.
Black eyed peas are one of the foods I cook to maintain my husband’s ties to home and smooth his immigrant’s transition to his new world. In life, you win some, and you lose some. And sometimes, you get to keep both.
Trinidadian Black Eyed Peas for Old Year’s and New Beginnings
The “green seasoning” (herb blend) and the optional pig tail are what give this version of black eyed peas its Caribbean flavor.
1 lb dried black eyed peas, soaked in water for 8 hours, rinsed and drained
1 ham hock or ham bone (I used the latter, from our Christmas ham) or, if you want to be truly authentic, a pig tail*
1/2 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon Caribbean “green seasoning” (minced fresh thyme, chives, chadon beni (culantro), Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper)
8 cups water
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
*Note: if you wish to make a vegan version, hold the pig parts and substitute a half teaspoon or more of pimenton (smoked paprika) for smokiness
Accompaniment: cooked rice (parboiled or Uncle Ben’s rice is most common in Trinidad)
1. Pour a tablespoon of oil into a pan and cook diced onion over medium high heat until translucent.
2. Add the ham bone and garlic and cook for a minute or so.
3. Add drained pre-soaked beans, water, and all seasonings except salt and bring to a boil.
4. Simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes or until desired tenderness. Add salt and adjust other seasonings as desired, and simmer for another 5 minutes.
4. Serve over rice.
Thank you for coming by! Wishing you a prosperous and joyful 2015!