By G. J. Giddings
Dr. Jahwara Giddings is Professor of History at Central State University
It is always a good time to reiterate Guyana’s food traditions, practices, and prospects, and to emphasize the power and potential of good food in general. Just as food does amazing things at the table, it could be a source of national unity through development of a thoughtful and positive national food culture. In fact, there is a contemporary cuisine scene unfolding in Guyana, with great potential for our food security, health, economic enterprise and yes even national pride and unity.
There are global calls, if not cries, for more thoughtful and sustainable food systems which demand leadership from agriculturally rich and culturally dynamic places like Guyana. And with projected oil wealth, and good governance, Guyana could lead and model modern sustainable food practices. Environmental justice issues, such as food security (safety, health, access) are worldwide concerns, and each place in the world has a role to play in offering solutions. Guyana’s cultural heritage, natural history and certainly our geography, position us to offer unique answers to vexing food related environmental justice challenges, such as access to safe, nutritious and delicious foods, and opportunities for viable food related business opportunities.
Included in the many positive food developments in Guyana, are Pandama Winery and Retreat, Backyard Café, Pergola Grill, Burger Shack & Grill, Roosters Products, Guyana Swine Producers Cooperative Society Limited, Carnegie School of Home Economics, Tropical Reflection Restaurant and Bar, Oyono Products, Gobin’s Farm & Kitchen and the New Guyana Marketing Cooperation or Guyana Store which showcases and sells exclusively Guyanese made products. The Backyard Café is highlighted here because it is leading a movement to ensure a viable and sustainable Guyanese food and cuisine culture by building relationships with various entities in the food orbit nationally. Creating a national food culture or brand, with an international reputation for creative and sustainable foods depends on every aspect of the Guyanese food system playing its part – government, environmental advocates, farmers, distribution networks, cooks, food merchants, products and brand creators, scholars, food writers, patrons and patriots. The Backyard Café team recognizes this.
The Backyard Café (Backyard) was founded by Chef Delvin Adams and Malini Jaikaran, but is an even larger team effort to celebrate, preserve and innovate Guyanese food traditions through fine dining and catering, market tours, gardening consultancy, and ecotourism. Backyard offers an uncommon, on-demand dining experience, for which a reservation is required to allow the chef and the team to craft a unique experience for each guest. Although “reservations only” might seem stuffy, dining there is far from fussy. I never felt more comfortable at a restaurant as I did at the Backyard, due to the beautifully designed semi-outdoor and natural ambience, and a “make yourself at home” vibe. The Backyard is where I fell in love with passionfruit, picked directly from its vines on a trestle near my table, and learned from Chef to eat it just so – cut in half, spooned out, savored and swallowed. In fact, it was here that I first tasted 3
varieties of passionfruit, affirming my view that variety is the passion of life. Creatively and sustainably, Chef uses the passion fruit’s rind/skin as serving cups for a passion fruit ice cream/pudding. As a matter of fact, Chef’s delicious dishes are plated beautifully, and demonstrate that our local ingredients and dishes are worthy of fine dining, and that local produce should play leading roles over imports. I can go on about Chef Delven’s delicious Gilbaka curry, smoked snapper shine rice, wild pig pepperpot, garlic pork, roast chicken, bunjal duck curry, fireside Metemgee, Married-man-pork drink, and Pastry Chef Malini’s triumphant cheese cakes – the sorrel and passion fruit, and the chocolate are my favorites. In the Backyard’s laidback atmosphere, delicious and dazzling dishes are typically accompanied by interesting backstories of how ingredients are sourced and handled in getting a dish to the table. Michael Pollan selected the apple, potato, marijuana and tulip plants for his book The Botany of Desire, because of the interesting stories they tell. All food have backstories worth telling, and the Backyard team has proven to be masterful at this.
Backyard’s foodways extend beyond the kitchen and dining room, with food tours of Stabroek and Bourda markets, where more interesting food stories are shared by both Chef and many vendors. Tour guests are guided through the bounty of these local markets, and introduced to both produce and their purveyors. Iconic horse drawn carts are employed to shuttle guests between Bourda and Stabroek markets and other sites such as the New Guyana Marketing Corporation (GMC). It was on the Backyard market tour, in Bourda Market that I was reintroduced to the relatively rare sour fig banana, and its unique tart and sweet taste and its many medicinal qualities. At GMC, one discovers scores of locally manufactured produce, including several wines from GT and Pandama wineries, Pakaraima Flavours sundried tomato catchup, Pomeroon Rose coconut cassareep, and Tapakuma Pride garlic flavored cassava bread squares (perfectly sized for the toaster), and much more! Known also as the Guyana Store, GMC is a place of discovery, even for locals, as more and more food entrepreneurs are encouraged by growing opportunities to market their creations. Beyond inspiring future foodie entrepreneurs with its wide selection of local products, GMC offers concrete opportunities to food creators with its periodic Farmers Market at various locations along the Atlantic coast. The Backyard’s test kitchen itself has several products with marketing potential, such as its delicious avocado butter and bird peppers pepper flakes. I wonder also, if we truly appreciate the bounty of this country, where in fact no Guyanese should starve or malnourish given bountiful agricultural lands “made rich by sunshine and lush by the rains.”
