Never stand between a Bermudian and his Cassava Pie. If it isn’t on his Christmas table, either it isn’t Christmas or he isn’t really Bermudian. All you Trinis can keep your Pastels, you Guyanese your Pepper Pot (And your BG Plantain), you Martinicans your Black Pudding, you French your raw oysters, you Yanks your precious little star-shaped cookies, you Brits your mince pies, and especially you Bajans can keep your Jug-jug. We Bermudians will have our Cassava Pie.
This is a lesson I only just learned after a lifetime sampling other cultures and assuring myself that I was indeed a citizen of the world. Until, that is, my own Cassava Pie went missing, at large somewhere in the British Isles, unable to make its weary way to its intended destination—the Christmas table of Sister, of Brother-in-law, of Niece and Nephew-in-law and of six-month-old Great Niece. You have to understand that Sister and I are the best of sisters and the best of friends, divided in our daily lives by a 3,000-mile stretch of ocean, she on the cold side, I on the warm, but joined by those tough and tender bonds of blood and upbringing and all that other good stuff. So when, in early November, Sister started agitating for me to send her a Cassava Pie for Christmas, I said: “No problem!” After all, since Mother and Father went off to join the heavenly host a few years ago, Sister, Brother and I—all pushing 50—have had to start acting like grown-ups. And, as I was to find out, making and sending a Cassava Pie is an Adults Only activity.
Having said “No Problem!” my first problem was sending the pie. Mailing was out; FedEx was out. I would have to find someone to take the pie to Sister. I asked around. No one seemed to be going to London. Sister-in-law, who is very high-powered and efficient, sent emails to her staff requesting data specific to travel, whether business or R&R, to the UK at year’s end. All responses came back in the negative. The courier conundrum remained. Then there was the cassava itself. It was still in the ground, lengthening and filling out until it resembled the calloused fingers of a giant. Only around December 15 would the mature root be harvested, soaked, skinned, grated, squeezed of its poison and attractively packaged in five-pound, deep-frozen sachets. And, through the good offices of one of Sister-in-laws innumerable contacts, it would be brought to my door.
Now, I must tell you that not all Bermudians take this route to their Cassava Pie. Some go to the supermarket and purchase a five-pound packet of cassava, grown in some distant past in the Dominican Republic. I’m no xenophobe but truth is truth. The $4 Dominican cassava is markedly inferior to the $15 home-grown product. It tastes different. It even looks different, a kind of albino yellow, with the red writing ‘Produce Of The Dominican Republic’ seeming to merge into the jaundiced flesh. Whereas, what a joy to behold is the Bermuda cassava – brilliantly white, as white as the surf bounding our December beaches… as white as the snow that Sister would perhaps be treading.
And so it was that on December 15, I handed over $30 for the two sachets, one for Sister and one for me. I gazed at them with some satisfaction and, in a gesture of faith, left them out to defrost even though no courier had yet been found. But this season of miracles presented just such a person. Sister-in-law’s networking had paid off and I found myself talking on the phone to one Liz Ashford, a long-time resident of Bermuda going to spend the holiday with her parents in England. She asked a few pointed questions.
“It is Cassava Pie and nothing else, it’s it? You can’t be too careful these days.”
“Of course! And you’re absolutely right to ask. It’s a rotten world we live in! But I give you my solemn word: It is Cassava Pie and nothing else.”
“Does it have chicken in it? You’re not allowed to put chicken in it. They’ll take it from me at Customs.”
“Of course not. Absolutely no chicken.”
“Good,” Liz said. “Tell your sister I’ll be arriving at Gatwick, North Terminal, at 9.10 a.m. But I have to catch another plane to Manchester at 10.55. I won’t have much time but there’ll be enough for me to see her at the Official Meeting Point.
I wrote down all of this information, underlining the key points with a great flourish. Then I turned to the task at hand, the making of the pie. I looked at the two chief ingredients, the cassava and the chicken. I put the chicken on to boil. Lord strike me dead, but Cassava Pie without chicken is like man without woman, love without marriage (well…), birds without bees. I might as well not send the pie to Sister if there was to be no chicken in it.
