East Enders pass down sweet tradition

Pearlina Christian, right, and her daughter Melisa peel, wash and grate cassava. - PHOTOS: JEWEL LEVY

Ask a Caymanian which district bakes the best cassava cake, and you will get a “stretch” of answers all the way from Grand Cayman to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.

Ask an East Ender, and right away he or she will say, “What you talking about? East End has the best heavy cake bakers,” and without a smile, too.

Cassava cake oftentimes is a very dark, intensely sweet culinary creation. It can be quite sticky at times, but also firm in texture – some people have even nicknaming it “stretchy” because of its texture. Because it reminds us of the Cayman tradition, it can be found on tables at weddings, parties and especially around Christmas time.

East Enders have a point when it comes to heavy cake bakers, in that they have a unique tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation, as is the case in the Christian family.

In days gone by, learning how to feed a family was skill and a passion that many Caymanians passed down. No cookbooks taught them how to put things together – just a pinch of this, a dash of that and a handful of so and so was what it took to create some tasty dishes. There was also a lot of love put into most recipes.

Nelson Christian and his family are as unique as the cassava cakes they make from a recipe that he says has been passed down through more generations than he can remember.

Sitting under the shade of a casuarina tree, Mr. Christian’s wife Pearlina and daughter Melisa work as a team preparing cassava root for baking.

Cutting the cassava root into pieces and peeling it, Mrs. Christian observed, “This cassava’s not as good as we always get,” as she dropped it into a five-gallon bucket of water.

The finished product: A delicious cassava cake.
The finished product: A delicious cassava cake.

“I never had to pay for it, I’m lucky,” said her daughter, scooping up a piece, washing it, and pushing it down on the sharp spikes of the hand grater positioned in a huge pan.

“Sometimes the cassava be too hard, then it’s lots of work,” continued Mrs. Christian, adding that the grater her daughter was using was over 15 years old, made by a gentleman in the district.

Just then it started raining, forcing the ladies to run for cover. But not for long. Watching all the action take place from the front porch, son Joshua grabbed a large umbrella and made shelter for the two women. As they continued with their work, the young man kept a firm hold on the umbrella as he watched them prepare the roots.

Melisa started baking when she was no longer working out in the community, and it proved to be a very sweet business. She is constantly taking in orders of yam and cassava cakes, whether it be for home use or a special occasion. Some customers understand and appreciate the time taken to come up with this cultural creation and will pay the price of either $20, or $35, depending on the size.

Most older folks say they do not know how the first cassava cake came about, while others claim it is the product of a mix-up in someone’s outside kitchen caboose many, many years ago. Like many Cayman heavy cakes, a key ingredient is coconut milk, which was once used in just about every traditional dish.

To make her heavy cakes, Pearlina Christian adds fresh coconut milk, butter, mixed spice (nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla), cornstarch, water, salt and brown sugar to the cassava pulp.

“I’m not feeling too alive these days, but when I was up and about, every day there was a heavy cake in the oven,” said Mr. Christian.

For those not familiar with the cassava, it is a white tuber with a thick, waxy skin that is dug from the ground. It is somewhat unusual as a food item because both the roots and leaves can be toxic to consume.

Nutritionally, the cassava plant is comparable to a potato, but has a higher fiber and protein content.

It is primarily harvested for its tuberous root, which can grow quite large at times, depending on the type of soil.

Cayman farmers grow the cassava plant by replanting stem cuttings from parent plants.

Its main uses are in dishes such as heavy cakes, eaten simply boiled, or flattened into a dough-like consistency and fried. It can also be stewed with coconut milk and fish.

Years ago, people used “brown” cassava to make starch for clothes. According to Mr. Christian, this type of cassava cannot be eaten unless the juice is removed. A yellow type know as “waxy” cassava is also a favorite of some people. In Mr. Christian’s opinion, its consistency is too hard and he does not like it, and his favorite is the sweet cassava.

Graters come in several sizes. The smallest is a hand-held model for individual households. Traditionally the hand-held grater used to grate cassava and other tubers was made from tin and wood.

In earlier times, men made the graters, but the women were responsible for cooking and preparing the cassava dishes.

To make the grater, the men would place the tin in a burlap sack known as a crocus bag and punch holes in it. The tin piece was then nailed to a piece of wood with the spikes of the punched holes sticking up. A person held one end of the grater and pushed the cassava with the other. When the cassava filled the grater it was knocked several times to dislodge loose pulp, a method still employed to this day.