Sylvia Hunt. A household name for many Trinidadians above the age of 50, but, unfortunately, not so well known among the younger generations. A daughter of the soil, a masterful chef, and a steward of Trinbagonian culture, Sylvia Hunt harnessed and displayed our heritage in all of her works, namely her meals, TV show, and books. Many people unfamiliar with her work might be sceptical about paying tribute to Hunt’s legacy; however, in doing so, they minimise the centrality of food in Caribbean culture. Hunt used food as a means of celebrating our rich, multicultural heritage in T&T and as a tool of resistance against the colonial legacy that has crept into so many aspects of our culture.
Born in 1912, Hunt came to life on TV screens in the early 1960s with her cooking show “At Home With Sylvia Hunt”, aired on the only local station available at the time, TTT, with high viewership at “primetime” before Panorama. Hunt’s show, which aired for more than two decades, was not only a first in the region as a programme focused on cooking but also pre-empted the shows of other legendary TV cooks like Julia Child and Martha Stewart.
Her show documented our indigenous recipes, and according to her daughter Diana Sambrano, many people anticipated the show with pens poised to transcribe new recipes. Although “eating local” is en vogue at present, in the 1960s, televising a programme on local foods was a clarion statement to the worthiness of our foods and culture to be celebrated and documented.
Deep-seated impacts of colonialism have led to a mindset in which foreign goods and foods, and access to them, are a hallmark of wealth and class. As Hunt gained popularity in the years post Independence, her TV show featuring meals, made with breadfruit, pigtail and saltfish, and recipes for pelau, black cake and toolum aligned perfectly with the country’s transition of coming into our own as a nation. According to her grandson Christopher Sambrano, these foods were not popular and were presumed to be “food of the poor, food of the Black and food of the slave.”
Hunt, however, used television to stimulate interest in local dishes, not only teaching people to cook them but releasing viewers from these colonial presumptions that “foreign is better.” When her first book was published in 1985, copies were added to every Trinidadian’s home and became a holy grail, with many families, and indeed families in the diaspora, still diving into their dog-eared pages for recipes almost 40 years later.
Her grandson Christopher said that his grandmother was “passionate about our culture, community and heritage” in her capacity as a cook, but also as a Best Village judge and an active member of local government. She was a counsellor first, then an alderman, representing Belmont. When I asked him what he thought of his grandmother, he said that she was “well ahead of her time” and “cutting ground” as a woman with one of the first television shows on local TV and in published books in the 1980s.
Sylvia Hunt receives her Hummingbird Medal Silver from President Sir Ellis Clarke.
Being a pioneering Black woman in those years may have come with a lot of resistance, and her daughter, Sambrano, asserted that even during the filming and demonstrations of her cooking, people would say that her mother’s non-traditional way of curing meat was her “trying to poison people.”
Outside of her cooking show, Hunt was a teacher, a dressmaker, a business owner, a caterer and a mother. Her shop, Mighty Fine Novelty Products, which was initially located on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, before moving to Belmont, was a popular lunchtime location to which city dwellers flocked in search of her “sweet han.” She was not only a mother to her eight biological children, but also opened her home to three children from the orphanage whom she adopted. One of her students, Bernice Jeffers, recalled how her classes with Ms Hunt were very pivotal in nudging her towards becoming a dietitian, as “she always showed us how to prepare balanced meals, stressing the use of local and in-season ingredients in food’s preparation.” Jeffers remembers going home from school and sharing Ms Hunt’s recipes for macaroni pie, fudge, sugar cake, and coconut sweetbread with her mother, and in time to come, sharing the tips learned from Ms Hunt with her children.
Sylvia Hunt’s cookbook.
This multigenerational sharing was exactly what Hunt intended–to use food to create the “Proud Legacy of Our People.”
Sharing food and recipes may seem inconsequential to some, but as a country, so much of our history and legacy is undocumented. Hunt wielded her influence to put our cultural legacy on paper and in film. Could she have believed her impact would be this great? Her daughter and grandson believe so. Indeed, Christopher echoed that his grandmother’s legacy has not only impacted how he puts a secret ingredient (grated cheese) into his callaloo but how he takes great pride in sharing food as part of his Trini heritage and passes on that pride to his family, resident in Barbados.
Sambrano described her mother’s legacy in one word “strength”. As a multi-talented, pioneering woman, Hunt’s lasting legacy was self-belief and determination to chase purpose, regardless of precedent. In 1986, Hunt was awarded the Hummingbird Medal Silver for her loyal and devoted service to our country and culture.
Recently, food blogger Mark Wiens visited Trinidad and toured around the country, sampling local foods and documenting them to his international fan base. The relevant government agencies viewed this as an opportunity to showcase our country and our culture and intrigue people towards our shores. This was an affirmation of the integrality of food in our national identity and food as a cultural currency. When tourists hear of Trinidad, sampling our creole food is intimately intertwined with a visit to our country.
Hunt was a true patriot. There is no Trinidad without “we food” and our pride in our food as a cultural product was first instilled by her tireless work of compiling, creating and documenting recipes that represent our heritage.
Hunt’s family have reprinted her most popular cookbook, “Sylvia Hunt’s Cooking Trinidad and Tobago, Proud Legacy of Our People” which will be launched at 6:30 pm on Wednesday at Mille Fleurs.
The book will be available at selected bookstores locally and at Sylviahuntcooking.com