By David Bowen
Today, many people think that "Peas & Rice" is the original dish since it is now a staple in the local diet, but the fact is that rice never grew in these islands. Rice came much later via trade with Haiti and Jamaica, though Grand Turk natives had access to a variety of imported food due to boats coming regularly for the salt trade. The main staple in the Caicos Islands was hominy (or grits) made from a local type of corn called "Guinea Corn" that was ground in a hand mill to produce both hominy and flour to make Corn Bread. Long before we had "Peas & Rice" we had "Peas & Hominy". Locally grown pigeon peas were added to hominy along with chunks of dry conch and sometimes (when available) bits of pig tail for flavouring. "Peas & Hominy" was only one part of the meal. Because there was always a bit of uncertainty as to what would be served with it, the native folks use to say that dinner would be "Peas & Hominy and 'Penn On'."
The word "Penn On" comes from the English phrase, "Depend On," so the evening meal depended on whatever the husband would bring in off the boat. One day it could be Bonefish, the next Snapper, the other Turtle, and so on.
Young leaves from the Cactus/Pear Bush (Opuntia dillenii) and Pear Bush Buds, which resemble Okra, were consumed. Okra was also added to the hominy and later crab was added to the rice which came from Jamaica and Haiti. Potato Bread, Cod Fish, Cod Fish Cakes and Red Bean Soup are other local favourites.
Many different types of fish and seafood cooked in various ways were usually the complement to the rice or hominy. A popular breakfast on the weekends is "Boil Fish & Grits" sometimes served with "Johnny Cake." Boil Fish & Johnny Cake is also a favorite choice for lunch. Johnny Cake is really a kind of sweet pan bread that is baked, and the name comes from the phrase "Journey Cake." This was the bread the sailors and fishermen would take with them on their journey aboard ship since it lasted a long time before spoiling. Over time, the word "Journey" was corrupted by the local accent and became "Johnny."
Steam Conch & Grits, Conch Stew (with lots of gravy), Peas Soup and Dumplings, Okra Soup, Bread Pudding, Ginger Bread and Potato Bread all have a special place in the hearts of the generations that grew up in these Islands before the influx of canned and frozen foreign goods. Each of the six main inhabited islands had their own specialty.
Each of the six inhabited islands have their own special way of making these native dishes and because of location and soil conditions, each island offered a variety of ingredients not found or used elsewhere. Salt Cay was known for Whelk Soup and the famous Salt Cay Candy. Whelk Soup was made from the small whelks (mussels) that live on the rocks in shallow waters.
Cows were slaughtered at least three times a month at the Cow House on West Road and therefore Grand Turk had more available beef than did the other islands (although they did have turtle, hogs (pigs) and some cattle.) Land crabs, small birds, bird eggs and baby hatchlings called "Bo Bos" found on the Cays were eaten by fishermen who spent time drying conch there. Occasionally, Rock Iguanas and Flamingos were also eaten.
Jerk Pork and Jerk Chicken, along with Beef Patties and Coco Bread have recently made inroads into mainstream restaurants here due to the influx of Jamaican workers. They find our term "Peas and Rice" rather strange since they feel that their "Rice and Peas" is the original Island rice dish. (Now that's another story.)
The Turks and Caicos have a lot in common with the Bahamas (being geographically the same country) and at times, it's almost impossible to distinguish one cuisine from the other. Bahamian cuisine utilizes conch, peas and rice cooked with beef and pig tail, and chicken and fish cooked in a variety of ways (fried, baked, grilled, stewed, steamed and soused).
Crack conch, conch salad and scorch conch are a few typically Bahamian dishes that have found their way into the cultural cuisine of the Turks and Caicos, although many Turks and Caicos Islanders think it's the other way around. Turks Islanders share a love for conch fritters but generally, dry, steam and stew conch were mostly used in these Islands. It was only recently that locals started eating raw conch and dishes like conch salad.
During the exodus to the Bahamas for a better life during the hard years of the early 1900s, our people, mainly from the Caicos Islands, took with them the recipes for the dishes they were accustomed to and merged them with the ones already existing in the Bahamas. It's doubtful whether we will ever get to the bottom of the debate over who influenced whom and what dishes originated where since we are so intertwined with the culture and history of the Bahamas. The fact remains that these dishes are delicious and are here to stay for all to enjoy. When it comes to dining, Providenciales features a large selection of restaurants, serving everything from native meals to international cuisine. Some restaurants are located directly on the beach.