For all you non-Bermudians, the Cassava Pie concept is a difficult one to grasp. A dense, sweet cake with a band of meat running through it. I began to identify with the initial shutter that most people have at the notion. But now that I’ve been at home for several years and especially in light of what I’ve been through recently, I tend to stick out my chin belligerently and say: “And why not?”
Back to the pie. The next step was to squeeze the cassava again, a most delicious form of therapy in which the cassava became the head of some prized enemy whose venom trickled between my fingers. I thought of how many shirts Grandmother could have starched with the liquid that ran away. So glad I didn’t live then! At last there it was: 10 cups of grated, squeezed and resqueezed cassava, impacted Bermuda Cassava in its dazzling bridal attire anxiously awaiting union with a bridegroom. And what a bridegroom—a man of many parts, flamboyant and given to excess: 18 eggs, heaps of sugar, mounds of butter, splashes of brandy, a whole newly grated nutmeg, to name a few. And what bliss it was, uniting bride and bridegroom, watching as they merged into one another, timidly at first, then turning around and about in greater and greater frenzy, with only a plain wooden spoon to aid them, until at length they became one flesh in their nuptial bed, the largest bowl in my kitchen.
As I prepared the chicken for its intervention into the very heart of this marriage, I spared one guilty thought for the trusting Liz Ashford. But it lasted no more than a moment. My eyes strayed to the morning paper, which was open at the ‘Living’ section. In the run-up to Christmas, the paper was in its habitual once-a-year focus on local culture. This particular piece featured a large, beaming matron waxing poetic about the olden days when, on Christmas Eve, the whole family would sit around the oil drum where the cassava has been soaking. They could duly peel and grate it, and could help but grate their fingers as well. As I stripped the chicken from the bone it occurred to me that my right index finger had recently lost a fraction of its epidermis through the grating of the nutmeg. Clearly, grated finger still seemed to be a key ingredient of this dish.
The woman in the article had also raised the spectre of the great chicken versus pork controversy. When Cassava Pie was in its infancy, a few hundred years ago, the porcine population of these islands far outnumbered the human, let alone the feathered. As such, pork was de rigueur. But in recent times, the lowly pullet has pulled ahead. One reason for this is that pie made with pork is more likely to poison you than pie made with chicken. For, sumptuous as it is, if Cassava Pie is not made right or kept correctly, it can kill you.
Sobered by this thought, I turned my attention to the pans, glinting with Crisco, waiting to be filled with one layer of the cassava mixture, one layer of chicken, then the final sealing layer of cassava. The sight of the two pans—one for Sister and one for me—heading for the oven, filled me with a sense of achievement. Phase One was complete or at least would be in five to six hours when I would set the pies down on the table, deep golden and intoxicating in their fragrance. Somewhat at a loss for what to do next I phoned Sister and gave her details of the assignation at Gatwick—Liz Ashford, North Terminal, 9.10, the Manchester connecting flight. All bases were fully covered. I could hear Sister scribbling away on her yellow legal pad. “How will she recognize me?” Sister wanted to know.
“You’ll be at the Official Meeting Point.”
“No, no, no! We mustn’t leave anything to chance. Tell her I’ll be wearing my broad-brimmed black hat.”
Sister and I rang off, the anticipation of Yuletide pleasures making us giggly as teenagers. I noticed that the cassava was just starting to release the first traces of its perfume into the air. There was still plenty of time to fill so I went into my room to wrap presents- in particular Younger Son’s globe. Have you ever tried to wrap a globe? After a few irritable attempts, I decided to play with it instead. I was pleased with this present which, along with the Obligatory Book, were the only tokens of any merit, the others being stuck fast in the mire of rampant consumerism.
