Trinidadians bake on a Saturday. “Trinidadians” is not synonymous with “women”. Many men in Trinidad pride themselves as bakers. My grandfather was one. Originally from Barbados, schooled in pastry and bread-making, he truly was a professional in the art of flour. ‘Papa’ (as he was called) worked at Joseph Stauble’s bakery on New Street San Fernando during the World War Two days. On his way to his San Fernando Street home people lined the streets waiting for him to bestow on them some of his baked goodies. This was the era of the ration card which meant that one had to be satisfied with the colonial government deciding just how much one could eat. The food was supposedly rationed as the Germans were attacking supply ships on the high seas. So Hitler and his cronies elevated my grandfather to godfather status and to many, this was one supply ship that had to get through!
Papa delivered bread, cakes, pies, drops, currants rolls (the kind with more currants than rolls… hmmm!) to many, and still had enough to take for his wife and nine children. That was long before I was even conceived, conception the eventual product of my father, Learie meeting my mother, Marva. Maybe Marva lured Learie with her baking.
My mother one of those women who could bake! As a connoisseur of bread I speak having sampled her baking as boy and man, both perspectives separated only by slices. Bread—white or brown, hops or sandwich slice, hamburger or hotdog—is not just bread unless you could eat it hot without a filling. Then you could take it up a notch by adding butter and cheese. The sight of butter and cheese slowly melting as the heat of the bread lovingly converts solid into a teasingly sumptuous near liquid mash that disappears into those lovely, soft folds of each slice, is nothing short of pleasing.
During the week my mother would send me to the Chinese bakery close to the playground on Irving Street. Affangs’s bakery sold some delicious hops bread, those roundish rolls about 3 to 4 inches in diameter and flaky brown to the top that would leave those moist grease marks when hot on the brown bags in which they were packaged. A quart of hops numbered ten, but the applied law of diminishing returns would set in between the bakery and home, suspiciously reducing the quart to eight. Show me the man who could resist the temptation of hot, soft, but lightly crusty hops and I will show you the tailor who could make a suit by simply knowing the corner where his client passed.
Affang’s could not rival my mother’s bread. My mother’s bread was heavenly! Just out of the oven still steaming hot, the masses would converge on the kitchen where the many 12 inch loaves lay atop the baking pans, placed there so that they could cool enough to be cut. My father (who incidentally was an apple that fell so far from the tree he could not identify flour from baking powder) would always lead the Charge of the Slice Brigade and would dissect one of the loaves into thick slices. Imagine a twelve-inch loaf serving up four slices. Steaming slices. With butter. And cheese.
My father prides himself on being able to slice well. I suppose as the son of a baker it is one of those peripheral skills often overlooked but important nonetheless. This garners little respect from my mother though. His exploits with my mother’s freshly baked bread often evokes cries of “Learie, let de bread cool! Why allyuh cyah wait?” With a sheepish grin unusual for a kitchen conquistador, he would normally start to respond by saying “Better man belly bus…” and then his voice would trail off as crumbs overcame verbs.
How could you keep this secret? Perhaps the last stage of the transformation process tells us that baking is a very public affair as the aroma from bread being baked arouses the sensibilities of all whose sense of smell was outfitted according to His Divinity’s specifications. Consumption may not be intended for John and Jane Public, unless of course they arrive just when those mounds of soft dough metamorphosize into full-figured loaves. This is exactly what would normally happen when Joyce arrived.
Joyce was a friend of my mother. She migrated to Trinidad from the island of Dominica with everything that was dear to her except deodorant. This allowed my mother to step in as a benefactor, and then friend. Joyce not only embraced new and pleasant body odours but a friend, her family and her bread. Joyce would descend on our house after choir practice at the Methodist Church always in time for the opening of the oven. She always made her way to the kitchen asking my mother for a loaf. My mother would oblige not thinking twice such was her generous spirit. This persisted for a while, as a matter of fact for years until the goodwill evaporated. The Big Slicer ran out of patience as Joyce deprived him of a loaf each week to demonstrate his God-given skills.
It climaxed one Saturday when my mother posted a lookout in the porch, in the form of my sister. As soon as Joyce arrived supposedly after practicing the selections for Sunday Mass there was a cry, “Hide de bread!” The following scene unfolded as if rehearsed, representing a confluence of thoughts of a family stung by years of bread-snatching. My three sisters and two brothers grabbed pans and hid them in places where bread had never ventured before. Bread on the double-decker, in the clothes cupboard, in the fridge, in the pantry, bread everywhere. The dispersion took seconds.
Joyce appeared and said “Mahva, yuh bake? Lemme geh ah bread nah gyul!” Then in a tone of astonishment, “Wha, bread done?” Disbelief was etched all over her face and suppressed chuckles were heard in an adjoining room. She left empty handed thwarted by quick hands and just enough cupboard space.
A few minutes later all loaves emerged unscathed from their dislocation. Joyce continued to visit, taking what she could when she could, as was her nature. Most of us can bake but a wholewheat sandwich slice bread from the closest bakery has replaced the Saturday ritual that brought us together and that has given us fond memories. I suppose the memory of a loaf is better than no loaf at all.