She started as simple as sharing a plate of food. But boy, was it good and did she go far.
Annie Walton, 74, scoots past. Entering the smoky interior she pokes the fiery embers sending up showers of burning embers. “This fire is about ready to take another cake” she said, as this reporter watched her hands move to a mound of ashes.
She brushes away the hot ashes just as my eyes begin to water and my camera lens begins to fog. Lifting the cover on an iron pot, the aroma of sweetened spices and baked yams assaulted my nostrils.
This was a whiff of “back in the day” in the sweetest way possible.
This is the outside kitchen where the heavy cakes are cooking in heavy iron pots, buried in piles of hot ashes. Orange flames burst with intensity; a gust of sea breeze whips through the back windows taking the tantalising smoke out and through the front door. I ventured closer to get a look inside.
“Just like what you see me doing by the fireside is how my parents did it,” said Ms Walton, knocking me back to present day life. “I watched my mother prepare the food, peel the cassava and beat the cakes and do it today just like she did back then. There were no measurements and everyone learned by using their discretion.”
My nostalgic experience did not stop there. After showing me a baked to perfection yam cake, she picks up a dry coconut from a nearby tree; hacks it open on a iron wood stake buried in the sand and in minutes skilfully pulls the husk from the dried coconut.
“Coconut milk is an important ingredient when making heavy cakes” she said, as I looked on in wonderment.
Inside resting on the tabletop sits the turtle meat ready to be seasoned with Scotch bonnet peppers and onions, the sweet potatoes to be peeled and the conchs to pound. She will stay up all night infusing a blend of tastes that has made her catering business a well-known icon in Cayman Brac.
That same taste, prepared with much joy, love and care has Cayman Brac residents smacking lips, visitors seeking out her kitchen and Ms Walton happy to share her food.
She is a popular, well-known cook in Spot Bay, and I think, may be one of the last of a Caymanian breed still using the outside caboose to prepare mouth-watering local dishes.
Sometimes cooking from sun up to sun down, Ms Walton’s motto is, “Always you never take work hard. When you take work hard it becomes hard, but when you take it willingly it becomes a pleasure. I enjoy working, but I never liked cooking,” she said.
The kitchen is simple, no electronic gadgets or fancy utensils.
“I don’t need it, I did not love cooking and I would not allow my husband to put in cabinets,” she said. “I can’t tell you my life story right off the bat because that is a long, poverty stricken one.”
Not missing a beat with the yam mixture, I marvelled at the few ingredients laid out and the old-fashioned equipment being used to pull the cake together.
“We made do with the little we had those days” she said, skilfully whipping grated Cayman Brac white yam into a fluffy mixture.
Flap, bam, flap, bam, ping, the silver spoon resonates off the sides of the mixing bowl. A dash of nutmeg is added, another flap, a mixture of warm melted brown sugar and coconut milk is tipped in, and there are no measuring cups in this kitchen. Ms Walton is baking a yam cake. The best, some claim in the sleepy laid back town of Spot Bay in Cayman Brac.
“Things were not the best for my mother after my father drowned at age 35, leaving her a widow to raise eight children on her own” she said, adding how she never wore a pair of shoes until 1953 when Governor Blake came to open West End Primary School. She was 12.
Backing sand, fetching water, doing chores and attending school was the order of the day. On weekends, Ms Walton and her siblings headed over to help their grandparents to get money to buy schoolbooks. She attended school to age 16, but returned in later years to get a secretarial degree.
Ms Walton married in 1958 and raised six children – three girls and three boys. Her husband was at sea.
Despite her humble beginnings, Ms Walton’s pleasant personality outshines the hardships she endured in those earlier years. This, and the attention paid when watching others, has helped her develop a sought after catering business.
A full-time housewife, until the recent passing of her husband, Ms Walton diligently kept going in good faith that the Lord would see her through.