Cooking with C. L. R. James

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Photo: Erica MacLean.

The introduction to Mariners, Castaways and Renegades, a 1953 work on Herman Melville by the activist, critic, and novelist C. L. R. James (1901–1989), is electrifying to the Melville lover. It starts with an indelible line: “The miracle of Herman Melville is this: that a hundred years ago in two novels, Moby-Dick and Pierre, and two or three stories, he painted a picture of the world in which we live, which is to this day unsurpassed.” That’s a huge claim, but readers of Moby-Dick know it to be as true today as it was when James’s book was first published. James goes on to write that “a great part” of the volume he is introducing was produced while he was held in detention by the immigration authorities on Ellis Island as he was being deported from the U.S. On Ellis Island he found, “like Melville’s Pequod … a miniature of all the nations of the world and all sections of society,” and he synthesized his American experience with the themes and insights of Moby-Dick. I’ve written recently about Moby-Dick’s significance to modern discussions of race, and I was pleased to come across the scholarship of James, one of the novel’s great interpreters, who was neither white nor American but born on Trinidad when it was a British colony. If Melville shows America as multiracial and entwined, James pans out to show it also as hopelessly entangled in the whale lines of the greater world.

Deservedly, James’s work is undergoing a revival at the moment. His only novel, Minty Alley, was reissued earlier this year as part of Bernardine Evaristo’s Black Britain: Writing Back series with Penguin Books. His other major works include The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a still-authoritative history of the world’s only successful slave-led revolution, and Beyond a Boundary, a study on cricket and culture that has been called one of the greatest sports books of all time as well as an important entry in the discourse of postcolonialism. Even many of his minor works are back in print.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

This wide-ranging, autodidactic writer was born on Trinidad to a religious, educated lower-middle-class family with a strong sense of rectitude. His childhood home famously looked out upon a cricket pitch; it “was superbly situated, exactly behind the wicket.” He received an eduction at the island’s best approximation of an English public school and was a passionate reader, but cricket occupied his interest even more, and he became a minor contender among the legendary players of the West Indies. By accident, though, the sport derailed him from a path of upward mobility and sent him toward liberation, a process he believed was writ large for people in the West Indies of his time. In Beyond a Boundary, he writes that through beating the master at “the master’s game … the colonials gained a self-esteem that would eventually free them.”

In 1932, James moved to England to become a writer and cover cricket for the local newspapers there. He published a novel, the aforementioned Minty Alley, in 1936, but in the interim had discovered working-class activism, Marx, and the cause of independence for the West Indies. He gave up fiction—a choice he said he never regretted—in order to devote more time to political matters. A prescient, clear-sighted observer, he pivoted to journalism and opinion writing and became a Trotskyite and member of the Independent Labor Party. He was influential in struggles for independence throughout the Caribbean and Africa and helped shape the postcolonial identity for the Caribbean diaspora. In the collection You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C. L. R. James, he casts the enslaved people at the heart of eighteenth-century global commerce not as the world’s greatest victims but as the world’s strongest men—the only men who could do the work, the laboring heart of Western civilization.

The strength and value of the ordinary man is a through line in James’s diverse body of work, and nowhere is this interest more evident than in Minty Alley, which eschews the world stage in favor of a single yard in a back alley in Port of Spain. In this book, Haynes, a young, passive middle-class intellectual, is forced after his mother’s death to rent lodgings in a working-class neighborhood, the kind of place where men kept mistresses and things that were improper to discuss occurred, according to the James documentary Every Cook Can Govern. Here, Haynes’s life is vastly, if temporarily, enriched by the people he meets and the relationships he develops. James himself was not from such a neighborhood, but while conducting research for the book, he interviewed local women about their lives. The results are “a story about a Caribbean community in relationship with itself,” as Evaristo writes in her introduction, and “a peek into a society of nearly one hundred years ago, which shows us that while the circumstances are different, our essential passions, preoccupations and ambitions remain the same.”