I placed my finger lightly on the globe, spun it and watched as the planetary blur eventually slowed into continental, then national clarity. What piece of earth was my finger covering? I took my finger away and smiled. The Dominican Republic. I remembered the red label on the yellowish cassava. ‘Yucca’ is what they call it and it had been there to greet Columbus. My finger meandered through the cassava-bearing islands of the Caribbean, where it is a member of the prestigious family of ‘ground provisions,’ into the cassareep and tapioca-producing South American mainland, across the big water to the continent of foufou eaters and manioc eaters. What wonderful names what ingenious ways to eat the humble cassava! With the globe clutched to my heart and the scent of baking root stealing through the crack under my door, I drifted off to sleep on an aromatic cloud of goodwill to all men. I woke up just in time to find that the pie was done. And it was perfect.
The next two days sped by in cassava-related activity. As soon as the pie had been taken from the oven, it had to be anointed with melted butter and some ‘Oh Be Joyful’ (a generic term used by Mother to indicate all fermented juices that led to riotous and lewd behavior). After the overnight cooling period, it had to be cut up, cling-filmed, Zip-locked and placed to freeze rock-hard in the coldest part of the freezer.
Then there was the pick-up. We had a few false starts here with Liz Ashford phoning twice, putting back the hour of collection. But at last, there she was at my door. Liz Ashford, savior of Christmas, a cheerful woman whose vowels lurched from Manchester to Bermuda in a dizzy sliding pattern. The fact that she had lived in Bermuda a long time gave me a great comfort. She knew how important this cassava thing was. She would be a worthy courier.
We chatted as I place the 12 pieces of pie in a large plastic bag. They looked beautiful, like shining silver ingots, and as I secured the bag and attached Sister’s full name, there was a tiny feeling of regret at having to part with such a treasure. But only in the sharing does treasure such as this justify itself. It must be sent forth. Oh yes, it must be cast like the bread upon the waters. High above my musing fluttered the voice of Liz Ashford, who told me that she was taking her own Cassava Pie with her to England and that she had to be back in Bermuda to spend New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend. I glanced at her. She looked too old for a boyfriend although certainly not too old for a lover. She lost a few points for using age-inappropriate terminology, but she gained many more for having adopted Bermuda enough to feel her own Christmas would be incomplete without our national dish. By the time she left (she was going straight to the airport), having studied Sister’s black-hatless photograph and having taken official possession of the pie, I was convinced that the Bermuda contingent of the cherubim and seraphim had wafted this ‘mule’ in my direction and would assure save passage for her and her precious cargo.
I woke up with this thought the next morning, knowing that while I’d slept, Liz Ashford would have crossed the Atlantic, seen Sister and departed for points north. All morning I threw myself into the seasonal whirl, cutting a clean path through the wall of shoppers, relentlessly ticking items off my list. But there was no grimness in my demeanour. I felt buoyant and free and, even in the most grotesque skirmish for the last string of Christmas lights on the Island, I felt the cool fanning of angels’ wings.
I returned home in the early afternoon to find Older Son just emerging from his bed. We exchanged pleasantries. I was trying to get a handle on Older Son’s speech. I had sent him to school in Toronto and he had come back talking like a Jamaican. Still trying to unravel this mystery, I was informed that Sister had phoned.
“Oh, she must have got the pie! Did she say she’s got it?”
“No. Just dat she gwine call back.”
The tiny insect of doubt that scurried across my mind perished beneath my heavy boot. She will call back, I insisted to myself, and she’ll say that the pie is safely in the freezer. I circled the phone tree times then pounced. So many numbers to press with a finger not really in control.
“Hello.” It was Brother-in-law. His voice gave nothing away.
“Oh hi! How’re you doin’?” I sounded like an advert on TV.
“Oh, so so. I’ll get your sister.
I was not thrown by the “so so.” Brother-in-law was always “so so.” By why the quick getaway? We usually have a good old natter. Moments passed. Time stretched. The sound of footsteps and then…
“Hell-ooohh…” the second syllable disintegrated into wailing followed by disjointed words punctuated by further sobbing. Sister, normally as sober as a judge, was completely undone. I looked at the telephone aghast as the horror took shape. Sister had gone to the appointed place at the appointed time in the appointed hat. She had the courier paged and repaged. Nothing, nobody. She had gone to the toilet at Gatwick Airport and wept. The rendezvous had not happened. The pie was lost.
