Keisha Ward's customers are so fond of her conkies that they call her the 'Conkie Queen'. (Picture by Lennox Devonish.)
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Around this time they are plentiful, but most people appreciate that making them is not an easy task.
Keisha Ward, known as the “Conkie Queen” among her customers, told the Saturday Sun that making conkies is a labour of love for her.
She explained that the Bajan delight was a prized dish not only because it is traditionally eaten to celebrate Independence but also because of the time it takes to make them. She said the “old school” way of making conkies was still the best way.
For her, all the ingredients have to be finely grated to achieve the desired texture and consistency. Ward said you could not rely on a food processor to get the job done.
She also advised conkie lovers, who wanted to try making the dish, not to follow any recipe to the letter. She said the art of making conkies comes from experimentation while using the chosen recipe as a guide.
“I grew up watching my grandparents and my mother making them at Independence time,” she said. “During primary school I started helping them prep the ingredients and by age 13 I was making them myself.
“It is fun for me to recreate something only older people could perfect and it is shocking when customers realise it is a young person who made them and when they say they taste like how their grandmother or great-grandmother made them,” said the 36 year old.
Ward said the taste of conkies says a lot about the person who made them. She said with one bite you can usually tell if a mature person made the conkie or a young person did.
“There are things older people would do that young people wouldn’t do. If I give a recipe to a young person they would follow it to a T. An older person is not going to follow the recipe. He or she could tell what a pound of pumpkin would look like just by looking at it and after doing a quick taste they know how much of the other ingredients they may need to add.
“So for me it is just a matter of putting in things and if it tastes right and looks right, then you know you are doing what is necessary. Over time people created recipes but you have to tweak them and make them your own,” she added.
Ward said if conkies are not made to the correct consistency and texture, customers might not come back. She said getting the small details right was another reason why some people do not like making them. She said the mixture should be moist, pointing out that if the conkies were too dry they would crumble.
Ward said you could also tell the difference between a homemade conkie and one bought from a store. She said homemade conkies were not always in a perfect square or rectangle like conkies from a store. She said homemade conkies vary in length and width depending on the size of the leaves.
“A lady told me she was able to identify my conkies by the leaves. I don’t let any of the leaves waste. If a leaf has a lot of stripes I would put two leaves together and make it work. And when I make conkies I either use banana leaves or plantain leaves depending on what I get my hands on first.”
Ward said a conkie could only be called a conkie if it was wrapped in singed leaves. She said wrapping them in foil or wax paper did not cut it. She said you singed the leaves, explaining that the leaves gave conkies a unique aroma and added a “hmmm” of flavour.
This conkie maker said she sourced the leaves as well as pumpkin, dried coconuts and sweet potatoes from friends and family.
The Conkie Queen said she also bakes other treats as a side business called Keisha’s Cheesecakes. She said she started baking cheesecakes about 14 years ago and then branched into other types of delicacies.
Ward has been making conkies, also known as stew dumplings, in the comfort of her Work Hall Development, St Philip, home.
Over the years, the banker by profession has been making conkies every weekend from as early as mid-October until early January. She said some of her customers were returning nationals who wanted to take back a piece of home with them. She also makes for the Bridgetown Port, through the Barbados Manufacturing Association, for tourists on cruise liners and for schools’ parent teachers associations (PTA), notably the Blackman and Gollop Primary School PTA.
The former Queen’s College student said Barbadians are very particular when it comes to conkies. She said she could divide her customers into three groups – one who likes conkies without raisins, those who like them with raisins and the other with “nuff” raisins.
“So sometimes when I make conkies I have to make three bowls of mixture. And one pot would be raisins, the other without and the next pot with ‘nuff’ raisins. When they are finished steaming for about two to two and a half hours I tie a piece of decorative string around the conkies so I tell the difference.
“But I do not like raisins in my conkies. And you cannot tell me to eat the conkie and pick out the raisins either.”