Peas ‘N’ Grits & “Penn On”: True Turks & Caicos Cuisine
Story by David Bowen, Cultural Officer, Turks & Caicos Tourist Board
Mmmmm, just the thought of a plate of some homemade Turks & Caicos native food is enough to make my mouth water. (Yours also, if you are lucky enough to have sampled a dish or two.) Now I’m not talking about the new “fast food” culture of deep fried chicken wings and french fries drowned in hot sauce and catsup! No, I’m talking about the real deal. Dishes like Buds & Rice and Okra Soup. Dry Conch & Hominy. Cod Fish Cakes and Corn Bread. Stew Conch with Peas and Hominy. Chicken Soup and Pork Souse, Boil Fish & Johnny Cake, Steam Conch, Stew Fish & Grits . . . and the list goes on.
Many local restaurants sell some of these dishes, but it seems that most of the meals we eat these days consist of either chicken, beef, ox tail, pork chop, ribs or steak served with potato salad, baked macaroni and cheese and plantain. These meals dominate the scene due to the availability of the products and also to the fact that people can now afford to spend top dollar to buy these foods at the supermarkets.
Despite this trend, if you look closely and make a few inquiries, you will still be able to find authentic local dishes being made and served to the lucky few that know where to go. (Remember that the type of dishes varies from island to island, but there is always one or two local restaurants or someone cooking out of their home on each of the Islands that really make you want to eat until you drop because the food is so good.)
It’s a blessing that, so far, we do not have American fast food restaurants and chains like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and others in this country. I hope it stays that way. Their presence will surely bring a quick demise to the culture of authentic local cuisine. It’s hard enough these days to get good local dishes on a daily basis, let alone if the native chefs had to compete with the fast food industry offering low-cost junk food.
To an extent, we already see this happen with the chicken wings and fries shacks that are popping up all over. They offer meals for a few dollars from morning until late hours at night. Many natives on the go hardly cook at home anymore and sometimes they don’t want to pay the price for authentic local dishes. What many people fail to understand is that there are less fishermen out there fishing and diving for conch or farmers growing vegetables, so the cost for the raw ingredients is high and built into the cost of the food.
Many cooks are also using products such as catsup and canned ingredients with additional herbs and seasonings not originally found in these Islands. This can change the authentic taste of Island dishes. Ask the senior citizens and they will surely tell you that foods these days don’t taste as good as the simple dishes of their days because the fare is over-spiced, over-cooked and prepared with inferior ingredients.
WILL THE REAL TURKS & CAICOS NATIVE DISHES PLEASE STEP FORWARD?
To understand our local cuisine, you need only look at the lifestyle of the native people 100 years ago. Life was tough and they tried to survive on what they had around them. The ocean was the most reliable source for food and farming was done in conditions that were generally quite difficult. Corn, fruits and vegetables did grow — especially in the Caicos Islands where the soil was rich and fertile — providing carbohydrates, minerals and natural sugars in the form of corn, hominy, ground vegetables and fruits, while the sea provided protein and salt.
Today, many people think that “Peas & Rice” is what our ancestors ate since it is now a staple in the local diet, but the fact is that rice never grew in these islands. Rice came much later via trade with Haiti and Jamaica, though Grand Turk natives had access to a variety of imported food due to boats coming regularly for the salt trade.
The main staple in the Caicos Islands was hominy (or grits) made from a local type of corn called “Guinea Corn” that was ground in a hand mill to produce both hominy and flour to make Corn Bread. Long before we had “Peas & Rice” we had “Peas & Hominy.” Locally grown pigeon peas were added to hominy along with chunks of dry conch and sometimes (when available) bits of pig tail for flavoring.
“Peas & Hominy” was only one part of the meal. Because there was always a bit of uncertainty as to what would be served with it, the native folks use to say that dinner would be “Peas & Hominy and ‘Penn On’.” The word “Penn On” comes from the English phrase, “Depend On,” so the evening meal depended on whatever the husband would bring in off the boat. One day it could be Bonefish, the next Snapper, the other Turtle, and so on.
Valerie Forbin, the Tourist Board’s Assistant Director of Cultural Development, once told me that if we ever have a national dish, it would have to be “Peas & Hominy and Penn On” and I do agree. Both beef and fish were “corned” (cured in salt) since there was no refrigeration and were served as special dishes and not as the daily weekday meals.