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

For my purposes, Minty Alley was fascinating because Haynes’s landlady, Mrs. Rouse, has a business making “cakes,” and it’s the view into her kitchen that first compels Haynes to take more of an interest in life than he’d previously mustered. Her various employees and family members, as well as her other lodgers, make up the cast of characters Haynes becomes entangled with, and her tireless work at keeping this business running becomes the book’s moral center, enriched and complicated by the fact that her wellspring of strength to carry on comes from her love for a philandering partner, Benoit. (This formidable woman was long previously abandoned by Mr. Rouse.) Haynes soaks up the drama and intrigue generated by his new neighbors, but he fails to imagine anything about the real conditions of their lives. It’s only late in the book, after Benoit has left Mrs. Rouse and her business has fallen into disarray, that he discovers how precarious her financial situation is. The ingredients for the cakes are begged and borrowed on credit, and often she and the staff have nothing to eat. Haynes is horrified—if only briefly—to learn that his own carelessly late rent payments have resulted in people going hungry.

Perhaps predictably, given his age and class background, Haynes’s narration describes nothing about the cakes themselves. Flour is mentioned. There’s a glancing reference to “meat” and “jam,” which implied to me that the “cakes” would be more like the turnovers or patties known as “pies” in contemporary Trinidad. People in the book cook and eat—a loyal family servant cooks for Haynes until the other women at Mrs. Rouse’s push her out, and he barely protests despite having enjoyed her cooking—but the food and drinks are not described except in the most general terms. One blowout feast has “beef, pork and a three-pound chicken, pigeon peas and rice.” The tradition at Mrs. Rouse’s Christmas meal is to drink Guinness mixed with champagne. Nor does James, despite an essay entitled “Every Cook Can Govern” (after which the 2016 documentary about James is named), talk much about food. Beyond a Boundary is something of a memoir, and in its early pages he describes a rigorous old aunt cooking a lavish meal, “with that sumptuousness which the Trinidad Negroes have inherited from the old extravagant plantation owners,” as a family tradition to commemorate a particular cricket game. When the meal is served, she says, “I am not feeling so well,” sits down, puts her head on the table, and dies. James’s point is the link between this kind of moral fiber and cricket. I can’t help but wonder if the aunt wouldn’t have found her final menu to also be of note. Perhaps the most detailed discussion of food anywhere in his work comes in The Black Jacobins, when he approvingly and at length discusses the enslaved people’s expertise and vigor in using poison to shape various ends on the plantation.

James had goals loftier and worthier than mine, but the poison aside, I wanted to know what these women he writes about were actually cooking. I called a Trinidadian bakery for advice and referred to several food blogs, learning about meat pies, and tarts filled with guava jam. According to my bakery source, the meat should be chopped (not ground) and flavored with a local condiment known as green seasoning. I also found reference online to the multi-ethnicity of Trinidad, where Black populations live alongside those descended from Chinese and Indian immigrants. Philomen, one of the servants in Minty Alley, is described as “Indian” and “a coolie,” and James writes that she is harder working and worse treated than the others. The character is an example of James’s tendency, as mentioned by Evaristo, to focus on how communities of color relate to each other within themselves.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

In order to pay tribute to the heroic labors of Mrs. Rouse, Philomen, and James’s own aunt, I decided to make an entire cake business’s worth of pies. I made a meat pie flavored with green seasoning and a jam pie with guava. For a version of the local “aloo” pie, I chose a recipe that used slow-cooked beef shin in addition to peas and potatoes, because beef shin seemed like a cut of meat of the kind Mrs. Rouse could have afforded and because the recipe suggested a delicious-sounding cardamom-turmeric dough. Directions from the bakery and on the internet were contradictory about what the appropriate crust for an aloo pie should be, but unfortunately for me the most likely candidate for the other two seemed to be puff pastry, something I’ve long vowed is a bridge too far for home baking. Figuring I was going to need it after the puff pastry, I also tried making that Guinness-and-champagne cocktail, and the results were light, malty, and drinkable, a good beverage for a hot day. (There’s no recipe below for that—just pour the Guinness, wait for the foam to subside some, and top gently with champagne.)

