Kim (with cocoa pod). James Bellorini 2020.

Part of my project process has been to meet with contributors and to talk about their heritage, experiences, and the cross-over these have with food in their lives. I met Kim Jack Riley through a cultural heritage Facebook group and she agreed to contribute to the project. She was born in the UK of Trinidadian-English heritage and lived in New York for most of her adult life. As with all the project discussions it was recorded. I’m presenting a short, edited extract from this conversation here as it was so interesting:

KJR: My mother was English from Bethnal Green and came through the Second World War as a true Londoner, around the time of the Blitz. And then also being evacuated with her two sisters. So a city girl, evacuated to the country to Lavenham. But it became paradise because once they realised they were free from all the urban constraints and at an age where they could just run it free.

So she and her sisters and my family on that side, it’s really about the pie and mash. There’s a place in South London called Manzi’s built somewhere around the 19th century, and surviving with the most traditional pie and mash and green liquor. My one surviving aunt is now 93. And when we go to visit her there’s a stop at Manzi’s. So that’s a tradition. Eating the pie and mash. That’s a ritual. 

That’s one side of the family. Obviously a very strong side of me.

And my mum and two of her sisters, out of a family of five white children from Bethnal Green, the three of them married black men. Of my two Auntie’s one married a Jamaican and one married a Guyanese. And those men were both in the armed services in the war. My dad, from Trinidad, was slightly younger. So he was not a part of the armed services. He came over around the time of Windrush. But he was a dancer. And his day job was in the printing trade. But it was as a dancer, that he and his best friend decided that they were going to leave Trinidad for better opportunities.

The two of them were 17/18 years old. They were apprentices in The Guardian, which in Trinidad is like the New York Times or The Guardian in England. They were good apprenticeships. But their passion was dancing. They boarded a cruise ship to come to England. And of course, they have little means. They were in the berths for ordinary people, dancing on their own deck. And lo and behold the entertainment director noticed them and saw that they were really good and asked them to the upper decks to entertain as dancers. They just said if that means we get better food and drinks then yes. The dances that they wanted them to perform needed to be really authentic for the audience and so that is the story of how they became the Vivian Jack Dance Ensemble. And in fact, they delved much further and much deeper into African roots of the dances so they made it as authentic as possible for this audience. They had this inner knowledge and capacity to really take it to that next level. And all because of three week journey on a cruise ship. They even went on to perform at the Royal Variety Show. The realities of moving to England as an immigrant did hit and that’s where having the printing trade to fall back on for his bread and butter kept them going. But I just thought it’s was like really strong and powerful that I could go home after school and see my culture right there.

And then we had my Mum into Bingo and cooking. And, I don’t know how but love is probably a big part of it, she’s making sort of Trinidadian curries. That’s a lot of what we used to eat. I wouldn’t say it was restaurant quality. But, you know, my dad seemed to enjoy it. I think that East London has always been one of those places where there’s just this character embedded. You know, again, music, food, people discovering ways to get on with life and enjoy it, which often comes, I think, from hardship.

Social media chat with Kim about Roti.

JB: On the food front, is there anything that if you saw it today or could smell it, that it’s like time travelling because it’s so evocative to you of a place or time?

KJR: Definitely the roti. Loads of cultures have their version of a flatbread or naan bread, you know. Trinidad’s demographic is sort of fifty percent African heritage and fifty percent Indian heritage. So typically a Trinidadian often has a very dark complexion, but thick lustrous, long black hair. So along with that came the cooking of the roti that was embraced on both sides. And there are now variations of it for modern fast food you might say. But to me the roti is the grandmother spending hours, possibly days grinding, pounding, rolling all the things that went into making the proper roti and using the most rural of roasting pans? Words cannot describe.

I’ve been eating them since the age of my solid foods. So I know a good variety of roti. Even if I just see it. Because of the colour. A proper roti is made with ground chickpeas like a flour or paste and, technically, it’s almost like two roti’s smashed together. Like, two pieces of dough that become just one. And there’s a consistency. Yeah, you can tell and then eventually you can taste that as well, that it’s got that chickpea in it, as opposed to the filling. It’s so funny that I’m so intimidated by what I’ve just outlined that I’ve never even attempted to make my own. And I’ve watched videos, you know. I’m not even gonna try it.

I have got a recipe. In America they call them devilled eggs. It’s sort of become my trademark. And I find it really funny because it’s not really all that hard to make, but it does require the time and commitment, and there’s an art to making sure that egg is just right. So if we’re going to a party if I announce at home that I’m going to take devilled eggs, you can just see my husband and daughter light up. You see it in their faces. In fact, I have created a tradition for them. I mean I know this sounds morbid but I know that when I’m no longer here, if they ever see a devilled egg will remind them of me.

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The full interview/discussion will be published on the project website where the reason for the cocoa pod in the photo above is also discussed.