30 June 2021
Rod Westmaas: A Hotchpotch of History and Hospitality
This is the eighth in a series of blogs coming out of the Eccles Centres’ Caribbean Foodways oral history project. Identifying connections between participants’ stories and collection items, each blog explores one of the nine oral history interviews that will be deposited in the Sound Archive.
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This blog is about Rod Westmaas who was born in Guyana in 1957 but grew up in Streatham, South London. Raised on the flavours of Guyana in their London home and moving back there as a teenager, Rod has a deep knowledge of Guyanese cooking and history. Dedicating his life to the hospitality industry, he has worked in Britain, Barbados and the United States. Aside from this, Rod set up Guyana SPEAKS with his wife, Dr. Juanita Cox, and he runs history walking tours. This blog focuses on his descriptions of one pot dishes with indigenous and African roots and his experience in the world of catering, but you will soon be able to listen to his full interview via the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.
The One Pot
Rod’s mother, Zena Westmaas, grew up in the Pomeroon, a region in Guyana next to the Pomeroon River which is located between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers. As Rod explains, this area of Guyana had a significant First Nations population, which meant that the food of Zena’s upbringing was based on ‘the native foods of that region and … Afro-Centric foods.’ In contrast to this, his paternal grandmother, Winifred Alberta, a woman of mixed descent with an Irish father and a light complexion, would only cook Eurocentric food, ‘she didn’t dabble into other types of foods – it’s the way she was brought up.’ During the interview, Rod showed me Winifred’s now tattered cookbook, that was printed by the Royal Bakery Company in 1929. After reading aloud a handwritten recipe for sponge cake, he recalled the treacle cake, baked potatoes and cheese soufflés that she used to love eating. The varying food heritages from Rod’s family capture his own reflections on the relationship between food, race and class in Guyana – ‘there was the distinct colour division, and colour defined what you ate.’
Metemgee is a prime example of this historic food division. This tasty and nutritious stew, ‘stems from the enslaved Africans having … to put all their foods together in this one pot to make something delicious.’ A popular dish in the Pomeroon area, it typically contained ‘ground provisions’ cooked with coconut i.e. root vegetables that were historically cultivated by enslaved Africans on small plots of land that were used to supplement the meagre rations that were supplied by planters.1 Hence, Metemgee is a living record of resistance through cultivation, cooking and nourishment. As fellow Guyanese, Rosamund Grant’s recipe shows, ‘There are many variations of this cooked around the Caribbean Islands, with different names e.g. Sancoche (with many more ingredients), Oildown or Oileen.’2 Interestingly, Rod tells me that Metemgee means ‘and the plantain makes it better’ – which a common ingredient across adaptations of this one pot. Using the example of Metemgee in his race-class-food analysis, Rod explained that it would not have been well received to cook this in a ‘light-skinned household.’ However, nowadays it is universal, which speaks to the fact that so much of Guyanese cuisine is a blending of indigenous and African cultures.
Cow heel soup is another one pot that Rod temptingly describes. Reciting a recipe, the cook is instructed to ‘scald, scrape and thoroughly clean the cow heel’ before cooking with a mix of ‘celery … mixed root vegetables … lime juice and grated nutmeg.’
Interestingly, Rod’s cow heel soup – hailing from the hills and rivers of Guyana – has much in common with these various cow heel hotchpotch concoctions that were published in a pamphlet-style cookbook by United Cattle Products Ltd. from the 1920s. Combining tasty and cheap offcuts with root vegetables, herbs and spices (with more seasoning in Rod’s version) embodies the resourcefulness of cooks with limited means, who seem to have magical powers of flavour extraction.
Rod’s recollections of bubbling one pots remind me of a folktale that I read in Andrew Salkey’s archive, ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings.’3 In this story, Brother Anancy sniffs around Gordon Town, Jamaica, searching for ‘large honey dumplings’ that are ‘being cooked in coconut milk, on a low gas flame.’ The narrator explains how Anancy:
‘craved food of that kind ever since he was a spider boy, in Nigeria, the old Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone and Mali, and he had brought his craving for honey dumplings, all the way across the Middle Passage into the horror of slavery in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. … They made him think of his African childhood and his promises to return, one day, to his first homes on the continent.’
This folktale conveys an important lesson about the histories of colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean but also the sanctity of food as an unbreakable connection back to Africa. Like Anancy’s honey dumplings, Rod’s stories of Metemgee and cow heel soup embody the African roots that continue to shape Guyanese culture.
Life in London
Moving to London just before he turned two, Rod spent his early childhood in Streatham before moving back to Guyana in 1970. Rod recalls waking up to the smell of frying from bakes – a ‘cheap bread alternative’ – ‘that would invariably have mashed sardines with onions as an accompaniment.’ Whilst Zena and Patrick Westmaas encouraged Rod and his siblings to ‘integrate … enjoy your fish and chips … shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash, become a child of Britain,’ they were also exposed to Guyanese flavours at home, producing a sense of ‘cross culture.’ Rod remembers having a curry for school dinners, prompting him to ask his mother why the curry had raisins in it, to which she said, ‘that’s no curry’! As much as Zena and Patrick tried to recreate Guyanese dishes at their South London home, Rod could only imagine the rich variety of produce from the place of his birth. In this clip, Rod tells an anecdote about visiting a market with his father, who turned to him and said ‘that’s nothing compared to Guyana’ and he started naming an impressive list of fruits, from soursop to sapodilla. This reminds me of Valerie Bloom’s children’s book (pictured above) that was published by one of Britain’s first Black publishers, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Using the fruits and roots of the Caribbean to list the alphabet, accompanied with beautiful illustrations, the book was a meeting of educational and culinary nourishment that equipped children with an understanding of Caribbean ingredients, flavours and creole language.
Having a nourishing though frugal upbringing, Rod explains that they would only have chicken once a month, but that they ate lots of bakes (made out of flour, baking powder, sugar and water) with saltfish. Striving for more, like your ‘typical West Indian family,’ Zena decided to go into private catering. Her main customers were the West Indian Students Centre and the Commonwealth Institute. An important activist and creative hub, the West Indian Students' Centre in Earl’s Court, became a meeting place for the Caribbean Artists Movement and hosted the likes of James Baldwin.4 Orders for ‘dhal puris, rotis, curry, black pudding,’ came streaming in and ‘she made quite a bit of money on the side,’ especially given that during this period in the 1960s there were seldom other Caribbean food businesses.
Inspired by his mother, Rod decided to go into the hospitality industry. Training for two and half years at Lewisham College, this was intermingled with work experience at the Savoy Hotel on the Strand and the InterContinental on Park Lane. Initially immersed in a world of “Souffle aux ecrevisses à la Florentine” and “Canard en chemise”, at London’s fine dining hotels, Rod later moved to Barbados to work with his mother, who had just set up the San Remo boutique hotel (later Zena established the Golden Sands Apartment Hotel where Rod also worked).5 These experiences set him up for an impressive catering career that has spanned Britain, the Caribbean and the USA; with Rod having managed 2,000 weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and conferences in his lifetime. Whether talking about the politics of the hospitality industry (e.g. ‘getting more people of colour involved’) or the history of Guyana, Rod’s profound interest, love and knowledge of food chimes throughout his interview, which you will soon be able to listen to!
Thank you Rod Westmaas for sharing your memories and thoughts with me.
Naomi Oppenheim is the project lead on Caribbean Foodways in her role as the Caribbean Collections and Community Engagement Intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library @naomioppenheim
Read the next (and final) blog in the Caribbean Foodways series - Hazel Daniels: Pepperpot Philosophising
Read the previous blog in the Caribbean Foodways series – Natasha Ramnarine: Doubles Queen
References / further reading
- ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings’, Brother Anancy and Children’s Short Stories 1992 TS Box 47:5, Andrew Salkey Archive
- Baldwin’s Nigger, directed by Horace Ové (1969)
- ‘Diet and food production for enslaved Africans’, National Museums Liverpool
- Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Yam, Roots, and Rot: Allegories of the Provision Grounds’, Small Axe, 34 (2011), 58-75
- Errol Lloyd, ‘Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972)’, British Library, 4 October 2018
- Guyana Speaks
- Jack Webb, Rod Westmaas, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and William Tantam (eds.), Memory, Migration and (De)Colonisation in the Caribbean and Beyond (London: University of London Press, Institute of Latin American Studies, 2020)
- James Rodway [Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana], Handbook of British Guiana (Georgetown: published by the Committee [Printed by John Andrew & Son: Boston, USA]), 1893. British Library Shelfmark 10480.d.27.
- John Davy, M.D. and F.R.S. The West Indies, before and since Slave Emancipation comprising the Windward and Leeward Islands' military command; founded on notes and observations collected during a three years residence (Barbados: J. Bowen, 1854) British Library Shelfmark 10470.d.4.
- Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad: New York, 2017)
- Ninety-nine ways of cooking and serving dainty dishes of U.C.P Tripe and Cowheel (Manchester: United Cattle Products Ltd, 192?) British Library Shelfmark YD.2005.a.170
- Rod Westmaas interviewed by Naomi Oppenheim, Caribbean Foodways Interview, March 2021 (uncatalogued)
- Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989) British Library Shelfmark YK.1989.a.5313
- Valerie Bloom, Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo: An Edible Alphabet (London: Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, 1999) British Library Shelfmark 2000.b.360
- C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893) British Library Shelfmark 10349.e.19.
- Elizabeth DeLoughrey, ‘Yam, Roots, and Rot: Allegories of the Provision Grounds’, Small Axe 34 (2011), 58-75.
- Rosamund Grant, Caribbean and African Cookery (London: Virago, 1989)
- ‘Anancy and the Honey Dumplings’, Brother Anancy and Children’s Short Stories 1992 TS Box 47:5, Andrew Salkey Archive.
- Errol Lloyd, ‘Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972)’, British Library, 4 October 2018; Baldwin’s Nigger, directed by Horace Ové (1969) – in this film Baldwin and Dick Gregory relate the Black experience in America to the experience of African Caribbean peoples in Britain, during a discussion that was held at the West Indian Students’ Centre.
- W. C. K. W., Souvenir of Savoy Hotel (London: ‘Black and White’ Publishing Co., 1893).