I’ve discovered previously that any dish that calls for a dough, a filling, and then an assembly-and-cooking process is a recipe for getting stressed out and making mistakes as things come together. Three fillings and two doughs—one of them puff pastry!—was truly a dangerous plan. It all went well, though, as I blended my green seasoning (a delicious combination of onions, scallions, peppers, coriander, marjoram, thyme, ginger, and lime juice) and slowly simmered the beef shin in a fragrant mixture of onion, tomato, cumin, curry powder, and garlic. I was ahead, even, because the doughs had been made the night before and were comfortably chilling in the refrigerator. But then, in a trial bake, all the butter oozed out of my puff pastry (it was incorrectly processed and handled as I rolled it out), and it needed to be made again from scratch. And my other dough, a turmeric-and-cardamom one for the aloo pies, turned out to be too small, so it also needed to be made again. By the time I had made two more doughs and was rolling out, filling, and shaping the pies, I was starving, there was flour everywhere, and all that work had turned into a mess. Fortunately, it turns out that puff pastry is delicious even when it’s greasy, incorrectly laminated, and slightly underbaked. And while the pies didn’t look professional, the Caribbean- and Indian-inspired meat fillings made it impossible to go too far wrong. The combination of the hot guava jam and the crispy, buttery pastry was also straight through the wicket (to make up a cricket metaphor). Given that the women I was emulating had a lifetime’s experience making this food, I thought mine was not so bad for a first try.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

In writing about James, I would be remiss not to point out that we diverge somewhat—and not just on our interest levels in food. He was a Marxist, which I’ve always found to be a system of thought that, despite the many essential causes it has played an important role in, is ultimately unrealistic about human nature. In a similar vein, I also never understood Ahab in Moby-Dick as a real character with a real human psychology; I instead saw his unproductive labor (of killing the white whale) as a kind of madness, uninteresting in itself, a rickety plot device allowable only because Melville needed it in order to pursue his quest for truth. James loved Ahab and found him a compellingly passionate man and an embodiment of Marxist principles, so our disagreements are consistent.

James also loved the workers, the women in the kitchen, the cricket fans having a much-deserved afternoon off, the enslaved people who powered the Western world, and their heirs, whose rights he would do so much to win. He was a meticulous scholar, an insightful critic, and a tireless activist, always on the right side of history. And even my objections to the utopian strains in his thinking melt away when I read “Every Cook Can Govern,” in which he advocates a form of democracy based on the ancient Athenian one of choosing the government by lot, on a rotating basis, from among the mass of citizens. At first it sounds bad—not every cook can cook, let alone govern—but anyone would agree that “politicians chosen by random lottery” would be a huge improvement on the ones we choose ourselves. I proved the principle with my pies: there’s much to be said for an inexperienced but honest attempt.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Puff Pastry (Master Recipe)

Makes eighteen five-inch pies. For this recipe, a bench scraper is helpful.

3 cups flour
1 cup ice water (not to be used all at once)
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks cold high-quality unsalted butter

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

First, make a “lean dough” of just flour, salt, and water. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Run your fingers down the center to make a trough, then sprinkle a tablespoon of water in the trough, and fluff with your fingers. You should be trying to incorporate the water without forming gluten. Repeat until the dough is moist and clumpy and will stick together in a shaggy ball when pressed. (You probably will not need the full cup of water.) Wrap with saran wrap, and refrigerate at least thirty minutes.

