Cynthia Nelson on the power of food
Some of the best things in life are born out of the memories that we hold dear. Cynthia Nelson can attest to that.
As a Guyanese woman living in Barbados trying to recapture her homeland’s culinary flair, something she couldn’t always replicate, Cynthia was inspired to start a blog and write a column called Tastes Of Home, which ultimately turned into a book. Just like that an idea bore fruit.
“When I started with the column called Tastes Of Home and that was basically to chronicle the food I was eating now living in Barbados,” Cynthia said. “You miss the food from home. Midway through the year I was inundated with all the emails from people telling me that they missed the same kinds of food. A lot of them were like second-generation Guyanese living in the disapsora and they said to me, ‘Do you have this all in one place so that I can get it like a book?’ So the idea was born out of that.”Though not initially thinking of writing a book, that spark became Cynthia’s “aha moment.”
“I spent about six months putting together the book. I had to recook all the recipes, do all the photography myself and rewrite the recipes,” she said.Looking at the size of the book Tastes Of Home, it seems like it was a daunting task, but for Cynthia it was a labour of love.
The power of the Internet and its wide range helped Cynthia reached audiences from as far away as South Africa.
“Many ways I thought I was writing for the people at home, but I was amazed at the scores of Caribbean people from around the world living as far away as Indonesia and Malawi.
I know that Caribbean people live around the world, but I was blown away.
“There is also a big community of people out there whose spouses are of Caribbean descent and have heard them talking about the dishes and the food they make and the spouses will write and ask for this recipe.”
Celebrating home and cultural identity became a big part of Cynthia’s overall vision. After all, food has become such an integral part of Caribbean life.
“When you live abroad, as much as you feel a part of that society that you’re now in, there’s always something missing, particularly at those key moments like holidays and festivals when they’re not celebrated in the country that you’re in,” Cynthia reflects. “You begin to ask yourself ‘Where am I?’ ‘Am I fitting into all of this?’“This was just like a pet project really,” she said. “It did overwhelm from the standpoint that I was doing so many things at once. I still continue to teach, write my weekly column along with writing for different magazines, but it gets a little hard. From a little girl I’ve always been able to organize myself.”
“Sometimes I have to cook the dish and go through the process to write about certain nuances,” she said. “Learning how to write recipes became a new thing, because most West Indians don’t follow recipes . . . . We put in a little bit of this or that.”
Creating the dishes, while fun, also allowed Cynthia to add new twists to recipes. “I discovered a way to make cou cou in the microwave that only tastes 10 minutes,” she said. “I went to this dinner and this woman who is a phenomenal cook was touting the virtues of 10-minute cou cou. So I have two friends who are retired nurses and the Bajan recipes I always test on them. I did the 10-minute cou cou and I set it to them and I didn’t tell them. When they called they said, ‘This cou cou tastes really nice; how long you been cooking it?’ So when I told them it took them 10 minutes in the microwave, she was, like, ‘Send me the recipe’.
“When I wrote about it my column, Bajans from England and the US were writing to say thanks, that they always wanted to make cou cou but it took so long, but this they can do.
Cynthia admits that she felt heartened about how many Barbadians outside of Barbados would write to her. She is ecstatic at the thought of seeing her hard work come to fruition in the finished product of the book.
“The first part of the book is a memoir section and the second part is the recipe section,” she said.
“A lot of the foods that we have in the Caribbean now are far removed from what they originally were,” Cynthia said.
Now with Tastes Of Home out, Cynthia is set to do a regional tour to help launch the book throughout the islands. Naturally her first stop is Guyana, her home and the inspiration behind the project.