How papa was forced to make his own breadfruit tonton
A short story by Joyette Fabien
“Gran, please tell us the breadfruit story again.” Granny Jen smiled. Cris never got tired of hearing that story.
“Well, as you both know, I was born a princess. Who remembers why?” Her eyes sparkled as she prepared to go down memory lane.
The children smiled. They knew they did not have to answer. That was all part of Granny’s story telling. She loved to explain how she was the only daughter, with three brothers on either side of her. She was pampered and protected and treated like a princess by her parents as well as her six brothers. That was why she never had to pound the breadfruit.
“Alas, we lived in a humble home with only the basic amenities, but we were happy. We ate from the produce of Papa’s little plot of land at Wenarie, on the mountainside . Sometimes, there was no money to buy fish and papa would set traps to catch birds or he would catch crayfish and millet in the river. All the boys knew how to catch fish in the river and how to make traps for birds using the supple limbs and thick sap from trees like the breadfruit tree. Not the princess! I never even went to the garden. I stayed home with Mama and learned to do ‘girlie’ things like mending clothes and cooking.
Mama had the knack of turning even the most ordinary thing that papa brought home into something tasty, but there was not much variety; mostly provisions and vegetables. There was lots of breadfruit, which they called pènpèn, from the French, fruit à pain. During the breadfruit season, we, the children, had roasted breadfruit, steamed breadfruit, fried breadfruit and sometimes, pounded breadfruit, which was called tonton. Not Papa! He would eat nothing but tonton. Every time Mama would try to entice him to have some pènpèn woti (breadfruit roasted in a wood fire), which was her favourite, he would reply:
‘Eliza, kittay mwè a wepo. Ou jà sav sèl fason mwè èmé pènpèn mwè sé tonton.’ (‘Eliza, leave me alone. You know well is only one way I like my breadfruit and that is tonton!’)
Tonton was breadfruit pounded in a mortar using a pestle. Every household had a big mortar and pestle. It was as necessary in the kitchen as a pot or a frying pan. The breadfruit was steamed in a large pot on the fire side. It was washed, quartered and placed in shallow water in the pot and covered with banana leaves. When tested and found ready, it was peeled and placed into the mortar. Someone would sit on a stool with the mortar between their legs and would pound the breadfruit with the pestle steadily until it was mashed. Then using a big spoon, they would turn it around in the mortar so that what was at the bottom would come to the top for the next round of pounding. They would then wet the pestle to help the breadfruit to coagulate then begin another round of pounding until the breadfruit had formed a smooth, gooey mass. It was served with lots of gravy. This was served mostly to the adults, but we children got a small portion.
Around midday, all that could be heard in the village of La Plaine was the ‘bow, bow, bow’ of breadfruit being pounded, like the sound of a herd of elephants tramping through the jungle. However, not every family had the good fortune that Papa had. Some men had to make their own tonton, and many wives and daughters also had to help with that task. Fortunately, Papa had six sturdy sons who took turns pounding the breadfruit. Bow, bow, bow they would go. Eric, the eldest, had mastered the art, and after three strokes, he would turn the mashed breadfruit over in the mortar, and with another three strokes, he would have the smooth, sticky mass ready to be served. Mama would then scoop the tonton out of the mortar and place it on a plate, shaping it into a smooth mound. Then she would ladle the clear gravy, which she had prepared with salt fish and ochro, generously into the plate so that the tonton would be sitting in an ocean of gravy, looking like a small island.
Papa liked the gravy best with salt fish and ochro, but when these were not available, he would enjoy whatever Mama prepared. He was not a fussy man. Like a king before a banquet, Papa would tackle his meal. Using the back of the fork, he would mash the ochro in the gravy until it was thick and gooe. Then he would cut the tonton with the back of the fork and rub it into the ochro-thickened gravy. As you can imagine, that would simply slide down his throat with hardly any effort on his part. Imagine, Papa had all his teeth – he had never lost one – yet his favourite meal was tonton! He was not alone in that. The older folk in La Plaine believed in their tonton. There was no better food!
Not all the boys liked the task of making the tonton. I remember, Jim absolutely hated it and would often try to shirk. He would promise Trevor his marbles or cashew nuts (the green unshelled nuts were used for playing games) if Trevor would take his turn pounding the tonton for a week. That boy was a dreamer. More often than not, he would sit in a corner reading while the other boys were playing cricket on the road. It became somewhat problematic as one by one the bigger boys had to leave home to go to high school in Roseau, and eventually, only the three younger ones were left to pound the breadfruit. Count Jim out, and that left two. Trevor and Crispin tried to master the art as Eric had done so that they could finish quickly and go about their own business. They never got it quite as smooth as Eric, though. Soon, they, too, were gone.
So guess who never got to pound the tonton.” Granny paused in her narration and waited with a smile of anticipation. She was obviously enjoying herself immensely.
“Princesssss!” Cris yelled, enjoying the drama.
Candy only smiled. “So Granny, tell us what happened when everybody was going to school in Roseau,” she gave the prompt for Granny to continue.
“Well,” Granny chuckled. “Someone had to pound the breadfruit, but it wasn’t me and it wasn’t Mama for sure. Mama was having none of that. ‘After I carry seven children for you, I not pounding no pènpèn!’ she told Papa in no uncertain terms. ‘You have all your teeth in your mouth. You better than me!’ Mama was the rough one. Papa was always peaceful, so that was that. Papa had no choice but to start making his own tonton.” She laughed heartily at the recollection.
The children had heard that story time and time again. What a story!
“So, Gran,” Candy’s tone was serious again. “We going to do the business, right? We will call it Granny Jen’s kitchen.” She paused contemplatively. “No. Aunty Jen,” she continued. “Aunty Jen’s kitchen.” She savoured the words. “I like the sound of that better. What you think?”
“Sounds great!” Cris piped in with his usual enthusiasm. He was not going to be left out.
“Good. I will manage it, and Cris, you can be my assistant,” said Candy in a tone that said it was done – signed and sealed.
“You, that little girl of mine, you going to be one big business woman someday. I’ll bet my money on you!” Granny Jen said softly as if speaking to herself. She laughed good-naturedly. “We’ll see.”
“Yay, yay, yay!” Candy got up and hugged her grandmother.
Granny Jen enjoyed creating her dishes, but she was not into writing recipes and posing in videos, YouTube, Tik Tok, or whatever.” She did not belong to this Internet age. If anybody wanted her recipes, they would have to come over with pen and paper. She would explain to them, and they would take notes, or better still, she would show them. For one, she was not good with quantities and measurements. She simply threw things together. Her eyes did the measurement, her hands knew the quantities, and the results were invariably great. However, she would humour her grandchildren – anything to make them happy. Her brows furrowed. Hah! Jamie loved the spotlight. She was always making video clips and posting them on her status. A mischievous twinkle came into Granny Jen’s eyes. “I’ll get her yet!” She smiled broadly, her eyes alight with excitement. “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
- Author’s note: I was having a discussion with Michael Morrissey of the Trees That Feed Foundation on the subject of the breadfruit and how it came to the Caribbean. As I described to him how the breadfruit was used in Dominica, he asked me to write a breadfruit story. I’m an author; I was ready to run with the idea. Joyette is a Dominica- based writer and author. She has written ‘Four Strong Women’ and ‘Motherless Children and Other Stories: Stories about people you know’.