OTHER NATIVE DISHES
Young leaves from the Cactus/Pear Bush (Opuntia dillenii) and Pear Bush Buds, which resemble Okra, were consumed. Okra was also added to the hominy and later, Crab was added to the rice the came from Jamaica and Haiti. Potato Bread, Cod Fish, Cod Fish Cakes and Red Bean Soup are local favorites.
Many different types of fish and seafood cooked in various ways were usually the complement to the rice or hominy. A popular breakfast on the weekends is “Boil Fish & Grits” some times served with “Johnny Cake.” Boil Fish & Johnny Cake is also a favorite choice for lunch.
The delicious Johnny Cake is really a kind of sweet pan bread that is baked, and the name comes from the phrase “Journey Cake.” This was the bread the sailors and fishermen would take with them on their journey aboard ship since it lasted a long time before spoiling. Over time, the word “Journey” was corrupted by the local accent and became “Johnny.”
Steam Conch & Grits, Conch Stew (with lots of gravy), Peas Soup and Dumplings, Okra Soup, Bread Pudding, Ginger Bread and Potato Bread all have a special place in the hearts of the generations that grew up in these Islands before the influx of canned and frozen foreign goods. Each of the six main inhabited Islands had their own specialty.
Each of the six inhabited islands have their own special way of making these native dishes and because of location and soil conditions, each island offered a variety of ingredients not found or used elsewhere.
Salt Cay was known for Whelk Soup and the famous Salt Cay Candy. Whelk Soup was made from the small whelks (mussels) that live on the rocks in shallow waters.
Although all the islands produced fish, South Caicos was known for its delicious Bone Fish and seafoods. South Caicos was the site for the very first canning factories in the Turks & Caicos and shipped Caicos lobster tail as far as Canada.
Middle Caicos Dry Conch was known for its sweetness and tenderness. North Caicos, the most fertile of all our islands, produced a variety of vegetables and fruits such as sugar apples, sapodillas, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, cabbages, cucumbers, okra and tomatoes. Both Middle and North Caicos were known for their potato bread and stew conch.
Providenciales, like South Caicos, relied on fishing and the lobsters found around her shores are said to have a special tenderness.
Grand Turk, the nation’s capital, has an abundance of cactus and prickly pear bushes and buds that were (and still are) used in both hominy and rice dishes. Cows were slaughtered at least three times a month at the Cow House on West Road and therefore Grand Turk had more available beef than did the other islands (although they did have turtle, hogs (pigs) and some cattle.) Land crabs, small birds, bird eggs and baby hatchlings called “Bo Bos” found on the Cays were eaten by fishermen who spent time drying conch there. Occasionally, Rock Iguanas and Flamingos were also eaten.
THE JAMAICAN AND HAITIAN CONNECTION
Changes in the way our ancestors prepared foods along with new additions to the diet came when trade to Haiti became a necessity. Conch by the hundreds of thousands dried on the Cays and, via sailboat, were taken to Haiti to trade for rice, flour, salted pig tails, fruits, spices, rum, oil, clothes, furniture and utensils needed for daily life. Islanders were also able to exchange dry conch for US dollars, since Haiti had the American dollar long before we did. We owe a great debt to our Haitian neighbors and they continue to provide fruits and vegetables at very reasonable prices to these islands, especially Providenciales.
Trade with Jamaica boomed when the Turks & Caicos found itself under Jamaican rule from 1873 until Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Rice, lumber, kerosene oil, peas, salt and corned beef, salt pork, chickens, tools, pork and beans and cloth all found its way to the Islands when sailors and merchants on steamships and our own two-masted schooners braved the open ocean to provide the items needed for survival. Of course they not only brought back goods, but also new varieties of dishes. Curry goat and curry chicken, two well-known Jamaican dishes that actually found their way to Jamaica via its large population of East Indians, are now an integral part of our local cuisine.
Jamaica was (and still is) a place of higher learning. Many of our distinguished leaders, teachers, lawyers and businessmen and women were schooled at the University of the West Indies (UWI), University of Technology (UTECH), Micro Teachers College and other top rate schools in Jamaica.