Now, prepare the butter. The goal is to keep it cold but make it pliable, so that eventually it will roll out in thin, flat sheets without breaking. (In the photos for this piece, I tried doing this between sheets of plastic wrap, which didn’t work.) Cut the butter into a few large chunks, sprinkle with a teaspoon of flour, and pound until flat with a rolling pin. Experts use a French rolling pin, but I used an ordinary one. Experts also have a bench scraper to manipulate the butter without warming it up by touching it with your hands. If the butter releases water or sticks to the rolling pin as you pound, sprinkle with more flour. Once the butter is flat, use the pastry scraper to gather it up, then sprinkle with another teaspoon of flour, and pound it out again. Repeat several times until the butter is pliable and doesn’t break when you fold it. Shape into a six-inch square (size matters here), wrap in plastic, and chill for ten minutes (but no longer).

Roll the lean dough out into a roughly nine-inch square, making it as square as possible. Place the butter in the middle of the dough, and fold the sides of the dough over so they meet in the middle. Pinch to seal. Flour the work surface lightly, and flip the dough over so it’s seam side down. Roll it out to a rectangle sixteen inches long by eight inches wide. Fold the top third over the middle third, then the bottom over both, like a letter. Rotate the folded dough so it looks like a book about to be opened. Roll it out again into a sixteen-by-eight rectangle, then fold again. These were your first two turns. Refrigerate for thirty minutes and repeat twice more, making six turns in all. If you notice any butter coming through, pat it with a little flour. The idea is that the butter is rolling out in long, thin sheets between the sheets of dough. If you see the dough cracking like little tiles (as I did), it’s “broken”: your layers will fuse, and the butter will all fall out and puddle on the sheet during the baking process (which still tastes good, honestly, but isn’t correct).

When you’re done, divide the dough in half, and refrigerate until ready to assemble.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Green Seasoning (Master Recipe)

Adapted from Unpeeled.

1/4 onion
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 green pepper
1/4 cup celery
1 tbs ginger
juice of a lime
1 tbs white vinegar
handful fresh cilantro
3 scallions
leaves from 4 sprigs of thyme
leaves from 2 branches of oregano
a hot red pepper
1/2 tsp salt

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Combine the onion, garlic, green pepper, celery, ginger, lime juice, and vinegar in a food processor, and blend until smooth. Add more vinegar as needed to loosen. Add the rest of the ingredients, and blend again.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Meat Pies and Jam Pies

Adapted from Trini Cooking with Natasha. Makes nine five-inch pies of each filling (eighteen total). A pizza cutter and a bench scraper are helpful implements to have for this recipe. Be aware that the meat filling needs to cool before assembly.  

For the meat pies:

1/2 recipe puff pastry (recipe above)
1 tbs oil
a small onion, diced
1/4 cup celery, chopped
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 hot red pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
3 tbs green seasoning (recipe above)
salt (to taste)
pepper (to taste)

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To make the filling:

Heat the oil on medium-low in a large skillet, and add the onions and celery. Fry until the onions are translucent and wilted, about fifteen minutes. Then, add the hot pepper, garlic, and green seasoning, and fry until fragrant, two minutes. Turn the heat up to medium-high, add the meat, and fry until brown and cooked through. Season with plenty of salt and pepper, to taste. Set aside to cool.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

For the jam pies:

a 14 oz block of guava paste (you’ll need about half that much)
1/3 cup sugar (for simple syrup)

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To make the simple syrup:

Combine a third of a cup of sugar with an equal amount of water in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Boil until slightly thickened, about three minutes. Set aside.

To make the jam filling:

Cut the block of guava paste in half lengthwise so you have two rectangles that are roughly the dimensions of sticks of butter. Slice off eighteen quarter-inch-thick slices and reserve.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To assemble (either pie):

Preheat the oven to 400. Line two nine-by-thirteen cookie sheets with parchment paper, and ideally prepare some space in your fridge or freezer to store one during the assembly process. (Prepare something flat that fits in the fridge, like a cutting board, if you don’t have two cookie sheets.) Fill a bowl with cold water, and place it by your work surface.

