Fry Jacks And Johnny Cakes - Saturday's Child - Saturday 28, February-2004
by Tony Deyal
A worker not noted for his productivity, probity or punctuality once asked
his boss for a recommendation.
His employer wrote: "What can you say about this man except that if you
have a berth for him in your organisation, make sure you give him a very
This is what I would also give the witches' broth that has been concocted
from the flying fish fiddle-faddle. A very wide berth.
While the land of my birth, Trinidad, is at odds with the land of my
children's birth, Barbados, and my wife's country of birth, Guyana, is
mixed up in the middle - the thing is a brouhaha that is not funny and
occasions me no mirth whatsoever.
Like Queen Victoria, we are not amused.
Like Marie Antoinette, let them eat cake instead of fish cutters.
Like the angry woman whose husband came home late, drunk and in an amorous
mood, I won't stoop so low, stand for it or take it lying down.
That is why Belize is such a gem and a joy in which to live. It is a
delightful mixture of cultures that occasionally gives rise to much
For example, one Sunday morning my Jamaican colleague, Leslie Walling, and
I decided to go to the seaside village of Hopkins, a Garifuna or Black
Carib community, where the people exceed the norm for the friendliness that
is the hallmark of Belizean life and hospitality.
We went into a ramshackle hut perched at the side of the narrow road that
with one up and down defines and virtually circumscribes the entire
community. It proudly proclaimed itself "Innies Restaurant" and into Innies
we went in search of sustenance.
In a corner, what seemed to be a family group was holding an animated
discussion but we could not quite make out what the topic was.
The Belizean accent is close to Guyanese, but with a hint of sing-song
spanglish. They call me "Meestah Toe-knee" in these parts.
My son, Zubin or Zoo-Been, once came home beaming with pride. He had learnt
to play "dadge bahl". It turned out to be "dodge ball" or what in the old
days in Trinidad we called "scooch".
If the "bahl heet you three time you dead" was how he explained the game to
Even though accustomed as we are to the widest variety of Caribbean Creole,
patois and pidgin, Belizean as spoken in Hopkins is not easy to either
understand or translate.
The breakfast menu was a little easier. A young lady explained softly and
shyly: "Fry jack, Johnny cake, fry egg, bacon, sausage and beans."
Leslie ordered the fry jacks and Johnny cakes. The girl looked at him in
stunned, silent surprise but was too shy to say more. It was then it hit me
that when Leslie said fry jacks he was thinking of fish, the jack fish that
is so popular in some of the Eastern Caribbean countries.
Here, fry jacks are a national dish, consisting entirely of fried flour,
what in Trinidad would be a "float" or "fry roti", or just a plain basic
As is the Johnny cake. This is a Jamaican and Belizean variation that is
round, heavy and pure flour as well, with a tasty brown crust that shells
out like ripe peas from the pod. This is why the girl retreated so quickly
to the kitchen. Who are these people, she might have thought, who only
order flour food without eggs, bacon or beans?
Eventually, Leslie changed his order and I had fry jacks with eggs, Johnny
cakes with more eggs, and then toast and the ubiquitous refried beans that
are part of the Belizean breakfast medley. No low carb for me.
As I drove back into Hopkins last week to spend the weekend with my
Barbadian children and my Guyanese wife, far away from everything in
Trinidad, I reflected on another fish story that had happened to me the
It was as unlike the normal fish story that you generally hear. This was
not the one that got away. In fact, it is the one that came to me.
It also helped me to reaffirm and reinforce my faith in the people of the
Caribbean. I had written in a previous column that Belize is a fantastic
place lacking only one thing - salt fish, a Caribbean staple.
If there is one thing that all of us who are descendants of slaves and
indentured immigrants share it is a love for salt fish. We can get fresh
fish cheaper than salt fish and yet, without descending into the "double
entendre" that causes a smirk whenever you say salt fish, we prefer the
We will still buy it. For us, all salt fish sweet. Even from a man, as I
discovered a few days later.
I had lamented that Belize is a country that has salt and fish and yet has
no salt fish. While the Eastern Caribbean was divided over flying fish, the
honorary consul for Belize in Trinidad, Tommy Chanona, an engineer whose
remit is the Caribbean but whose home is Belize, brought me some salt fish
from Trinidad while on a visit home to Belize.
It was a gesture as magnificent as it was magnanimous. He did not have to
do it. But such is the Belizean tradition, and such is Mr Chanona's sense
of humour combined with his sense of hospitality, that he surprised me with
a phone call to say he had read my article and had brought me some salt
fish. He also brought some Trinidad sweets for my children.
I was close to tears. Those who seek to divide the Caribbean, tear it
apart, dissolve it in an acid bath of rancour and bile will not win as long
as there are Caribbean people like Tommy Chanona around.
There is a Caribbean emerging from people like Tommy, who let down his
bucket in Trinidad; like Leslie, whose roots are in Antigua, England and
Jamaica; and like my own little brood who span the boundaries and define
the new frontiers of a regional identity that goes beyond black, white or
brown, colour and creed, race and religion, to identification with a
culture rooted in brotherhood and hospitality, humour and humility.
We are not yet one people, but we will be. If we are God's country, we are
also cod's country. One cod binds us while a few sods try to blind us.
. Tony Deyal was last seen commenting on a poster advertising a Cyber-cafe
owned by Spanish-speaking Belizeans. It said: "Internet Coffee".