Sister tried to pull herself together. She cleared her throat.
“Did you give her my address?”
Pause. I raced through all the elaborate steps in the making and the sending of the pie: the squeezing, the stirring, the grating of skin. I remembered Liz Ashford in my kitchen, showing her the photograph, hearing her strange accent, giving her the pie. Covering all the bases. But did I give her Sister’s number?
I hung up on Sister after mumbling something about seeing what I could do. Then, like a beacon from beyond, two words emerged from the gloom. The Boyfriend. The Boyfriend whom my courier was rushing back to see. He would hear from his beloved. He would know about the pie. I located the number—hoarding has its advantages—and dialed, not knowing that in so doing, I was ushering in a golden age of intimacy between me and the Bermuda Telephone Company.
As I suspected, The Boyfriend sounded as though in a year of two he would qualify for the Senior Citizen’s Bus Pass. But two things told me that The Boyfriend was not too old. First, I recalled Liz Ashford’s urgent need to return to him for New Year’s Eve. Then, there was his voice which became so young and virile when he realized who I was.
“So you’re the Cassava Pie woman! Pretty shabby business, that. Having Elizabeth cart that wretched thing all the way other there—I warned her against it—having her waiting around and then no one appearing. Dashed bad show!”
“Yes, dashed bad,” I murmured. After several minutes of withstanding the wrath of the British Raj, I started to understand what had happened. A question of misinformation. A matter of time. According to The Boyfriend, the British Airways flight had arrived at 7.20 and the Manchester flight had left at 9.10. These figures were a constellation away from the ones I had written down. Had I misheard? Had she misled? Knowing that The Boyfriend was ever ready to do battle in his lady’s name, I assumed a tone of penitence and asked if he would give me Liz Ashford’s number in Manchester. In my mind’s eye, I saw Brother-in-law, on pie-retrieval duty, buckling up and pointing his car north. On the other end of the line, The Boyfriend humphed loudly and I imagined him adjusting a monocle.
“Bad luck. I don’t have her number with me. It’s in another book. Telephone me in a few days.”
I felt the weight of his cold shoulder and was about to hang up in despair when he added: “Anyway, she doesn’t have it anymore.”
“She gave it to someone else on the Bermuda flight.”
“Who?” I could feel a rush of hot blood to my head.
“You should learn to get your facts right, you know. That’s the trouble with you people…”
“Yes, but who did she give it to?”
“The Farmer woman. Works in Emergency at the hospital. Head person, actually. Don’t expect you’d know her.”
“You mean Dr. Farmer?”
“That’s the one.”
“Well, I do know her. Actually.”
I cast around to think of something cutting to say to The Boyfriend by my attention was already engaged elsewhere. Dr. Kate Farmer from the Emergency Department at our hospital. How was I to track her down on London? The fact was that I did not know her at all. I only vaguely knew someone who vaguely knew her. But, in Bermuda, that was enough.
I phoned an Emergency doctor I do know. His wife, recently arrived from England, told me that her husband’s sleep could not be disturbed because he had just come off night duty. So I put the problem to her. I did this with trepidation, knowing that this particular medical wife should be in the laundry business, loving nothing better than hanging other people’s dirty sheets in the noonday breeze. However, she received the story initially with blank bewilderment.
“I don’t quite understand,” she said. “Can’t your sister just go to Marks and Spencer and pick up a pie?”
Patiently, I explained that M&S was not yet doing a line in Cassava Pies and would she please give me Kate Farmer’s number. At this point, her voice came alive.
“You say Kate Farmer’s in England? She’s supposed to be home in bed with the flu! My husband’s been covering for her for the past three nights. Not too sick to jump on a bleedin’ plane…” I could hear the sheets flapping in the wind. Flap. Flap. That sound would, I had no doubt, soon be reverberating around the hospital.
