EASY MAGAZINE: Batter up
Everybody swears they have the perfect batter for the best Bajan fishcakes. Elma Downes is one of them – she says she makes a mean fishcake. She says the lines for her delicacy look like a scene from the Oliver Twist movie as they plead for more. Quite simply, her fishcakes are “legendary”, she said.
Downes grew up with her grandmother telling her tales of her past and she was very intrigued by the stories. Downes explained to EASY magazine that these stories inspired her love for the kitchen.
“My father’s mother use to sell muffins and fishcakes to the plantations and apart from that she use to do a little bit of needlework . . . She would make BVDs for the old men,” she said while laughing.
“She used to make the long ones to your knees. If young children ever saw them they would burst out with laughter like me but the stories of her in the kitchen stuck with me. She even told me how she used to mend the mud bags in Carrington Yard to put the sugar in and I kept one of those mending needles with me.”
“When I was coming home from school I used to run across the [train] line following the scent of the familiar ingredients. I always knew when fishcakes and muffins were being made. You know how I used to look forward to that? She would tell me come for the bowl and when I get my fishcakes and muffins with tea, lemonade or mauby I used to feel fussy . . . . I did love it.
Since Elma liked to eat them so much, she decided she wanted to make them.
“I decided to try making fishcakes and muffins like her but I realised that it was a lot of hard work. Soon I got good at it and started to stray away a little from her recipe. She used to put English potatoes in her batter but I started using pumpkin. The pumpkin keeps the batter moist and gives it an extra flavour. But you have to be careful about how you use the pumpkin.
“Sometimes the pumpkin springs so much water that you do not have to add water to the batter. Add the dry ingredients first and if it needs more water, add it in small amounts because if the batter gets too much water that’s it.
“If it is a garden pumpkin it does not spring water, but these things that people call pumpkins nowadays them aren’t pumpkins. I call them ‘umpkins’ because they spring too much water. I believe that happens because of the new chemicals people used to grow crops. Before we only used to use cow manure but the fancy things people using now giving the food different traits.
Elma is proud that she doesn’t use a mortar and a pestle: “If you watch me good I pull apart the salt fish with my fingers.”
When there is a harvest or any other event hosted at her church, Elma, otherwise known as Chrissie, would make fishcake batter for the occasion. She said that a lot of people became fond of her fishcakes and eventually she was known as the fishcake lady in the community.
“I was born on Christmas Day so everybody calls me Chris or Chrissie. People would call me when they have parties, socials or get-togethers and ask me to make batter for them. Usually I wouldn’t charge, I would write up a list of ingredients and tell them to bring them by me. Sometimes they would give me a little something for the hard work.
“That is something I learnt from my grandmother too. She taught me how to be generous to people. So as long as I could remember I used to always have something to give away to somebody. My granddaughter gets upset with me sometimes for it too, she says, “Gran, you always got a plastic bag to give somebody – you know I don’t like catching the bus with load too”.
Chrissie added that she is not only known for her tasty fishcakes but for her cleanliness and all-round cooking abilities.
“People always say that if food drops in my house they know they can pick it up and eat it. That is because my grandmother taught me that a clean woman is a good woman so I always make sure I live up to that.
“And I don’t only do fishcakes, you know,.I bake sweetbread, pone and pudding and I can make cookies too. My children don’t like when I give away bread because it deducts from their portion and you should hear how they get on when I do things. My son Errol don’t play when it comes to his mother’s food.
“When I give his wife stuff for the family, he says, ‘Come hun let me get what my mummy send for me’.
“One time I could of cook up a storm and when I let people taste my food they would call me and tell me they want Sunday food. But now I getting down and can’t do things like one time. I also look after my great gran Kiyomi who does run laps around me and when she falls asleep I would put up my feet and watch Q In The Community. I like to see the old girls dancing and the karaoke segment.”
The 71-year-old has a love for Coca-Cola, and her grandchildren try as hard as possible to get her to quit drinking the sweetened beverage. However, Chrissie always finds a way to buy one. She asks her long-time friend and neighbour Terrian to buy them for her and he never says no. Her 12-year-old grandson Breon Miller remarked: “My cousins and I always tell gran Cokes are not good for her, but she doesn’t hear.” (SB)