It’s August, but this year I won’t make my annual trek from Martha’s Vineyard down to the Caribbean. I have to miss Saturday’s Fete des Cuisinieres (Feast of Women Cooks) in Guadeloupe. I will miss the high Mass at the cathedral with all of the members of the Association des Cuisinieres and the Cuistot Mutuel: two organizations that are guardians of Guadeloupe’s culinary patrimony. I will miss dressing in full Creole finery and will only know what bird of paradise colors were selected for this year’s dress when I get to Guadeloupe later in the year. Even on my other island, I’ll probably still deck myself out in my chaine forcat, or convict’s chain, that the slave master gave his slave mistress and my grains d‘or, golden balls that were worn when sumptuary laws forbade wearing real pearls. And I might even wear my earrings in the shape of bunches of sugar cane. But I will miss the annual luncheon with all of its gaiety and the dancing that follows, and the feeling of conviviality. Most of all I will miss being a part of a culinary connection to something much larger that country or language.
I will get to Guadeloupe before next year because my Cuisiniere friends there are guardians of a little known but century-old tradition that celebrates the mastery of women cooks and the classic dishes they prepare. The organization began as one of the many self-help and mutual aid societies that were developed by peoples of color in the New World who had no access to health or burial insurance.
This one was formed by those who worked in the culinary trades, and their pride in their profession is evident in their selection of Saint Lawrence as their patron. He’s significant because he was martyred on the grill, and their uniforms all include embroidered aprons that have as centerpiece a design of the grill. Although many of them are venerable, and the oldest member one year topped 100, they still take delight in serving their guests and in celebrating the culinary classics of their Creole tradition. Many of the dishes they serve to the admiring public who assemble annually in the schoolyard in Pointe-a-Pitre harkens back to the days of enslavement and the ingredients — cassava, potatoes, carrots and lesser cuts of meat — recall that time. Other dishes are bright testimonials to the inventiveness of Creole cooks: blaff, freshly caught fish poached in a lime-infused broth spiced up with hot chili; acrats de morue, fried codfish beignets that maintain the name of a West African fritter; and small land crabs seasoned to perfection.
A little punch
The beverage of the day is often Champagne — a testimonial to the island’s French influence — but the bottle of rum is never far away. And the meal begins with a round of the lime, rum and sugar cocktail known as a ‘ti punch. Preparing one at times can take on the intricacy of a Japanese tea ceremony. First there’s the sugar, just enough at the bottom of the glass, then a squeeze or two of lime so that the juice moistens the sugar. Muddle it well with your teaspoon. Then add a full dose of rum. Too much and you’re marked as a drinker; too little and it’s limeade. Voila, it’s the perfect way to celebrate the feast and a perfect way to begin to understand the importance of rum in the Caribbean region.
Short for a petit punch, this is a classic mix of lime, sugar or sugar syrup, and white rum from the French Caribbean. There, natives debate whether it ruins the drink to add an ice cube and discuss the relative merits of using simple syrup (sirop de canne), which is sold in the grocery stores, or simply crushing brown sugar with a spoon. If you like a caipirinha, you’ll love this French variation on the lime, rum and sugar theme.
Place the lime pieces into an old-fashioned glass or a small wide-mouth stemmed glass.
Add the sugar and pour in the rum. Stir until well mixed.
Some will add an ice cube, but many consider this anathema.
Jessica B. Harrisis the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage.