Catherine Ross is the founder of The National Caribbean Heritage Museum, Museumand. She came to the UK from the island of Saint Kitts in 1958, and moved to Nottingham with her parents and siblings. Here she shares some powerful food memories from that time.
This June, Windrush Day is the 75th anniversay of the arrival of the Windrush ship to Britain in 1948. Between 1948 and 1971 many more Caribbeans and citizens from across the British Commonwealth arrived in the UK to help rebuild postwar Britain.
Windrush Day celebrates British Caribbean communities, and acknowledge the sacrifices and contributions the Windrush generation and their descendants have made to British society.
At Sous Chef, we invited Catherine to talk about her memories of that time, particularly focussing on food.
Read on, to hear Catherine's account of British food in the late 50s when she arrived. Plus, what Caribbean food means to her, and some of the history that has shaped food culture across the islands.
- Making Penny Bread with my Dad
- What is typical 'Caribbean Food'?
- Why does Caribbean Food Differ from Island to Island
Also hear from Catherine's daughter Lynda-Louise Burrell cooking a traditional Jamaican Celebration lunch. Try her oxtail stew recipe, and a recipe for rice and peas. You can stock up on Caribbean Food & Ingredients here.
My first culinary adventure – making penny bread with my Dad
I’m Catherine Ross and I was born in St Kitts – a small Caribbean island of around 68 square miles.
St Kitts also has a smaller sister island called Nevis, which is just 36 square miles. Nevis, pronounced “Knee-vis” rather than “Nev-is” like the Scottish mountain, has attracted the rich and famous for decades, including Princess Diana.
St Kitts was colonised in 1623 by the English, who have had a presence on the island ever since. It’s little wonder that when the call came from Britain to help rebuild the UK after the Second World War, many people from St Kitts, known as Kittitians, responded without hesitation.
What is the Windrush generation?
Caribbeans who answered Britain’s call for help in the post-war era became known as the Windrush Generation – and my family were among those pioneers.
My father arrived in the UK in 1957, followed by my mother and me and my siblings in 1958. Some members of the Windrush Generation planned to return home to the Caribbean after 5 or 10 years, while others came to settle and make Britain their home.
What food do you remember from that time?
My parents came with a clutch of culinary skills and soon put them to good use, not only for the family, but for the local Caribbean community in Nottingham that longed for a “tase of home”.
My father’s speciality was breadmaking, which in the Caribbean, differs from island to island.
In Jamaica for instance, one of the most popular breads is hard-dough, also known as hard-do. In the early days of the Windrush era, people made hard-do by hand, but by the late 1950s it was being made commercially in bakeries, and is now widely available in supermarkets.
Many people say the taste of handmade hard-do is distinctively different from the factory-made variety. That could be down to the additives used in factory-made bread, to preserve loaves for longer on supermarket shelves.
Fortunately, with the rise in small craft bakeries, it’s become easier to get a taste of hard-do that’s closer to the much-loved handmade original.
What is Caribbean penny bread?
In St Kitts, our most popular bread looks more like a baguette and is still asked for by locals as “penny bread”, a wonderful heritage reminder of its price “back in the day”.
My Dad made penny bread, along with other popular Kittitian breads such as butter bread and pork bread. I recall Friday evenings, or early Saturday mornings depending on my Dad’s work shifts, hearing him busy in the kitchen preparing the batch of dough that reminded him of his early work-life in the Kittitian village of Old Road, where he was born and grew up making bread in the community ovens.
He would always call me and my siblings to lend a hand – as a learning exercise and a taste of culinary DIY. Each of us was given some dough and shown how to knead it and shape loaves that were “all our own work”.
We used our knuckles and the base of our hands to knead and put air in the dough, creating traditional shapes as well as those determined by how our creativity moved us.
We loved mimicking Dad slapping and stretching the dough to create our own take on penny bread. Sometimes, we made our loaves so long and thin they would be as crunchy as eating the crust, which in my opinion is the best part of the bread!
As children, we always wanted to eat our loaves straight from the oven of course, but we were frustrated by the warning we got from both our parents: “Let the bread cool before you eat it!” If we could contain ourselves until suppertime, we ate our bread by dipping pieces of it in hot chocolate, Caribbean-style.
Kittitian breads aren’t sold in supermarkets, but they’re often made in many Caribbean homes, especially for special occasions.
Thankfully, some grandparents and great-grandparents are still passing on the technique for baking and serving them to the next generation, making sure an important and delicious part of Caribbean heritage continues to flourish.
What is typical “Caribbean food”?
Caribbean food is intrinsically linked to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its impact on Africa and the Caribbean. Around 12 million Africans were enslaved and forced to work long hours on plantations owned by British and European colonists in the Caribbean, used to grow crops like sugar, coffee, and rice.
Enslaved people were given starchy foods like sweet potatoes, yams and green bananas to give them the energy to keep going and survive the hard work and harsh treatment they endured.
Protein and other body-building foods were rationed and restricted to certain types and only given in small amounts, such as the bits of animals that the plantation owners didn’t want to eat themselves.
A poor diet hurt and hindered the lives not only of those who were enslaved, but successive generations of their descendants, including the Windrush Generation with illnesses that affect black people still, today.
The legacy of our food heritage is still evident today, from many of the ingredients we use, to the recipes that have evolved from island to island, and generation to generation.
What are the health benefits of Caribbean food?
Starchy foods in large and regular quantities may have had a negative impact on the health of Caribbean people over the centuries, but it’s also provided some health benefits, which are now scientifically-recognised.