“Quite,” I broke in, trying to recapture the conversation. “Would you happen to know anyone who would know how to reach Dr. Farmer in London?”
She thought for a moment and said she would get back to me. She was as good as her word and called back with Dr. Farmer’s Bermuda number. She rang off, but not before throwing in that Dr. Farmer and Terry, her lover, had been “having problems” lately. I dialed the number, praying that Terry would not be like The Boyfriend.
“Hello,” a woman answered. “Hello. Can I speak to Terry, please?” “Speaking.” Flap. Flap. Flap. “Oh!” A moment passed as I regrouped and acknowledged that my prayer had indeed been answered. I told Terry my story. She was very helpful, said that she and Katie had only just finished talking on the phone and seemed to know all about the pie. She also told me that Dr. Farmer was staying at her mother’s.
“Where in London does her mother live?” I asked.
“Oh, she doesn’t live in London. She lives in Ilkley, West Yorkshire.” In my mind’s eye, I say Brother-in-law buckling up once again to make the 500-mile drive to Yorkshire, a few hundred miles further away than Manchester. But I knew Brother-in-law’s generous heart. Thirty-something years ago, Sister had made a good choice. He would do it. Meanwhile, Terry’s voice was becoming increasingly warm. Unwilling to open any new vistas in my life, I bade her a hurried farewell.
My next call was to Sister—to inform her of the pie’s new location and to give her Dr. Farmer’s mother’s number. Sister’s lack of alarm about the distance separating her and the pie did not surprise me. Our gene pool contains a significant section marked ‘true grit.’
Would we be defeated by a tart with itchy feet? Absolutely not! I asked Sister to let me know as soon as she got through to Ilkley. A few minutes later, Sister called me back. She had phoned the Ilkley number but there had been no reply. As it was not late in England, she would try again in the morning. “Odd,” I said to myself. “Terry said she’s just spoken to Dr. Farmer.”
The following day, December 21, was spent waiting for word from Sister that she had reached Dr. Farmer and that plans were afoot for the recovery of the pie. Nothing. The phone rang constantly but never from Sister. News of the pie’s derailment spread. Brother and Sister-in-law were in a state of mourning. Sister’s loss prompted Brother to share with me a tearful memory of a pieless Christmas spent on the icy shores of Lake Ontario. Condolences were extended to me by friends and neighbours. Tactfully they avoided mentioning that I had not given Sister’s number, but chose instead to rain recrimination down on the heads of the heartless couriers.
I found myself taking the role of their defense counsel. Why hadn’t the first courier taken the pie to Manchester with her? Giving it to Dr. Farmer seemed like a good idea at the time. If she had to leave it somewhere, why didn’t she leave it at the Official Meeting Point? Those gleaming silver packets would have either been consumed by canine agents of the Narcotics Squad or detonated in some secure meadow by the Anti-Terrorist Unit. Why had Dr. Farmer and her mother decided to move out of their house on this weekend when we needed them? No answer for that one. I recognized that the mental gymnastics required to find answers for these imponderables were just a strategy to keep at bay the frosty wind making moan in my ear, telling me that nothing had changed. The pie was still lost.
Halfway through December 22, I could take the waiting no longer. I phoned Sister. Her voice was dull as she recounted how she had been phoning Ilkley, West Yorkshire virtually around the clock for the past 36 hours. No one ever answered. I tried to think of something positive to say.
“Well, at least Dr. Farmer will know she has to put the pie in the freezer. She’ll have seen enough salmonella cases around Christmas-time in Emergency. We really do overdo it you know. All the scoffing of Cassava Pie that’s been sitting on the kitchen counter overnight, producing E.coli.”
“Yes,” said Sister brightening. “She’ll know she has to put it in the freezer.”
