Pig Tails ‘n Breadfruit by Austin Clarke (thoughts)
As part of my Canadian reading extravaganza back in October, I picked up Austin Clarke’s Pig Tails N’ Breadfruit: a Culinary Memoir. Clarke was born and raised in Barbados before immigrating to Canada, and after an eventful life is now considered a Canadian writer. I happen to love Caribbean lit, so I opened up this book with high hopes. And I wasn’t disappointed! From start to finish Pig Tails N’ Breadfruit read like a shining example of ‘creative nonfiction writing’ (the title of a college course I took when considering a journalism minor). While it calls itself a memoir, it’s much more loose and innovative than the types of books currently being published in the memoir category, so don’t let the label scare you away. Each chapter is structured around Clarke telling the reader how to cook a traditional Barbadian dish; in between the instructions (which you could definitely follow in your kitchen, although they’re not a traditional recipe) Clarke weaves in memories of the Barbados of the 30s and 40s and the strong women who defined his childhood, meditations on Barbados (and occasionally North American) culture, trenchant observations on race and class and culture, and more all wrapped up in a witty, warm, truly hilarious writing style. I kept giggling to myself while reading this, and as a true testament to his writing style found myself craving meals that often revolve around unusual animal parts, including of course the titular pig tails. I kept looking up expecting to see him in my kitchen, the style was so perfectly conversational, and I can’t help wishing I could sit down to a meal with him, although I’m sure I’d find myself intimidated by his intellect. Anyway, every time I set the book down I couldn’t wait to pick it back up, and isn’t that the sign of a wonderful read?
Here’s a sample from the first chapter (that I found online so I could copy and paste without worrying about typing and my hands! internet for the win!):
Flour was usually the last thing left in your larder no matter how poor you were. So flour was the backbone of your diet, your nutrition. It was precious, like air. If you had flour in your larder, you never went hungry. You could always have bakes: flour, salt, sugar and lard oil. The cheapest meal in the world to make. Nobody can be so poor that they can’t have a nice meal o’ bakes.
“When you don’t have a bake to fry,” my mother always said, “then you know you’re blasted poor. Poor as a bird’s arse!”
Bakes! Basic, beautiful, black Barbadian hot-cuisine. A food of great historical significance that can be found in the lexicon of Barbadian sociology, with a strong anthropological association with the days of slavery, thereby giving bakes a most serious cultural-culinary antecedent in the life of this great little nation of Barbados!
Basically, flour and water is all you need. Well, almost. If you don’t have sugar, too bad; but it’s not the end of the world. If you have salt, you’ll need just a pinch. And for this small expenditure of effort and money, the satisfying result of a full stomach is extraordinary.
If that doesn’t make you want to run to your library/bookstore to get your hands on a copy, well, clearly we have different reading tastes! ;) But with that disclaimer, I’ll say that I highly recommend Pig Tails N’ Breadfruit to everyone who enjoys smart, funny books that are effortless to read but stay with you long after you turn the final page. As for me, I’m thrilled that Clarke has such a long back list, and I intend to investigate more of his writing as soon as possible.
Suggested Companion Reads
- Eating India by Chitrita Banerji: another book that combine’s the author’s love of food with thoughts on her native culture, although this one is more of a travelogue than memoir.
- After the Dance by Edwidge Danticat: if you’re interested in more Caribbean culture-focused nonfiction, this is a lyrical account of Haitian-now-living-in-the-US Danticat’s trip back to Haiti for Carnivale.
- Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez: I can’t let a post about this region go by without giving a shout out to at least one of their many incredible novelists! Honestly, I’ve yet to read a disappointing Caribbean book, but I chose Prospero’s Daughter because Nunez’s page-turning writing style, deep intelligence, clear-sightedness, and ability to humanise social justice issue seems the perfect match for Austin Clarke.