The South is in the Cake and it is Inside Me

“Excuse me,” I stopped the waitress just as she turned to put our order in, “do you know what makes it ‘Old Fashioned’?”

~The “Old Fashioned” Coconut Cake~

“I don’t actually. I’ll go ask.” I, trying to temper the typical wave of disdain that washes over me when I spot ‘old’ or ‘old fashioned’ next to menu items, was sitting in a gourmet pastry shop with my friend and her boyfriend whom I had just met. The pastry shop, on Federal Hill in Providence, was the same one in which I met the first long-term boyfriend I’d had since high school. Being my first return since our break up, I was already jittery due to the number of awkward interactions with his former coworkers I would inevitably have. The cake bit fueled my agitation.

The waitress returned with our pastries and I, squirmy and expectant, sat with my eye-brows lifted and chin up with a half-smile ready for her answer. “So, it turns out it just means it’s from the South. I don’t know why we even have it. I mean, no one from the South lives here.” My friend, aware of my slight neurosis on the subject, pointed at me and smiled. I found the word Yankee, one I thought I’d won the battle over, floating up from the ghostly crypts of my mind. Though it was sort of a double-offense (the attempt to take the South out of a cake and the South out of me,) I was embarrassed by my knee-jerk defense and turned to the possibility of sugar-rush for consolation.

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You see, the coconut cake is a southern classic. When I say that, I don’t mean “By the way, southerners make that kind of cake and you should know that.” As they put it in the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “To many southerners, the thought of favorite cakes brings to mind certain occasions. Weddings, holidays, “dinner on the grounds” church picnics, and funerals. Memories of fellowship hall tables laden with traditional southern sweets such as pineapple upside-down cake, Lane cake, coconut cake, and red velvet cake not only conjure tastes but also stories of the ladies who bake them.” The coconut cake is an icon of the South both because of the memories it conjures for southerners and because of the southern memory embedded in its layers.

I could go into all of the ingredients and their legacies here. Sugarcane and sugar plantations, the flour trade in the Gulf, and the Mexican origins of vanilla certainly set the stage for a discussion of coconut cake’s global roots. Since the primary descriptor of this cake is the coconut, however, I’ll give a little background there. The conditions that came together to make the Southern Coconut Cake possible are not listed exhaustively above.

1840s: the demand for cheap soap ingredients spawned the development of coconut plantations, built and run off of slave labor, in tropical regions around the world, especially in the Caribbean.

1500s: Portuguese trading conquests spurred an uptick in the appearance of the coconut in European written records, but accounts of Europeans enjoying coconut “milk”* date back to the 1200s.

A long time ago: It is speculated that coconuts’ first use was for clean drinking water in tropical and coastal areas. It is also speculated that coconuts evolved on the coastal regions of Gondawanaland.

1880s: Dried coconut was first manufactured in the 1880s, right around the time southern bakers* began dressing up otherwise boring cakes with coconut shavings.

1840s-1880s: Evidently, trading the fruits of enslaved labor between the Caribbean and the U.S. South was so efficient that coconuts could be available for sale in a port city like Charleston within four days of harvest in the Caribbean.*

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Like I said, a southern classic. So, why don’t they just say that on the menu? Is it a fear of losing credit over their baked goods? A tactic to avoid questions? A way to impart an exotic hint while not spoiling the surprise? Does “Old Fashioned” just sound better? Does it roll off the tongue better?

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Recently, while in the Rhode Island Historical Society archives, I decided to do a little genealogical digging on a rumor I’d heard about being related to the Lizzie Borden, the famous (infamous?) axe-murderer from Fall River, Massachusetts. (My southern relatives would have been proud; they LOVE searching for new genealogical material.) It seems we’re pretty distant cousins which is both a drag and somewhat reassuring (for my parents at least.) Our common relative, it turns out, is a guy named Richard Borden who actually came over from England to Plymouth, Rhode Island in 1638 as one of the first British colonizers of what would become the United States. He was a member of the Friends Society and served as general treasurer and commissioner of the Plymouth Colony.  In 1661, he bought sixty acres near “Newtokonkonut Hill”* (now spelled Neutaconkanut,) which is about a half mile from where I live currently and provides an excellent view of the port city of Providence’s skyline. A few years later, he “purchased” land in New Jersey from “certain Indians.” In Borden’s willed goods, there is a record for an enslaved black man and woman valued at £50 and three enslaved black children valued at £25. They are listed among an inventory of his animals.