Somewhat comforted, we said goodbye. I looked at my notepad, which, by now, was crowded with telephone numbers. It occurred to me to keep this—as best as a kind of souvenir, at worst, as evidence in some imagined court case. Sister would be presiding in the case of The Crown versus The Pie Snatchers. I could see the headlines…
I tried to distract myself by observing the antics of Older and Younger Sons and their several cohorts encamped at points inside and outside the house. A throbbing form of music beloved by my teenagers poured from every crevice of my home and, as far as I could discern, extended to the universe. At any other time, I could have been trying to affect an escape from this world within a world. But I could no pull myself away from that reservoir of memory where festivals such as these orchestrated by parents who, by definition, knew what they were doing. Shades of Christmases past flitted by as the floor pulsated to the rhythms of Bounty Killer and Beenie Man. My longing to inhabit a reggae-free zone may have been great, but it was eclipsed by my desire to find Sister’s pie.
My eyes toured the jumble of numbers on the notepad and my finger was feeble as it pushed out the Ilkey number. To my astonishment, Dr. Farmer’s mother answered immediately and no more than 30 seconds later, I was speaking to Dr. Kate Farmer.
It was evident that Christmas had already come to Yorkshire. Dr. Farmer’s voice was frequently overwhelmed by the sound of wassail, feasting and song. A Dickensian Christmas rose up before me, complete with boar’s heads, flaming torches, plum puddings, warm wine and choirs of schoolboy sopranos. For her part, of course, Dr. Farmer was being treated to an accelerated course in Jamaican Dancehall music. In facilitating this encounter between Charles Dickens and Beenie Man, the Bermuda Telephone Company can be content that it played it has played its part in the advancement of multiculturalism worldwide.
The exchange between Dr. Farmer and me was somewhat rambling in its initial stage as we contended with the extraneous noises from the other end of the line, but we finally arrived at the moment of truth.
“I don’t have your pie, you know. I gave it to Phillida.”
“Who the bloody hell is Phillida?”
Normally, I am not a profane person, but by now my goat had truly been got.
“Yes, love. I’ll have another glass of mulled wine… Oh, sorry, what was I saying?” The boy sopranos trilled as I ground my teeth together. “Yes. Phillida was on the same flight. When Liz had to go, she gave the pie to me and when I had to go, I gave to it Phillida.”
“So where,” I asked querulously, “does Phillida live?” Belfast? The Outer Hebrides. With our current luck, these all seemed perfectly likely. Poor Brother-in-law. He would have to far to travel.
“Kent. She lives in Kent.”
All of a sudden, the sound of cheering broke from me.
“Kent! Ha! That’s only an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Sister. Sister will have her pie for Christmas!”
Dr. Farmer, already in festive mood, joined me in reveling in this moment which was not diminished even when she told me she didn’t have Phillida’s number on her. It was at her brother’s house but she took down Sister’s number and assured me that Sister would have the Kent number before the day was over.
I could hardly contain myself as I announced the good tidings to Sister. The pie had been found and it was just down the road. Sister and I hugged each other over the phone. Sister ended by saying that she would call me after making contact with Phillida.
The news from Yorkshire released me from the vice which had closed around me since Sister’s broken “Helloooh” three days before. I was able to give my attention to Young and Older Sons, the house, the shopping, the cooking, the dog, the hole in the ozone layer—everything and everybody that had been relegated to a dreary limbo while the quest for the pie had been in full swing. Now I could relax, confident that the blessed event—the restoration of Sister’s pie—would surely come to pass.
Such tranquility of spirit had descended on me that it did not seem unusual that by lunch-time the next day, December 23, Sister had not phoned. She’s a busy lady, I told myself. She’s for it all in hand.
The phone rang. It was Sister with a voice as dry as gravel. A different “Hell-oooh” but equally chilling. What had happened?
Sister had waited for Dr. Farmer’s call. It had not come. She tried the sterile number once more. When there was no reply, she reported it to British Telecom and was informed that she was dialing an extra digit, which could have been just perfect calling from Bermuda, but disastrous phoning from England. She eventually reached Dr. Farmer. The roar of flaming torches and pubescent choristers was deafening and when Dr. Farmer had mumbled some reason why she had not phoned—one that would not stand up in court—Sister had been particularly crisp with her. Sister phoned Phillida in Kent. Naturally she was not home. Phillida’s parents were hoping to see her soon but could not be sure when. “She likes to enjoy herself, you know.” As for the pie, they had it, sitting on their kitchen counter top, next to the kettle and the brown teapot.
