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Travel to Guadeloupe & Celebrate

The Fêtes des Cuisinières

Celebrating Women as Nourishers

   

by Paola Gianturco

Editor's Note: Our review section began when we discovered the wonderful book, Celebrating Women. We were happy to review a book that relishes in all aspects of the female nature, but were particularly interested in this festival. We thank author, Paola Gianturco, for sharing this very special festival with us. To discover more about her book, please click here.

***

In Guadeloupe

The breeze toys with the pages of the song books, and blows gently through the open windows of the cathedral. Later in the day, the windows will be louvred against August's 100 degree heat. But now it's 6:30 AM and Guadeloupe's women cooks have gathered in the ancient church for a private mass on the birthday of their chosen patron, Saint Laurent, who was, they say, grillé at the stake. The Cuisinières pray together and sing, their alleluias echoing from the vaulted ceiling. Bells ring from the steeple as trucks and motorcycles begin to hum through the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre.

For the next two days, the Fête des Cuisinières will celebrate these Creole cooks and the unique culinary tradition of Guadeloupe, the butterfly-shaped island in the French West Indies that lies almost equidistant between Florida and Venezuela. These women are so expert at delighting the taste buds that they are known as "the professionals of the mouth."In 1916, their mothers and grandmothers, cooks of modest means, banded together to form Cuistot Mutuel, an insurance association, to provide the medical care and funerals that they could not afford. The cooks prepared meals when members were sick, helped each other through family emergencies, and arranged dignified funeral services. After having seen shared so many difficulties, they yearned to see each other on a more joyful occasion. So they created one: the annual Fête de Cuisinières. In 1917, ten cooks first dressed in sumptuous costumes and attended the Saint Laurent mass, then paraded through Point-à-Pitre carrying their best dishes, which they served at a great public feast. The Fête des Cuisinières has happened every year since, no matter what. Viviane Madacombe, the current President, laughs about the 1948 Fête: "It was hurricane season and there was a high alert, meaning everyone was supposed to stay home. The cooks were dressed in red. When they paraded, all their dresses were soaked by the torrential rain. Their white petticoats, even their underwear, got wet---and pink!"
The public is invited to attend the next mass and The Church of Saint Peter and Paul is jammed with 150 cooks, local residents and tourists. The Cuisinières place baskets of food near the altar to be blessed, each one decorated with red ribbons that match Saint Laurent's mantle. The ceremonial mass, which has no communion, is a celebration of songs, prayers, laughter--and applause that begins when the oldest Cuisinière, 104, walks down the center aisle to her seat. The cooks cluster together on the front pews, a kaleidoscope of color. The choir rocks the church with joyful songs. Alleluia, Ah-lay-lou-yah! The cooks burst from the church carrying wicker market baskets trimmed with clattering metal miniature saucepans, measuring cups, salt shakers, colanders and milk cans. The baskets brim with fresh fruit and vegetables, every arrangement more artful than the one before. The women also carry theatrical Creole dishes that they will serve at the five hour feast this afternoon: towers of crayfish the size of lobsters, trays of mussels. Almost 200 restaurants on the island are owned by women cooks and chefs; the parade affords a chance to flaunt their culinary expertise. The Cuisinières offer petit fours to the spectators who pack the downtown sidewalks to cheer them on. The women cooks dance through the city streets past the spice market and the fish market where, on work days, they shop for the freshest local ingredients. Finally, they stop at the gates of the Lycée Carnot, the prep school where diplomats, governing elite--and the first black woman--have been educated. The school courtyard is full of white tents that shade banquet tables set for 600. Helium balloons will escape into the sky as soon as the clock strikes noon. Strict protocol governs the sequence in which the Cuisinières and their guests enter the school. The image of Saint Laurent is carried in first. Next, Madame Viviane Madacombe, the President of the Cuistot Mutuel, starts up the steep steps, followed by the Vice Presidents and member cooks, and finally, The President and Prefect of the region, invited guests and the public, each of whom have paid $25 for the privilege of sharing the fabulous feast. Every ticket has been sold. Musicians have come from France to play for the festival. Cooks from the neighboring island, Marie Galante, have come to dance. The cooks sing the Cuisinière song while everyone sips Ti punch (sugar cane rum, lemon and sugar) and nibbles hors d'oeuvres.The Cuisinières have converted classrooms into kitchens, and are preparing to serve six different kinds of salad including shredded pumpkin. They have prepared breads, curried chicken, Ouassous (crayfish), codfish and rice, dombrés (dumplings), sweet potato---and, for dessert, clove ice cream. The final presentation will be the pièce de résistance, Pain Doux, an 85th anniversary cake: dome shaped with white icing drizzled into intricate, lacey patterns. Entertainers wearing Creole costumes dance energetically, undeterred by a surprise shower. There are speeches by the VIPs including a member of parliament from Lyon France, the Mayor of Pointe-à-Pitre and the President of the Regional Counsel, who observes, "Creole tradition has eternal value." Islands Magazine would agree, having decreed that Guadeloupe's women cooks serve "what is widely regarded as the best Creole cuisine in the Caribbean."In between courses, there is dancing. One Cuisinière moves like a belly dancer, her hand on her stomach, gyrating and undulating. Four Cuisinières do a circle dance in the kitchen. One old Cuisinière dances through the tents carrying a live chicken; she sits on men's laps, teases them, and kisses them on the lips amid yelling and merriment. Under the trees, two Cuisinières perform the beguine while their cook friends clap together two mahogany blocks, a book-shaped percussion instrument. A Cuisinière-to-be, about six, carries her baby brother to dance. The youngest child wearing a Cuisinière costume is about three; she nestles in her father's arms while he dances. Some Cuisinières dance without leaving their chairs, waving their arms gleefully to the rhythm of the music. In the corner of the schoolyard, the image of Saint Laurent watches silently. Surely he would do a little jig if he could.I begin to understand the link between Creole cuisine and Guadeloupe's history before--and after--Christopher Columbus landed here in November 1493 seeking fresh water, lured by the sight of waterfalls that tumble from the high peaks in the island's rain forest. The food legacy of the indigenous people, the Arawak and Caribbean Indians, included jellied apple and guava, cassava (manioc bread) and barbecue style cooking, as well as many dishes made with rooster-tail-conch, snails, oysters, and shellfish. The Spanish brought matété (which is a variation of paella and jambalaya) and a style of preparing land crabs that originated in Galicia, Spain. The English contributed tortoise soup and punch.The French who settled in Guadeloupe in 1633 (the archipelago is now one of 96 departments of France), donated Ouassous (crayfish), Court Bouillon and Pain Doux, the lacey anniversary cakes served at the 85th Fete des Cuisinières. Dutch Jews, who took refuge here from Brazil in 1634, introduced blaff (which gets its name from the sound the fish makes when it's dropped in boiling water) and dombrés, dumplings. The Africans who came to work on the sugar cane plantations brought accras (crusty cod fritters that were named for Accra, the capital of Ghana) and calalou (green vegetable soup) plus many other delicacies.

Guadeloupean slaves were emancipated in 1848 and after that, sugar cane workers immigrated to Guadeloupe from India and China, and brought with them, le colombo (curry) and moltani (saffron soup).

Ary Ebroin, author of a two volume epic work, Art Culinaire Crèole d'Antilles Francais, writes:"Any Creole dish holds the glamour of the past, the poetry of the land and the sweetness of our most distant memories. It harmonizes with the brightness of our sun and the splendor of our landscape."

   
   
Recipe:

west indian court bouillon

 

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