When people talk cassava pie, you know Christmas is coming. We all have our special recipes (adapted over generations) of the sweet and savoury dish and in old Bermuda, making the pie was a Christmas ritual in the same way as going to the parish church on Christmas morning.

  • About the Plant
  • The cassava plant, Manihot utilissima, is native to South America, but it has been introduced into most tropical regions and is extensively cultivated in the East Indian Archipelago, from where, as from Brazil and other parts of South America, its starch in the form of tapioca is a staple article of export. Cassava is also cultivated in the West Indies, and it was probably from there it was brought to Bermuda.

Cassava is root stock. Its roots are farinaceous and fusiform, sometimes attaining a length of three feet and a weight of twenty or thirty pounds. Its sap contains hydrocyanic acid and being therefore highly poisonous, the root cannot be eaten in its fresh condition.

In Bermuda, though cassava grows well and yields its yearly crop unstintingly (the root is dug in December and the stalk may be planted again in January or February), no commercial use has ever been made of it. The reason may be that the deep soil preferred by cassava is relatively scarce here; on the other hand, arrowroot, also a tubular root, was once grown here in great quantities and was once one of our main exports. However, in many backyards and kitchen gardens today you still see small patches of cassava growing. The bushes—for the plant will grow to bush-like proportions—are allowed to wave their small shiny fan-shaped leaves in the air for one year before their roots are dug up to make Christmas pie for the family.

  • Cassava’s Arrival in Bermuda
  • Legend has it that cassava was introduced to Bermuda in 1616 by way of the little ship Edwin which Governor Daniel Tucker had sent to the Virgin Islands to seek new plants to provide a greater variety of food for the early settlers. Early documents referred to it as “cazabe,” the name given to it by the Taino Indians of Haiti who, like the people of Congo today, used this root as a major item in their diet. The ground cassava root was mixed into a batter with the eggs of wild birds, and because wild hogs were plentiful, pork was added to the batter.

In 1621, the Reverend Lewis Hughes wrote about cassava in A Plaine and Trve Relation of the Goodness of God Towards the Sommer Ilands. “The Casaua roote,” he wrote, “is like to proove a great blessing of God unto you, because it makes as fine white bread as can be made of Wheat, and (as I am persuaded) wholsome, because the Indians that live of it, are tall and strong men.”

As Susette Harriet Lloyd relates in Sketches of Bermuda: “The new year [1831] was ushered in by the disastrous death of a number of unfortunate pigs, which were poisoned by drinking of the water in which cassava had been washed. With their fate before my eyes, would you believe that I ate a large plate of cassava pie at dinner!”

She lived to survive the tale, but three years later as reported in the Royal Gazette (October 14, 1834) one poor little girl did not. After eating some bitter cassava, she died, despite being given castor oil as an emetic. Two boys who had eaten it at the same time did survive thanks to “copious doses of whale oil.”

  • How We Eat It
  • Over the generations, families have adapted the recipe to suit their own preferences, which means that today cassava pies are as individual as the cooks who make them. Some like the pie sweet, others hold back on the sugar but toss in more spices. Some like the cake firm and dense, others prefer it light and crumbly. Beef, veal, pork and chicken have all been used in the past, but these days most cooks seem to stick to either pork and chicken, or chicken alone. Of course, you can omit the meat filling altogether for a vegetarian alternative.

Traditionally, the pie was made on Christmas Eve or even Christmas morning. Now that people have freezers, the pie is often made in advance, frozen and cooked or reheated on Christmas Day. The leftovers are often warmed in a frying pan for breakfast on Boxing Day and many days following.

The preparation of the cassava root used to be a tedious and messy task, but you can now buy frozen grated cassava which has to be thawed overnight before making the pie. Farina (dried ground cassava) is also popular these days. If substituting farina for cassava in a recipe, use only half the amount. This is because liquid added to the dry farina brings it to the same consistency as fresh cassava—about 4 cups of liquid are required (half cold water and half evaporated milk) per pound of farina. Stir and leave for at least an hour or overnight for all the liquid to be absorbed.

  • The Tradition of Cassava
  • About 25 years ago The Bermudian published a humorous letter written by the late Barbara “Tuppy” Cooper to her brand-new non-Bermudian daughter-in-law. In her letter, Tuppy wrote about the cultural importance of cassava pie, calling it, “utterly superfluous and absolutely necessary!”

“The making of the pie is one of the whited-sepulcher-type things that you let your mother or grandmother or maiden aunt make until they have one foot in the grave and you are forced into it,” she wrote. “The only person I know to take the bull by the horns before she had to do it is That Woman Called Intrepid, Mrs. Stephen West, who came to terms with cassava as a new bride (American at that!).

Before signing off, she reassured her daughter-in-law: “With your skills, my hints and the enclosed recipes, future generations are assured delicious and traditional cassava pie at Christmastime.”

  • Dolly Pitcher’s Cassava Pie Recipe
  • Dolly Pitcher is probably the most famous for her Cup Match mussel pies, but she is also an enthusiastic cassava pie cook. Dolly learned her recipe from her father, Sidney Pitcher, who was also an excellent cook. “My daddy had my sister and I sitting there peeling and grating that cassava. No more! That’s too much hard work, I just buy it ready prepared now.” Her father would make the pie with meat for guests during the Christmas season, but for the family’s own Christmas dinner, a plain pie was served as there was so much turkey and ham with the meal. “I never precook and freeze my pies,” says Dolly. “I make it on the day because I like it freshly cooked and right out of the oven, just like my daddy made it.”
  • Ingredients (serves 12)
  • 5 lbs cassava (unsqueezed)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 18 eggs
  • ¾ lb butter
  • Small handful of salt
  • 1 ½ tsp of lemon flavouring
  • Nutmeg to taste
  • 4 lbs mixed chicken and pork
  • Directions
  • Boil the chicken until it is coming off the bone. Season to taste with fresh thyme while cooking. Cool and cut into small pieces. Strain and save stock. Cook pork thoroughly. Mix up all the batter ingredients; keep whipping for a long, long time until really light. Put half the batter in the bottom of the pan and spread it up the sides. Put meat mixture in centre, with some stock. Spread the rest of the batter on top. Cook at 400˚F for about 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 300˚F and cook for about 3 ½ hours (depending on size of pan). Baste with the stock while cooking. When a knife comes out clean, the pie is done.
  • Helpful Tips
  • Don’t be afraid to heap the teaspoons and tablespoons with the spices!
  • There is no substitute for freshly grated nutmeg.
  • If your pie is looking dry while in the oven, baste it with stock.
  • Allow your butter and eggs to warm to room temperature before using, they will cream together more easily that way.
  • To save on time, cook and cut up your meat the night before.
  • Use your leftover broth as a base for a homemade soup.
  • If making your pie ahead of time, it’s okay to shorten the cooking time a wee bit and then warm at 350 degrees Fahrenheit on Christmas day until your pie is heated through.