“Oh no!” I gasped.
“Don’t worry,” said Sister. “I had them put it straight in the freezer. But God knows how long it’s been out.”
There was a pause as we both looked through a microscope and didn’t like what we say.
“And what’s more,” Sister continued, “the parents seem very suspicious about the whole thing. As though their daughter has involved them in something dicey. And worse still, they won’t let me have the pie without the express permission of dear Phillida. who, as I said…”
“Is enjoying herself.”
At this point Sister unveiled Plan B.
“I went to Southall market this morning looking for cassava. Well, I thought, they have every other living thing grown south of the Equator…”
“I found it.”
“Well that’s great. Isn’t it?”
“It looked a bit strange,” Sister said slowly. “It was frozen into little lumps the size of eggs and the packet said under no circumstances was it to be defrosted but plunged into a large pot of boiling water.” The description made me long for yellowish Dominican yucca with red writing bled into it.
“Where did it come from?”
There was silence on both ends of the line.
“Sister,” I said at last. “You’d better try Phillida again, she can’t stay away from home forever.” At the end of this sentence, my voice broke, unlocking an especially sad door for Sister.
“It’s Granddaughter’s first Christmas and she won’t have any Cassava Pie! What kind of grandmother am I, anyway?”
In my concentration of the pie, I had, as I mentioned, forgotten everybody and everything, including Sister’s Granddaughter, Niece’s Daughter—six-month-old Great Niece. Now suddenly all roads led to her, the newest member of the family, who would have to live the first year on her life on earth without her Bermudian roots being nourished by Cassava Pie.
This was the coup de gråce, worse than the good-time Phillida and her passive-aggressive parents, worse than the Bangladeshi cassava. The seraphim were silent, their wings motionless as Sister and I were tried and found guilty of the dereliction of this sacred duty. By the time twilight had fallen on Christmas Eve, I knew the game was up. There would be no Hollywood ending with Bing Crosby, flanked by Phillida’s parents, presenting the silver ingots on Sister’s doorstep while crooning White Christmas.
Older Son, Younger Son and I survived the first critical half of Christmas day amid a multi-coloured blizzard of paper and ribbon. There were a few problems—CDs that were already in the possession of the recipient; an absence of those tiny adapters without which sophisticated microchip wizardry remains in the Land of the Dead. However, the globe was able to spin and I was savvy enough to recognize Young Son’s “it’s kind of wicked” as the ultimate filial accolade. Just around noon, during a lull in the proceedings, I stole a look at the telephone. Breathing in and out three times in rapid succession, I dialed Sister’s number, knowing that, with the time difference, Christmas lunch would probably be over.
It was, and there had been no Cassava Pie. But—and this came to me like the vision of the New Jerusalem to the eyes of St. John and the Divine—Planet Earth had not ceased whirling on its own axis and trailing an orbit around the sun. As for Sister and her household, they had filled the gaping hole in their table with abundance of seasonal fare washed down by generous quantities of Gosling’s Black Rum, thinly disguised by egg nog. By the time I talked to them, Sister, Brother-in-law, Niece, Nephew-in-law (and presumably Great Niece as Niece was still breast-feeding)—all were in varying stages on inebriation.
They recounted with glee how they had just finished watching the Queen’s Speech on the telly. She had hoped for peace on earth, and particularly in her own family. It had apparently been a thigh-slapping performance which continued to generate peals of laughter at the very mention of it. The pie may have gone AWOL, but high-level jinks were still the order of the day. And judging from the cooing and gurgling that I heard on the other end of the line, Great Niece seemed to be bearing no grudges.
