When I was 16, I got a job as the receptionist at a small printery on Sellier Street in St Augustine. It was not my first job—I’d left school the year before and had worked briefly at two or three places since.
One of the Seafood Enterprises outlets occupies that space now and as I drove up to the building last week, that snippet of my past jumped up out of nowhere. It would have been around 1982, 40 years ago, and I wondered what had become of the motley crew.
I’d made friends with Farzhana, petite and beautiful with strikingly large heavily-lined eyes, and unusually long eyelashes. (I knew nothing about mascara or fake eyelashes then.)
She was lively and chatty, with an English accent, which I now imagine must have been cockney, and represented the height of sophistication with her smart clothes—the kind I used to think of as outfits that rhymed.
At lunchtime, we would often walk across to the Hi Lo Supermarket, much smaller then, but an enormous novelty to me with my limited experience of Ming’s dry goods store and Wong’s over-the-counter grocery where you asked for what you wanted; no trolleys.
In hindsight, I see my simple self; naïve and curious, timid but eager to explore and learn. Hi Lo’s deli counter was a marvel of unknown delicacies, reposed on trays with white plastic lacy doilies; so exotic, so dainty, so garnished!
Farzhana introduced me to the chicken salad sandwich. It was actually chicken paste inside a hops bread, and it was cheap, even for me. I fell in love with it; so completely, utterly, and absolutely (a triple emphasis), that it is still one of my happy meals—in fact I just made some.
A few years later, when I went to work at the Express, Sheila and I, rookies and country girls in many ways (except she was more daring and confident), would go across Independence Square to the Sandwich Construction Company which had recently opened.
There for $4, we would each buy a hops and chicken salad sandwich. Anthony Chow Lin On (Chinese Laundry) had bravely opened a place offering a range of sandwiches prepped along a sort of conveyor belt and it was as fascinating to watch as it was to sample the range of fillings.
This went on for a long time, until Leonard, the indefatigable and brilliant news editor, pulled us up one day. A hops bread for lunch? He snorted. That is not big people food.
Leonard was as thin as one of the pens perpetually wedged over his ear, the Jack Sprat to Keith Smith, except that they both ate massive meals. The difference was that Keith ate many such massive meals during the day. Leonard would eat one, give an almighty belch, push back his chair and hustle off.
But even if he made us self-conscious about our four-dollar repasts, he couldn’t stop us from partaking. I still recall Sandwich Construction as one of the revolutionary (and beloved) places in Port of Spain.
Where is this going, you might ask. Who’s to say? Perhaps it conjured itself as I was driving into Seafood Enterprises and glimpsed the three concrete steps from times past, leading nowhere now, but taking me on a journey.
You can trace things you know, track the moment when you made a discovery. Like when I went to the home of my friend from primary school, Sharlene. I don’t know how that happened because we were never allowed to visit anyone, but there I was.
Sharlene opened a can of tuna and made a tuna salad with mayonnaise, lime juice and other things. I was terrified. The idea of eating something straight from the can without cooking it first scared me. At home, such a thing was never done. But it was delicious.
Tuna and chicken, paste or salad; a few herbs, a dollop of mayo, sour cream, or yoghurt and mustard—there must be mustard—and something simple and tasty appears. Over the years, I have made many versions.
Sometimes I feel for the creaminess of a paste; sometimes it is chunkiness I desire. I would never have discovered either dish if I had kept myself within the parameters of the foods I knew and had grown up with.
I would never have thought that one could eat fish straight from a can. I would never have known that a potato salad was not meant to be eaten hot until our neighbour served it up deliciously chilled with fried chicken.
They may seem odd pockets of ignorance, but if you think about it, we live in a space with a wondrous array of foods brought here by the remarkable range of cultures that inhabit it. Yet, curiously, given this long history of intermingling, many among us still refuse to venture out of our cocoons.
I know people who say they would not eat outside food, meaning dishes prepared by people not within their family circle. Recently, a tradesman told me that he preferred not to eat at all while he was working, rather than partake of other people’s food. Yet, one day, driven by hunger, he bought Royal Castle chicken, and I realised that fast food does not count as a transgression of this principle.
It’s a hell of a thing the way we rationalise our choices, isn’t it?