The Backyard market tours offer insight into the care with which ingredients are selected for the menu, and even some of the actual backstories behind the signature Backyard dishes. People first values are embodied in curated relationships with farmers and producers such as Hudson Farm in Mocha, the Guyana Marketing Cooperation, Oyono Products, Gobin’s Farm & Kitchen, various Market vendors and even diners, patrons and other chefs. According to chef Delven, when farmers, farming practices and ingredient sources are known and selected with care, he is organically directed or inspired to handle the ingredients with care and creativity. Specifically, after selecting excellent ingredients, Chef refuses and in fact sees no need to use artificial flavour enhancers. Diners then benefit from pure, delicious, and innovative dishes which in turn inspire them to do same in their own kitchen.
More intentional learning takes place during the Backyard Market Tours, through stories of the versatility and medicinal benefits of well-known and unfamiliar vegetables, fruits, herbs and of innovative products such as coconut cassareep. Chef even encouraged a Bourda Market vendor of coconut water to offer customers an optional splash of local rum as a natural flavor boost to their coconut water. These tours build relationships between Chef and several vendors and enhances the natural role of vendors to educate customers about their produce. Educating on Guyana’s food bounty and diversity, Chef is in his charismatic element here just as when he charms diners with back stories of dishes at the restaurant.
Reaching even further beyond the restaurant, Backyard offers garden and landscape consultancy and assistance with creating subsistent “kitchen gardens” and decorative gardens and arboretums. Here, Chef is empowering persons to control and gain access to wholesome, delicious, organic food while contributing to needed flood control practices in a land that is a whole meter below sea level, plus encouraging an ecological haven for divers fauna such as pollinating birds and bees. Even in a small Georgetown yard, growing karela, tomatoes, ginger, moringa, plantains, bananas, callaloo, tulsie, teaseum, alongside marigold, lilies, crotons, cactuses and “jump up and kiss me” attracts humming and other birds, butterflies, bees and other life who are attracted and add even more beauty, interest and (ecological) health to the yard.
Taking cues from nature’s interdependence, effective coordination of various parts of the food system is how the Backyard team is expanding access to excellent food as foundation for a successful national food and cuisine culture. Government, environmentalists, farmers, inventors, manufacturers, purveyors, cooks, critics, educators, researchers, and “foodies” are all to play their respective role and should be interrogated to determine the actual state of our Guyanese cuisine culture. We might all agree that every meal has a story or a particular path it took to get to the table, but we are usually oblivious to the details of our food’s backstory, but of course prayerful that its ingredients had a safe and caring journey to us. Regardless, good and meaningful food has behind it stories of thoughtful and innovative farming for flavour and nutrients, safe processing and handling, and minimal harm to our environment and to human labour. Whenever corporate profit is the driving force of your food’s backstory, then it is neither good nor meaningful in terms of flavor, nutrition, health, safety or sustainability.
Through the web, the Backyard created an extended community of Guyanese beyond Georgetown to the far flung Guyanese Diaspora abroad, as well as none Guyanese worldwide who are increasingly aware of Guyana, thanks to our projected oil wealth and being featured on celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey’s TV show Uncharted and his recent visit. Specifically, Backyard has cultivated over 13,000 friends on Facebook and a focused group, Real Backyard Café, where sharing, learning and support is taking place all the time. Facebook “Backyard Live” real time broadcasts demonstrate Chef’s modern takes on traditional dishes such as his fireside Metemgee, and promoting consciousness of our wide array of medicinal teas with “Backyard Tea Time” on Facebook Live. Comments from these broadcasts and daily posts inspire some of Chef’s innovations. One curious invention is his Married Man Pork drink, which is delicious, but not surprisingly made visually more palatable with the addition of a natural food red dye. On first encountering this deceptively delicious drink, I almost immediately imagined how this delicious drink would work as a cocktail chaser with my new favorite gin, DDL’s Lord Roberts. Through Facebook engagements, Guyanese anywhere and others are (being) inspired to preserve such dishes as plantain Foo-foo, cornmeal Cou-cou, soursop ice cream, etc. As such, the Backyard is forging democratic, and thus sustainable approach to preserving and innovating our food traditions, and ultimately securing an authentic Guyanese food renaissance.
After establishing a dynamic restaurant, an unprecedented market tour, a needed horticultural consultancy and a worldwide discourse on Guyanese foods, the Backyard Café team’s natural next, as they see it, is to establish a retreat campus, similar to Pandama Winery and Retreat, to operationalize the connections between food and holistic wellness.
The Backyard Café enterprise is one of Guyana’s good news stories, going unnoticed but so sorely needed amidst a daily deluge of pandemic and political bad news. Bringing diverse persons to the same proverbial table, is always good news because food stories can make meaning and sometimes even miracles. The Backyard Café can boast having hosted among its many guests, Barbados President Mia Mottley, Bishop of Guyana Charles Alexander Davidson, artiste Eddy Grant, and most recently British celebrity chef and media mogul Gordon Ramsey who visited Guyana in February to highlight Guyana’s cuisine scene and diverse food culture for his television program, Unchartered.
Through their talents, hard work, commitment and love for Guyana’s heritage and culture, Chef Delven Adams, with his Backyard Café team, is leading and modeling a sustainable approach to food and thus achieving for Guyana’s food and cuisine culture, what Enrique Olvera has done in Mexico with Pujol, Rene Redzepi has done in Denmark with Noma, David Kwabena Ntim has done in Ghana with Santinos Fine Meats and Sausages, Virgilio Martinez has done in Peru with Central, and what Edna Lewis and Sean Brock have done in the U.S. with southern American cuisine.