Many, many years, ago when I was at secondary school, I heard a group of children talking about conkies. They were not just any children; they were the trend setters, the popular set. They came to school daily by car; travelled overseas almost every school vacation and had the latest brand of bags, shoes you name it.
As I heard them describing the feasts which their cooks laid out for them on Independence Day, I conjured up images of conkies as an exotic main course served at big mahogany tables dressed with white linen and all the necessary cutlery and crockery.
A few weeks later, I got a big surprise. Conkies were on the list of items to be sold at the school’s fundraising cake sale. I was not financially able to buy one but was fortunate enough to get a smell and a mouth-watering glimpse as one of my peers ate hers.
“Wait!” I said to myself after spotting the bright yellow conkie that was revealed when my classmate pulled back the steamed banana leaf that covered it. The conkie was like the stew dumpling, my grandmother cooked in a large saucepan over a big wood fire in the backyard. It was smaller though; in fact, about half the size of a stew dumpling; and contained red and dark brown bits.
As my friend licked her lips, she picked out one of the red bits, threw it in the bin and said; “I don’t eat cherries.” It was then that I got it and immediately screamed with delight at my discovery.
“Conkies are stew dumplings but ‘poor great’ people add cherries and raisins to the recipe so they wouldn’t be eating poor people food,” I concluded. That knowledge made me laugh so hard, I rolled on the ground with tears flooding my cheeks. The mental image of people eating enhanced stew dumplings with knife and fork at a large table pulled hard at my funny bones. For me, formality and stew dumplings don’t mix.
Stew dumplings have been part of Barbados’ culture, for many years, especially during November. Neighbours brought them to your house; you took those made at your house to theirs. It was a sharing, tasting, mouth-smacking time when people would remark without ridicule, good-naturedly as a matter of fact, on whose stew dumplings were best that year.
I remember the days of stew dumpling making at my house. My grandmother would get up early to pick, clean and singe banana leaves; peel and grate coconut, sweet potatoes and pumpkin. Long neck pumpkin (garden pumpkin) was her choice for this task. She swore that its texture, taste and bright colour made it a must have if you wanted to make the perfect stew dumpling.
A pinch of salt, vanilla essence, some sugar and spices – nutmeg, stick spice, cinnamon – were added to the grated mixture and, of course, the main ingredient, Indian corn (maize) plus a dust of flour. When this was well mixed and tasty, she would wrap portions into singed pieces of banana leaf, fold them securely and place them into a large sauce pan containing some water and a snip of cinnamon to boil. No boiling was done on the stove to waste the kerosene oil or later gas, they were cooked outside the house over a bright blazing wood fire.
We, the grandchildren, would gather dry branches mainly clammy cherry sticks for the fire. Pine wood was not allowed, no matter how much we could get from people who were discarding bits after house repairs. My grandmother was strict about this. “Pine gives off a strong scent dat stick to the stew dumplings and spoil their taste,” she would say every time we set off to gather wood.
Afterwards, we would sit listening intently to the pot boiling, scarcely able to wait for the stew dumplings to cook furthermore cool afterwards. My mouth would water for a taste. I would pray that one or two would burst because Darkey would take these out of the pot and before the real sharing time, she gave them to us as an early reward. We were the helpers, weren’t we? The remainder would be placed in a container to cool before they were distributed to family members (including us), neighbours and friends.
A few decades earlier, stew dumpling were a must on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. The older folk said the village would come together from dust to prepare for the celebrations. Tires to be burnt would be stacked up and children would gather around waiting excitedly for the adults to start the ‘fete’.
My grandfather, Jack, was in his element then, for of all the men in the district who came to the ‘do’ armed with their homemade fireworks, he was king. His bombs were the best. They never ‘fibbed’ but exploded the loudest. Older children and adults would applaud loudly and call for more but younger children would scream and jump into their mothers’ arms.
Everyone would be merry, though, setting off fireworks; washing down stew dumplings with mauby, ginger beer, lemonade; singing songs, telling jokes and playing games like ‘hiddy-biddy shut up yuh lap lap tight tight’. That game involved someone searching around in the other players’ laps looking for treasure. The older folk admit that such a game would raise suspicion today but warned that people didn’t have their minds in the gutter then, and that I was great fun.
Like that game, Guy Fawkes Day is no longer on Barbados’ entertainment agenda. The Day was banned by government and fireworks are now on a restricted list and not generally available to the public. But November is a big celebration time, here. Our country’s Independence is on the thirtieth and stew dumplings and their first cousins, conkies are on most menus.
No, they are cousins, not fraternal twin snacks as some people suggest. Many differences exist between the two; not the rich-poor scenario, I painted in my salad years, but ingredients-wise and method-wise. Folk-lore commentator Mark Williams sided with my theory that adding fruits (imported cherries and raisins) to stew dumplings results in conkies. In addition, you can also cook conkies in foil and greased-proof paper but stew dumplings can only be cooked in banana leaves if not the true flavour is off and they can’t wear the label.
So this Independence Day, take your pick, conkies or stew dumplings, but for me it will be stew dumplings; they are 100 per cent Bajan (Barbadian).