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Decoding The Mystery Tombstone
In order to get a feel for the entire country, we took the twelve minute flight from Trinidad to Tobago. In the tiny airport, we were accosted by dozens of cabbies and providentially picked a distinguised looking man named Basil Phillips. As luck would have it, Basil's brother, Reginald, was the technical officer at the Tobago Botanic Station, so after a brief tour of Scarborough, we dropped in on Reginald, who gave us an interesting interview about growing peppers between rows of papaya, and then showed us his congo pepper seedlings, which the station sold to farmers for a dollar a flat. That's twenty cents, U.S.
Congo Pepper Seedlings
After lunch at the open-air Blue Crab restaurant (I had kingfish again; MJ had the fried flying fish), Basil invited me along on his next agouti hunt and then gave us a simple lecture on the difference between Trinidad and Tobago: "Speed. Everyt'ing runs slower in Tobago." It was true. Basil drove half the speed of the drivers in Trinidad.
At the Scarborough market, I asked Basil: "You ever heard of Shadow Bennie?"
"Shore, mon," he answered. "Right there."
He pointed to a vendor's stand and a bunch of culantro (Eryngium foetidum), the native American herb that tastes like a stonger version of cilantro. So much for the Shadow Bennie mystery.
But another, more difficult mystery loomed ahead. In the little village of Plymouth, Basil showed us the "mystery tombstone," which has the a riddle inscribed upon it that supposedly has never been solved. The inscription on the eighteen century tombstone of one Betty Stiven reads: "Was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgence to him."
Now this riddle baffled us for a while, after a beer at the airport, we figured the whole thing out. Betty Stiven meets this guy and falls in love with him. But he refuses to marry her and she won't live in sin, so she gets him so drunk he passes out and a preacher with a good sense of humor marries them. Betty, being a wife without his knowledge, kindly indulges his every whim, and the result of one of those whims is that Betty becomes pregnant. But before she realizes she is pregnant, she is struck down by brain fever and goes into a coma. Without regaining consciousness, poor Betty comes to term and delivers a baby boy, but she dies during birth, "a mother without knowing it." So much for that riddle! Hope this revelation doesn't ruin Tobago's tourist industry.
Before we left T&T, we went down de islands again, this time on Vernon's boat to visit the resort islands between Trinidad and Venezuela. Later, we ate at more restaurants, including a great meal Middle Eastern meal at the Ali Baba, and visited the pan yards, where the steel drum bands were practicing for the upcoming Steelband Music Festival. And speaking of steel bands, even in August, six months before the festivities, much of the talk in T&T was about Carnival, and how we hadn't really seen T&T unless we were there during the extravaganza of fetes, parades, masquerades, and calypso contests. After all, Trinidadian Peter Minshall had just designed the opening ceremony for the Olympics, our hosts reminded us, so imagine what he could do at Carnival!
We'll just have to go back--after we get the book written. Meanwhile, we collected dozens and dozens of recipes for our forthcoming book. Following are some of our favorites from various cooks we met.
Callaloo, Calypso, and Carnival: The Cuisines of Trinidad and Tobago, by Dave DeWitt and Mary Jane Wilan, was published by The Crossing Press in Spring, 1993.
Congo Peppers for Sale
Trinis love their hot peppers, which are a pod type of the species Capsicum chinense, locally called "congo peppers" or simply "hot pepper." Similar peppers of this species are called "habanero" and "Scotch bonnet" in other parts of the Caribbean. A milder pepper called "pimento" or "seasoning pepper" is also grown, as are bell peppers, but most of the acreage in T&T is devoted to the congo pepper. The plants grow two to three feet high in a single year and are picked twice. Then they are plowed off and the site is replanted. The growers say that the plants would live for decades, but would produce smaller fruits each year.
Nobody seemed to know exactly how many acres were in pepper production in T&T, but after talking to a few knowledgable people close to growers, like Vernon Montrichard, the figure of 2,000 acres seemed to be the best estimate. Much of this crop is exported. Total exports to Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. amounted to TT$ 1.6 million in 1991, with about 131 tons alone exported to the U.S.
Trinidad growers are interested in finding importers in the United States. Interested parties should write to this magazine and we will forward requests to the Trinidad and Tobago Export Development Corporation.