Sweet potatoes contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. Yams are thought to boost brain health, reduce inflammation, and improve blood sugar control. While green bananas contain nutrients like vitamin B6 which helps to boost metabolism and keep cells healthy.
Which ingredients and recipes have come from the Windrush generation?
Caribbeans have benefited from our ancestors’ resilience and culinary creativity, with the Windrush Generation sharing their legacy with the UK.
From their love of spice and seasoning techniques which helped to create tasty dishes out of very basic ingredients, to their clever pairing of different vegetables and cooking techniques, such as escoveitch and jerk, which ensured scarcity didn’t have a dire impact on their diet.
Today, vegetables and fruits loved by Caribbeans regularly appear in British dishes and cookbooks, and on the ingredients list of many beauty products and treatments. Many of their seeds are also widely available in garden centres and are being grown by different communities in gardens and allotments.
The Caribbean contribution to health, beauty and wellbeing is now widely recognised and applauded, brought to the UK by the Windrush Generation and evolved by their descendants.
It’s also testament to Caribbeans’ willingness to share their secrets in response to familiar compliments like “Your skin looks great!” and “You don’t seem to have aged at all and I’ve known you for years!” It’s all down to a Caribbean diet and wellbeing traditions packed full of fruits and vegetables.
There was a TV ad back in the day which said: “It looks good, it tastes good, and by goodness it does you good”. For Caribbeans and those from other cultures discovering Caribbean food, our food-themed exhibitions and events all have a simple message: Caribbean food is history on a plate – offering you a tour of the Caribbean from your very own kitchen.
Why does Caribbean cuisine differ from island to island?
It is a feature of Caribbean cuisine that although each island may call a dish by the same name, there will be differences in the way it’s made.
Once again, this shines a light on the history and heritage of Caribbean food, with the differences reflecting the plants and animals that populated each region, the European country that colonised the island, the African countries that the enslaved came from, and the countries of the indentured workers used in the Caribbean after the abolition of slavery, including India.
This explains things like why some islands enjoy their rice softer, while other prefer it harder; why different islands favour a particular type of bean or pea, and why some make their fried dumplings with butter while others add a touch of sugar, and so on.
Which recipes are different in the Caribbean?
Some of the many dishes that appear across Caribbean islands and contribute to the tastes and traditions of each area include soup – made with whatever vegetables are seasonal at the time, make and bake sweet treats with coconut high on the dessert menu, and fruit cake – which is the clear front runner for all occasions.
The ingredients vary slightly depending on the island but they will all be flavoured with alcohol, traditionally red wine or rum of course, a regional product invented by enslaved Africans in the 17th century.
Many families make and bake their own fruit cakes but there is usually a go-to person or people in a village or Caribbean community that people use for special occasions like weddings, christenings, funerals, graduations, and Bank Holiday celebrations, particularly at Christmas.
Which ingredients are key in Caribbean cooking?
Must-have ingredients for Caribbean cooking include flour, spices, sweetcorn and coconut – all of which are used in both sweet and savoury dishes. While the patty and dumpling are popular Caribbean snacks, and Escoveitch fish and curry goat are famous mains, one of the favourite treats of many Caribbeans is actually black pudding and souse, which traditionally consists of pickled pork in a clear, seasoned broth.
The dish has raised controversy in religious circles for centuries, as to whether blood products and ingredients that some consider as taboo foods should be eaten. Despite this, black pudding and souse continues to be popular, both in the Caribbean where it’s sold as street food, and here in the UK, where it was introduced by the Windrush Generation.
What are your first food memories, from the UK in 1958?
The first totally Caribbean meal I had with my family, after arriving in our new home town of Nottingham, was Saturday soup. Other dishes we enjoyed often were rice and peas and chicken as a Sunday tradition, and a mid-week ‘make do’ meal of turned cornmeal and saltfish.
I also recall being surprised at how much the English ate that was covered in batter or pastry, and enjoying dishes such as spam and potatoes (which we in the Caribbean call Irish potatoes because they came from Ireland), and corned beef with white rice. Delish!
In time-honoured tradition, my parents taught me to cook within a short time of us arriving in the UK. In Caribbean homes, all children were taught to cook, not just girls.
My training began with spending time in the kitchen and watching how things were done, then helping to select and prepare vegetables, before being asked to make my own dish or help with the dishes my mother was cooking.
What was most different in the UK, compared to St Kitts?
My Mum missed her kitchen garden in St Kitts where she could pop out into her backyard and pick fresh peas and tea from the bushes growing there. She was horrified at how many of our neighbours in Britain used tinned products and despaired at the lack of nutrition in the contents.
However, as children, we loved the convenience of many English dishes, and the fact that they could be prepared and eaten so quickly. In general, many early Windrush arrivals felt that English food was “lightweight” compared to Caribbean food.
Many of the Windrush Generation still miss the “pick from the garden, put in the pot and cook” way of family cooking but their descendants are rediscovering why their ancestors made “little taste like much” with traditional culinary advice including “slow cook gives rich taste” and “use the spice to make it nice”. Caribbeans often use the phrase “n’yam” when talking about food and the pleasure we get from eating and enjoying traditional Caribbean food and we hope we’ve inspired you to ‘n’yam’ too.
Feeling Inspired? Read our menu of the eight traditional recipes that make an outstanding Caribbean feast!
Catherine Ross is the founder of The National Caribbean Heritage Museum (Museumand). The museum is a social history and community museum celebrating and commemorating the Caribbean contribution to the UK.