Flour a clean work surface. Working quickly, roll out half your dough into your best approximation of a square, about fifteen by fifteen, making sure it’s not sticking as you go. You will be cutting the dough into nine equal squares, and if they’re rectangular, they won’t fold evenly when it’s time to stuff and shape them. If your dough hasn’t rolled out square, measure and trim. Cut the square of dough into nine equal smaller squares (like a tic-tac-toe board). A pizza cutter is helpful for this. Separate out one square so you don’t make a mess. A bench scraper is helpful in moving the dough.

If filling a meat pie, place a heaping tablespoon of the cooled filling in the center of the square of dough. If filling a jam pie, put two slices of guava paste in the center of the square (you need less than you think).

Moisten a finger in the cold water, and run it around the perimeter of half of the dough, to help it stick. Fold the dough over the filling, and pinch to seal. Place the pie on the baking sheet, and repeat. Once the sheet is full, pop it in the oven, and bake for twenty minutes, until the pies are puffy and golden on top and golden and crispy on bottom. Continue assembling the remaining pies, placing them on the remaining cookie sheet, and refrigerate until you’re ready to bake.

For the jam pies, brush with simple syrup when they come out of the oven, to make the crust shinier.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Aloo Pies

Adapted from Insight Flavour. Needs to marinate overnight. Be aware that the filling needs to cool down before assembly. Ideally, you’d start two days ahead and have the filling cooked and cooled before assembly time.

For the marinade:

1/2 lb beef shank, cleaned and sliced into small pieces
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
a scallion, sliced
a few sprigs fresh coriander, chopped
1/2 medium tomato, diced
2 tsp ketchup
1/2 tsp mild curry power
a few squirts of lime juice

For the filling:

2 tbs neutral oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 hot red chili
1/2 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp curry powder
1/2 cup potatoes, chopped
1/2 cube of beef stock
1/4 cup and 1/2 cup water, divided
1/4 cup green peas
salt (to taste)
pepper (to taste)

For the dough:

2 cups plain flour
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup water
vegetable oil (for frying)

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To marinate:

Combine the beef and all the ingredients for the marinade in a gallon freezer bag, and refrigerate overnight.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To make the filling:

In a frying pan, heat two tablespoons of oil on medium-low, then fry the onion until it is wilted and translucent, about fifteen minutes. Turn up the heat to medium-high, add the garlic and chili, and fry for two minutes more, until the ingredients begin to release their scents. Add the curry powder and cumin, and cook for two more minutes. Add a quarter cup of water, and cook for five more minutes, until all the liquid evaporates. Add the contents of the marinade bag, stir, turn down the heat, cover, and cook for thirty-five minutes.

Add potatoes, a half cup of water, and half a cube of beef stock to the mixture. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about an hour. You want the mixture to be thick, almost without any water. Add the peas near the end of the cooking time. Taste for seasoning, and adjust if necessary. Set aside to cool.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To make the dough:

Combine flour, cardamom, turmeric, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Add water, and stir to combine. Knead for a few minutes, until the dough is smooth and comes together. Let rest, covered, at least thirty minutes.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

To assemble the pies:

Flour a work surface. Set out a bowl of cold water next to it. Using your hands, roll the dough out into a snake about a foot long, and cut it into ten equal pieces. Roll them out, one at a time, in circles about six inches in diameter and an eighth of an inch thick. Dollop a heaping tablespoon of filling in the middle of the circle (or as much as you can fit and still seal the pie properly). Dip a finger in the water, and run it along one half of the circle of dough, to aid in sealing. Flip one half of the dough over the filling. Pinch to seal. Repeat with the remaining dough circles.

 

 

To cook:

Heat about a half-inch of a neutral oil to medium-high in your skillet. Fry the pies in batches, flipping once, until golden and crispy and the dough is cooked through.

 

Photo: Erica MacLean.

 

Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.

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