Richard Borden

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I turned my attention toward the cake, Neutaconkanut Hill somewhere in the background. The icing was bright white and glittered with fine coconut shavings. The cake itself was soft-yellow and, from sight alone, seemed to own the word moist like no other cake could. Dense, but not too dense. Form and flavor in seamless union. It was absolutely perfect; the raspberry sauce design of a flower on the plate was overkill. Sinking my fork into it felt pornographic even before I put the cake in my mouth. I’ll stop there.

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*Its “milk” is actually called coconut water.

*“Southern women,” with a flavor of southern white belle, usually get the credit here, but I am choosing “baker” to return to who actually baked the cake.

*Emancipation occurred in different places the Caribbean (in some places due in large part to slave uprisings and resistance) in the early to mid 1800s.  Here, I am thinking about how the trade itself was established based on enslaved labor.

*“Coconut” and the last three syllables of “Newtokonkonut” just felt worth mentioning.

For more on coconut cakes outside of the South, the Southern Foodways Alliance has an incredible piece on Edna Stuart, her restaurant (http://www.southernfoodways.org/interview/ednas-restaurant/) and the coconut cakes she makes (https://www.southernfoodways.org/going-nuts-for-coconut-layer-cake/).

It’s in the Porridge

“Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
Of which I’ll share with you…”
-“No Woman No Cry” – Bob Marley


“Porridge is such a subjective thing.”

Subjective, certainly. This article, in “The Salt,” NPR’s Foodways blog suggests porridge is a traditional Scottish food eaten during cold winters. Multiple truths exist. For me, porridge is Jamaican breakfast. It has cousins as Brazilian São João street food (mingu,curau, canjica, and mungunzá) and Haitian late night snack (laboyi). I’m sure it is connected to Akamu, Ogi and Pap in Nigeria. It is grits in North Carolina. Perhaps it is polenta.

It has many names.

It is eaten in the constant year round heat that radiates from the equator.

But I don’t see these words in this article. So I will write them.

We must make the colonies visible.

Those far away islands that are at the heart of the identity, economy, and politics of those metropolitan British isles. Those places that seem to be easily ignored when talking about the roots of British and Scottishness. When talking about “changing the course of history.” When writing about how we came to be.

This article reminds me  that I have a lot to learn about my history, personal and collective. About my ancestors before they came to Jamaica, Cuba and the United States, by will and by force. About Jamaican colonial and plantation society. About my African ancestry. About my Scottish and British ancestry. About Vikings. About the knots, contradictions and tensions that are my family tree. How love and violence, evil and good, power and oppression, wealth-building and poverty-making bumped up against each other to make us.

There is so much I do not know.

Porridge is tied up in slavery, growth, expansion, and capitalism. The British Isles and the Caribbean Sea are intimately related, in economy, identity, and genetics. For those on and descended from the Jamaican side of the relationship, it is impossible to make invisible the Scottish-ness, the Britishness, the Irish-ness of what we are. It’s in the skin, the food, the talk, the names. Sometimes, we choose to celebrate it. To simplify it. We do not have the choice of forgetting.  We also don’t always have the choice of knowing.

When I think about Porridge I think about my Grandma, daughter of Lena Hall, from whom I get my middle name. I know that surnames in my Jamaican family – Hall, Robertson – have Scottish origins. I do not know how we got them, except for in vague terms that describe the violent and coercive ways that power, race, and gender collided in the colonies. I do not know the names that we lost, that we had before we were forced onto boats and crossed oceans.

I ask about my name. I learn that Hall is a name with origins to lands that border England and Scotland, and prior to that Norman Vikings. I ponder connections between my mother and my father’s family. My father’s family – Kibbe –  is also potentially descended from Vikings that landed in England.

It’s in the porridge. It’s hot, and mushy, and mixed up.

Porridge references the class and identity divides amongst those in in both the metropolitan isles and the colonial islands. The type, consistency, and level of sweetness is code for wealth, status, prosperity and struggle – past and present.

I learn about identity constructed in contrast. About blurred lines of slave, free, white, black, ownership and immigration.

I ask about whiteness in Jamaica. I learn about the trade of Irish people as slaves.

I learn that a large number of Scotsmen (literally, male bodied people) voluntarily went to Jamaica, many as a way to increase their lot in life, and via their lives in the colony shed their marginal “Scottish” identity, replacing it with the more powerful “British”. By going “away” and into the contact zone of the colony plantations they built wealth and a new identity. Once color was constructed as the ultimate differential, these ancestors national difference from the British became relatively less important compared to my ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean island from Africa. Scotsmen were then able to re-enter metropolitan society as “British.”

