by Larry Smith
My house reeks of garlic and vinegar.
It always does at this time of year. That's because the wife has an almost religious compulsion to make Carne de Vinagre e Alhos, a traditional Portuguese Christmas dish.
Not that she's Portuguese, I hasten to add. Actually she's from Guyana - and mostly Amerindian, with admixtures of African, Dutch and Welsh.
In Guyana, Carne de Vinagre e Alhos is better known as garlic pork. It involves pickling for several days a few pounds of chops in vinegar spiced with salt, hot peppers, garlic and thyme, and then frying the meat on Christmas morning. Served with pink gin it's better than bacon, I have to say.
The Guyanese think and talk about food even more than Bahamians do. But they have infinitely more variety to choose from. In fact, the country likes to refer to itself as the land of six peoples - meaning East Indians, Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese and other Europeans.
As one transplanted Guyanese told me: "You have to realize that with our mixed population we are known to have bastardized just about all the food dishes from each culture and made them Guyanese."
Garlic pork is still a popular dish in Guyana, although there are not many Portuguese left in the country.
They arrived in 1835 from the island of Madeira, and became successful merchants (much as the Greeks did here). They were a voice of moderation during the 1960s under the leadership of Peter D'Aguiar. His middle class United Force hung precariously for a time between the East Indian People's Progressive Party led by Cheddi Jagan and the African People's National Congress led by Forbes Burnham.
The original inhabitants of Guyana were Arawak tribes, the same people who migrated up the Caribbean to settle the Bahamas. In European terms, Guyana was initially a Dutch trading post and later became a British colony. Enslaved Africans were brought to work the plantations, and after abolition they were replaced by indentured labourers from India.
In 1953 the first free elections in British Guiana (as Guyana was then known) produced a convincing win for Jagan's PPP (the country's first political party) with Burnham as a top lieutenant. But within a few months the British suspended the constitution to prevent "extremists" from setting up a one-party state allied to the Soviet bloc. An emergency was declared and Guyana returned to crown colony status backed by British troops.
The context of the time is instructive. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had only just died - after sponsoring a bloody three-year war in Korea. Rebellions in Eastern Europe were being crushed by Soviet tanks, and the American spies who had given nuclear secrets to the Russians were executed. The two opposing blocs faced each other with atomic weapons in an armed truce. And throughout the 1950s, the Third World was an increasingly important arena of Cold War competition.
Burnham went on to form the PNC in 1955, but Jagan was re-elected in 1957 and 1961. By this time the British were ready to grant the colony independence under Jagan's leadership, but the Americans were so flustered about the prospect of "Castroism" in the region - since Fidel had recently taken over in Cuba and become a Soviet client - that they gave Guyana a lot more attention than it deserved.
According to a declassified memo from then Secretary of State Dean Rusk: "We are not inclined to give people like Jagan the same benefit of the doubt which was given two or three years ago to Castro."
The British, in their haste to decolonise, took a more sanguine view. In a 1961 meeting with a US State Department representative, the governor of British Guiana discounted the view that Jagan was a Soviet puppet. According to Sir Ralph Grey, Jagan's greatest weakness was his lack of appreciation of the responsibility of public office:
"Sir Ralph said that in British Guiana politicians are forever looking for excuses why they cannot do something; it is the only country he knew in which a plausible excuse for inaction was an acceptable substitute for action," the State Department memo said.
Of course, that was before Sir Ralph had been appointed governor of the Bahamas, where he probably gained a better appreciation of the term "inaction".
In 1964 the British and Americans engineered Burnham's takeover through elections based on proportional representation. That led to decades of racial conflict, repression, emigration and rigged elections, so that Guyana is now the poorest of the former British West Indian territories. Burnham remained in power until his death in 1985. The 1992 elections were then won by Jagan (who also died in office), and the PPP has been in power ever since. What a monumental waste of time.
When Tough Call was a yoot-man, the intelligentsia regarded Burnham's so-called Co-operative Republic of Guyana as the most politically advanced society in the region. But eventually, that facade crumbled to the point where cans of sardines became the unofficial currency.
As you can imagine, all of this produced hundreds of thousands of well-educated and mixed-up Guyanese refugees who fled to better lives in Canada, Britain, the US and the Bahamas. Even the Chinese grocers left. And that's why we are making garlic pork on Christmas day at my house.
Isn't it wonderful how the aromas of seasonal cooking can conjure up such fond memories?
All the best for the Chinese new year.