“Bread like peas!”: The Gastronomical Dialogue of Austin Clarke and Sam Selvon

by Kris Singh

Kris Singh is a determinate Assistant Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. He studies postcolonial literature, and his extended exploration of the epistolary relationship between Austin Clarke and Sam Selvon can be found in the 2016 collection Bourdieu and Postcolonial Studies, edited by Raphael Dalleo (Liverpool University Press). Under preparation is his manuscript comparing the fiction of Clarke and Selvon.

Austin Clarke begins his culinary memoir, Pig Tails ’n Breadfruit, with a declaration that resonates with many a Caribbean reader: “Food. It is a word that defines my life.” It is a line that came to mind recently as I reflected on my relationship with my grandmother and how frequently we talk about food, whether it is about how hospitality for us Trinidadians involves feeding our guests, about her steadfast belief in the power of offering food to murtis, or about the first time she slit a goat’s throat to satisfy her husband’s appetite. It is not that she has a particular fascination with food. Rather, it is that food is the language through which her care, knowledge, experience, and personality can flow to me.

At the same time, her relationship to food is shaped by the political forces defining her life. In January 2016, for example, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago engaged in a clumsy attempt to prioritize the local agricultural economy by lambasting the attendees of a Chamber of Industry and Commerce dinner. He singled out the women: “They have women in this room who cannot peel a cassava.” Prime Minister Rowley served up a clear example of how women are positioned as caretakers of culinary knowledge and as meal-providers. He was shifting public emphasis from larger political decisions mostly made by men to what he saw as the personal shortcomings of women. These two instances exemplify a point Clarke has frequently made in his work: food is personal and political. Its preparation informs intimate family relationships as it reinforces gendered divisions of labour. Its availability influences an individual’s access to a balanced diet as it determines a nation’s balance of trade. Its discourse—the stories, jokes, knowledge, and history that circulate with it—shapes individual and collective identities.

Clarke’s Pig Tails is explicitly aimed at exploring how the role of food in his life, in Barbadian culture more broadly, and in the Caribbean’s history of slavery are all intertwined. Yet, in addition to the explicit focus of Pig Tails, much of his fiction foregrounds the personal, cultural, and colonial entanglements of food. In his description of Caribbean immigrants in his Toronto trilogy, for instance, he describes characters who nostalgically yearn for home-cooked food, and others who have a knack for finding the necessary ingredients—or “ingreasements,” as he sometimes wrote—in their new home. At the same time, however, these characters must deal with the stereotype of being “born cooks” and therefore naturally suited for domestic labour.

Nevertheless, Selvon and Clarke remained aware that for many, it’s not just about having good bread, but about whom you can or cannot break bread with. 

Alongside his published works, Clarke’s archived personal letters offer insight into his consideration of food, particularly the ways in which it preserved and remoulded his intimate relationships. Of note is his friendship with the Trinidadian writer Sam Selvon, who many may remember for offering a pot of curry pigeon in his novel The Lonely Londoners. During his Bajan boyhood, Clarke’s Sunday lunches were regularly paired with Selvon’s storytelling via the BBC radio programme “Caribbean Voices.” They eventually met in London in 1965, when Clarke was visiting as a freelance radio broadcaster for CBC. Their correspondence began shortly thereafter and flourished as Selvon moved with his family to Calgary in 1978.

These letters can be read as a lot of old-talk with some networking on the side. If we were to take Selvon at his word, they were just “two big literary giants sitting down, one in the East and one in the West, pelting one another with shit instead of getting down to the serious business of creating Literature!” (August 12, 1982). Shooting the shit or not, their correspondence took on a familiar flavour, as culinary references pepper their epistles. A recurring metaphor is that of money as bread, but often with a Caribbean twist, as when Clarke triumphantly announces on June 20, 1980, “Bread like peas!” This phrase riffs on the more familiar saying “licks like peas,” or a good licking. Pigeon peas, of course, are abundant when in season; and so too, when you receive a happy financial windfall in lean times, it seems plentiful. Bread is good when you can get it and even better if you can trade it in for some variety in your diet. It is unsurprising, then, that when Clarke aided Selvon through his rough transition into CanLit, he sought to help Selvon find “the quickest way … to make some easy and fairly good bread, to help [him] buy a piece of salt fish and a roti.” (October 21, 1977).

Nevertheless, both writers remained aware that for many, it’s not just about having good bread, but about who you can or cannot break bread with. To Selvon, Clarke’s reputation preceded him: “I hear you have five-six mansions in various parts of Canada, and you does invite the Mayor of Toronto for pigtail and rice” (November 9, 1976). Such facetious remarks were unsurprisingly standard in the playful banter between two writers known for their humour. As with their fiction, however, their laughter responded to real social pressures that threatened to erode their dignity. These lighthearted comments about whose bread may be buttered were made alongside genuine concern for each other’s ability to be breadwinners for their families.