I learn about spiritual forces that support us. About Brigid, the triple deity of fire, poetry, and inspiration. About Yemanja, the goddess of and mother of the ocean. About the meaning of corn, celebration of harvest, and how to celebrate and honor the earth.

I learn I have a lot more to learn. I learn to have more questions.


Porridge


Porridge is sweet and creamy
So sweet and hot
It fills me up
I am overheating from the inside out
So hot
It is too much

 

I can’t finish it Grandma
I’m full

 

Porridge is cornmeal, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is oats, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green bananas, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is wheatena, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is cream of wheat, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green plantain, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is hominy, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is peanuts, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.

Each ingredients holds so much
Tells stories of trade of people, spices, sugar, rum
Lives and labor stolen, resources pillaged, people pushed to periphery
To create a metro center

Cream of wheat needs to have lumps
The strawberry jam was never in a spiral in my bowl, like in the commercial
My mother was not entertaining that kind of whimsy on weekday mornings

 

How do you eat porridge in the Caribbean?
It is so hot!
I’m overheating from the inside out

 

Sprinkle sugar on top
Stir in milk to cool it down
then
butter
It forms a glossy film on top.
I don’t stir it in
I like how it forms lakes and rivers

 

I can’t finish it,
Grandma
I just can’t

It is the only thing I can’t finish
I am a dumpling child
Round and soft
I love food
I even love porridge
But a whole bowl!?
I can’t take it all in

It’s too much

It contains the story of sugar
Of cheap grains to feed forced laborers
Of food stretched too far

Eat the outside edges first
It cools faster on the edges
You won’t get burned that way


The richness of my porridge – the fresh milk, the butter – is a privilege
My grandma cannot comprehend my inability to finish
Like she cannot understand my identity crisis and anxiety about my light-white skin and how I fit into the world I live in
The Triangle,
of North Carolina,
circa 2003

It is a privilege

“Eat your porridge”
“Enjoy your lightness”
“You are who you are,
why ask questions?”

The sugar is not a privilege
Quick calories
Paid for in blood and burns and bodies
Eat eat
Quick energy
Eat eat
Diabetes
Eat eat
To spend/to invest in expansion
Of capitalist economies
Built on colonial foreign lands and metropolitan factories
Small islands fueling those slightly larger ones across the Atlantic

I do have questions about my ancestors
About their names.
Who came from Africa? From where?
Who came from Scotland? Why?
How did we get our names?
What names did we lose?

Porridge is creole
Is transplant/immigrant/planter/owner/enslaved
porridge is that-thing-we-do-now-that-we-don’t-remember-when-we-didn’t-do-so-perhaps-we’ve-done-it-forever
porridge is pap
is sweetness is the face of bitter

Porridge is grandma visiting
I find her in the kitchen
Stirring a hot pot
for me
my cousins
my sister
my brother

– – –

Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections  and stories about food.

What We’re Reading: A word on a book concerning geography…

Demonic Grounds

In Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle , Katherine McKittrick creates a rich territory for the fields of black feminism, black studies and geography to intersect and learn from one another by considering the geographic spaces that black women both analyze and shape regularly.  As she puts it in her introduction, McKittrick sees the geographies of black women as, “a conceptual arena through which more humanly workable geographies can be and are imagined.” [1]  She is interested in critiquing traditional geographies (geographies of domination,) their relationship with black women’s geographies and narratives that perpetuate seeing black lives and histories as “ungeographic.”[2] Inspired by Sylvia Wynter, she uses the word “demonic” to explain that this book does not seek to uncover the lost stories of black women, but to create a “discussion about what black women’s historical-contextual locations bring to bear on our present geographic organization.”[3]  What can it mean for people to better understand the spaces black women move in and work on as we live in spaces structured around traditional geographies?  What can these spaces show us?  What is “dangerous” about those spaces? McKittrick weaves together the work of writers and theorists like Olaudah Equiano, Octavia Butler, Neil Smith and Patricia Hill Collins in chapters on spaces like the auction block, black Canada, and books like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

[1] McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., xxvi


The “What We’re Reading” Series
We decided to create this series of posts for a couple of reasons.  While we’re pulling on lots of different sources when thinking about Broadly Speaking, we don’t always get to cite all the books that inform/inspire our writing.  We hope this space serves as a more accessible archive of the stuff we’re reading these days.  Also, we love a good book list, so really we’re just trying to pay it forward. If there are books you want to recommend to us, please send us an email at broadlyspeakingthesouth@gmail.com!