The Bermuda-based segment of the family took up the challenge thrown down by the unrestrained mirth of our bredren and sistren in London. Soon after the phone call, we assembled at Brother’s house whose table fairly groaned beneath the magnificent feast, which in this case was complete. In honour of Guyanese Father, we had Pepper Pot; in honour of Bajan Sister-in-law, we endured Jug-jug. In celebration of our true selves we had our perfect Cassava Pie. Brother sat enthroned at the head of the table, looking and sounding just like Father. When it came to toasting friends, loved ones and pies who had journeyed, Sister-in-law moved herself to tears with her eloquence. And when at last, several kilos heavier, we rose from the table, it was time to push back the chairs. In a hot second, Byron Lee’s Soca Engine had us “Moving to the Left and moving to the Right,” much to the dismay of Younger Son, Older Son, Younger Nephew and Older Nephew, who saw, beyond all reasonable doubt, that they had been toppled from their position as monarchs of Fun City.
This story is not over yet. Sister did not give up on the pie just because Christmas had come and gone. Having given Phillida’s parents December 25 off, she swung back into action on Boxing Day. The news was good. The prodigal daughter had but in a lightning appearance on Christmas Day, given authorization for the release of the pie, then vanished again. Just as negotiations were about to reach fruition—let us not forget that Sister is a good talker: when she’s not grieving for pies, she goes by the title of Mrs. Justice Sister—snow fell on southern England. Now England is a curious country. It has a winter every year. Indeed, it sometimes has winter all year. But the falling snow—something often associated with the notion of winter—throws it into complete confusion. Schools close, roads become impassable, the economy founders. People are to be seen shoveling out their driveways with teaspoons. Such was the scenario immediately after Christmas. Brother-in-law, who had been clutching his car keys for the past five days, prowled around the house in growing frustration as the fat white flakes drifted outside his window. He had to wait seven more days while the three snow ploughs allocated to this half of the country did their job.
It gives me great pleasure to announce to you that on January 1, the historic meeting between Sister and Brother-in-law and the parents of the invisible Phillida took place in a snowy lane in Kent. Even with Sister’s negotiating skills, it had not been straightforward, requiring intermediaries in the form of Sister’s Neighbour and Sister’s Neighbour’s 90-year-old mother. Phillida’s parents had not so much handed over the pie as hurled it over like raw meat into a lion’s den—and immediately fled. They were heard exclaiming about Kent becoming the new headquarters for the Medellin cartel. That night Sister phoned me. She told me how she’s unwrapped the little silver parcels, defrosted them, sniffed them for salmonella or E.coli. How she’s summoned Brother-in-law, Niece, Nephew-in-law and Great Niece. How Great Niece had mashed the warm crumbs with her gummy jaws. How she’d opened her mouth for more.
Well, all of that is behind us now.
And, as Mother used to say, we have to be thankful. For all the couriers and their significant others who helped us in sending the pie and assisted us in building our characters. For the Bermuda Telephone Company, without whose aid none of this would have been possible. For the Bank of Bermuda, whose generous nine per cent interest Personal Loan is enabling to pay my phone bill. And in particular, we must be thankful for the hardy constitutions of the British whose kitchen counter tops are about as cold as your average Bermuda freezer.
This has been a great learning experience for me, one which I have resolved to share with others. I have set up the CPSSG (Cassava Pie Senders’ Support Group) as a registered charity. We will have to raise funds, of course, with a series of bake-sale-walk-a-thon-funcastle-face-painting-gospel-choir events. We will set up a database of telephone numbers essential for pie senders, pie couriers and pie recipients. Our main focus, however, will be looking for the psychological traumas suffered by group members. There will be workshops on managing our stress, getting in touch with out anger and, if it does not turn out all right, moving on with our lives. On the international level, we will acquire a website on the Internet and will go by the name Virtual Cassava. And Sister will be appealing to the International Court of Human Rights in The Hague to put pressure on the British Government to respect the integrity of our national dish. If the Brits are not prepared to let us freely send out chicken-filled Cassava Pies at Christmas, why should Bermuda accept their mad-cow-diseased Steak and Kidney puddings?
By the time this Christmas comes, Sister and I will be ready.