Clarke cooking in a friend's kitchen, 1977. Photo: McMaster University Archives

Clarke cooking in a friend’s kitchen, 1977. Photo: McMaster University Archives

On the one hand, they were contemplating the desperation of Selvon’s early years in Calgary. While Clarke served as an important point of contact in Toronto, Selvon initially found few rewarding opportunities. In this time of limited choices, he became a janitor at the University of Calgary, where he was later to become writer-in-residence. His mounting frustration during this period took the form of his semi-serious complaint that he “can’t even buy mouth-organ for [his] son for Christmas, nor boil a ham” (December 6, 1980). On the other hand, both Clarke and Selvon knew that for racialized writers such as themselves, even when bread is hard to come by, they had to remain wary of underselling their work. On February 24, 1981, Clarke defiantly stated, “If we let them pay we small potatoes, they will consider our work to be small potatoes. Let me go bankrupt and keep my fucking integrity. Suck salt be-Jesus-Christ, and drink water to keep my belly full.” They intended to refuse crumbs from a white literary establishment they knew from experience was prone to belittling the contributions of people of colour. Clarke and Selvon’s fortitude, gastronomic and otherwise, served them well and reminds their readers today to suck their teeth at those too eager to dismiss their legacy.

Clarke and Selvon were adept at describing their circumstances in an entertaining, humorous manner. As with their fiction, however, clever intersections of race, class, gender, and nationality can be teased out.

In striving to keep each other’s pantry full, however, Clarke and Selvon were not disinterested parties. The bountiful spread they expected whenever they visited one another was literal, and the specifics were a regular point of debate. After securing a few profitable opportunities in the first few months of 1982, Selvon, feeling his oats so to speak, warned, “You’ll have to do better than stale B.C. salmon and Hudson Bay, though; it is Chivas Regal and Dublin Bay scampi or nothing at all” (April 6, 1982). Their letters especially belaboured these anticipated and promised meals, not only because of the Caribbean brand of hospitality previously mentioned, but because of a sub-par meal served in the early days of their friendship that Selvon never let Clarke forget. Clarke commemorates this meal one last time in A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Samuel Selvon, published upon Selvon’s death in 1994. Hurriedly prepared because of the unexpected nature of the visit, this meal, Clarke grudgingly admits, comprised “food [that] was either frozen or else not in adequate portions.” While hardly a significant fault to many of their readers, Selvon stood ready to niggle Clarke when announcing upcoming visits: “I don’t want no stale pork chops what leftover from last night, nor any of that evil Hudson Bay whiskey!” (July 4, 1980).

The camaraderie between these two men is apparent, but their culinary references were also opportunities for them to display their poise as writers. On December 16, 1985, Clarke wrote to Selvon, “Whilst you having ham: I having salt fish; whilst you having black pudding and souse: I having a biscuit and a piece o’ hard chaddar; whilst you having drink; I having a beer; and whilst you mekking money ’pon race horse, I going be pelting some blows in this typewriter.” Selvon was also ready with rhetorical bravado, as seen in a letter dated September 19, 1985 in which Selvon compared Clarke’s planned trip to New Brunswick to his own trip to Trinidad: “Cold going to make your totee [penis] shrivel up and the foreskin would curl inwards and you can’t find it when you want to pee. Mines would be bathed by tropical seawater and stimulated with canejuice and rum, and if I drink a fish-broth, I would not be responsible for the havoc it would cause.” Both statements remind us that Clarke and Selvon were adept at describing their circumstances in an entertaining, humorous manner. As with their fiction, however, clever intersections of race, class, gender, and nationality can be teased out. Clarke jokingly juxtaposes the cliché image of the starving artist diligently pursuing grand literary ambitions with the Caribbeanized man of leisure. Likewise, Selvon caricatures the tropical island that is ready to rejuvenate every tourist and that offers the ideal stimulants to heighten (and satisfy) male virility. They make fun of these images while acknowledging the real differences between writers with and without rewarding opportunities, as well as the nostalgia and desires of Caribbean immigrants.

I began writing this piece solely thinking about food. Since I had previously mined Clarke and Selvon’s correspondence, I was prepared to find their pork chop-fuelled-humour stale and fresh as the case may be. But what stood out to me more than ever this time around was their love for each other. Having only encountered these men through their writing, I can make no claims as to whether they were loving men. Yet the playful jabs, collegial concerns, and rare instances of naked affection formulate a sustained expression of tender care. It seems worthwhile to think about what constitutes love for Caribbean men of their generation. It involves hearty food and heady rum, certainly. It flows though the twists and turns of language. It can be self-deprecatory but also full of macho bravado. It is performative but practical.

Perhaps the nuances of this camaraderie are not fully visible to my prying eyes (these letters were never meant for my reading). But as I think about all that is behind the role of food in my relationship with my grandmother, I see behind Clarke and Selvon’s gastronomic repartee not just their literary inventiveness, but their love.

 

Kris Singh - headshot


Kris Singh is a determinate Assistant Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. He studies postcolonial literature, and his extended exploration of the epistolary relationship between Austin Clarke and Sam Selvon can be found in the 2016 collection Bourdieu and Postcolonial Studies, edited by Raphael Dalleo (Liverpool University Press). Under preparation is his manuscript comparing the fiction of Clarke and Selvon.

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