Jerk Pork and Jerk Chicken, along with Beef Patties and Coco Bread have recently made inroads into mainstream restaurants here due to the influx of Jamaican workers. They find our term “Peas & Rice” rather strange since they feel that their “Rice & Peas” is the original Island rice dish. (Now that’s another story.)
THE MACARONI & CHEESE AND POTATO SALAD INVASION
It is difficult to say exactly when macaroni & cheese and potato salad, along with meats such as pork chop, barbeque chicken and ribs took over but it’s fair to say that it must have started when boxed dry goods and frozen foods found their way to the Islands. Macaroni & cheese and potato salad are found throughout the Caribbean, with slight differences in the way they are prepared. This points to the availability of inexpensive imported American products.
In the Turks & Caicos, we originally made macaroni & cheese the British way, which is more layered. In recent years, however, many young people tend to follow the Bahamian way of just mixing all the ingredients together or just use Kraft Macaroni & Cheese boxes off the market’s shelves.
These days almost every local function where food is served will include macaroni & cheese and potato salad along with peas & rice and barbeque chicken, ribs or fried fish and fried plantain. This combination has become sort of the unofficial national dish of the Turks & Caicos. Tell this to a senior citizen and you are sure to get a lecture on the health benefits of peas & hominy with dry conch and how it, more then anything, deserves the title of National Dish.
THE BAHAMIAN CONNECTION
We have a lot in common with the Bahamas and at times, it’s almost impossible to distinguish one cuisine from the other. Bahamian cuisine utilizes conch, peas and rice cooked with beef and pig tail, and chicken and fish cooked in a variety of ways (fried, baked, grilled, stewed, steamed and soused.)
Crack conch, conch salad and scorch conch are a few typically Bahamian dishes that have found their way into the cultural cuisine of the Turks & Caicos. (Although many Turks & Caicos Islanders think it’s the other way around.) We share a love for conch fritters but generally, dry, steam and stew conch were mostly used in these Islands. We only recently started eating raw conch and dishes like conch salad.
During the exodus to the Bahamas for a better life during the hard years of the early 1900s, our people, mainly from the Caicos Islands, took with them the recipes for the dishes they were accustomed to and merged them with the ones already existing in the Bahamas. I doubt we will ever get to the bottom of the debate over who influenced whom and what dishes originated where since we are so intertwined with the culture and history of the Bahamas. The fact remains that these dishes are delicious and are here to stay for all to enjoy.
It is a well known fact that high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity and intestinal problems have increased at an alarming rate since the shift in the local diet from native foods to imported foods. There is medical proof that over-consumption of meat products, deep-fried foods such as wings and french fries, peas and rice cooked with beef, bacon and pig tail, and salt and sugar products such as chips and sodas is responsible for these health problems.
The obesity that plagues both adults and children of this country is directly related to the consumption of too much oily foods and high fat meats, lack of substantial vegetable dishes and too much salt and sugar intake.
The majority of school lunches consist of potato chips, chicken wings, sodas, fries and maybe the odd apple or banana. This is no way to feed our children. The famous “Tuck Shop” and Food Vans that sell snacks at many schools need to stock more fruits, natural juices and native foods instead of this junk. Parents need to introduce their children to the foods and lifestyle that made their parents and grandparents strong and healthy.
Children would benefit from eating more Dry Conch & Grits/Hominy made from real Caicos corn and conch from the ocean that surrounds their island home. They need vegetables such as Sweet Potatoes, Eddo (eddy), Okra, Cassava, Green Beans, Pigeon Peas, Cabbage, Tomatoes, Yams and Peppers. They also need fresh fish and seafoods cooked the old way.
Unfortunately, vegetables form a very small part of the new Turks & Caicos diet. This “side dish” usually consists of a slice or two of tomato with a few leaves of lettuce drowned in salad dressing. Then there are the little heaps of canned sweet peas and corn and carrots, courtesy of the Jolly Green Giant. Cole slaw (cabbage with carrots and raisins) is a popular vegetable dish but this too is drowned in heaps of mayonnaise and sweetened with sugar.
Children need to eat more fresh fruits and drink juices, drinks and teas made from the native bushes, fruits and leaves. This is the only way to ensure a healthier population and, at the same time, preserve our native cuisine.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com