Sun | May 26, 2019

Water more than flour

Published:Saturday | December 31, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Tony Deyal, Contributor 

I first heard the expression 'Water more than flour' when I was a teenager and my cricket captain, Ivan (known as 'Rabby'), faced a difficult choice and we had to abandon a match we had virtually won. One of our players, a deceptively quiet but hot-tempered individual named Ross, attacked an umpire. Instead of standing our ground, we had to flee the village in which we were playing and head home.

One of the opposing players had gone to fetch his shotgun and a few other incensed villagers had already armed themselves with cutlasses and gun talk. Later, we gathered under a street light and recounted the event. One or two of the guys, full of bravado, felt we should have stood our ground. I had to remind them that it was not our ground and we had given the villagers grounds for retaliation. It was then that Rabby said, "Listen, when water more than flour, you do what you have to do."

There was a time in Trinidad when, because of the inefficiency of the state-owned utility which still manages the country's water resources, flour was more than water. In fact, there is a story about that time which I still like to share and which I savour to the last drop.

It was 1979, and Dr Eric Williams was still alive. In nearby St Ann's, there was the usual long line of people, buckets in hand, trying to get water from one standpipe.

As usual, everybody was complaining, cussing, muttering about the situation, but nobody did anything until one old man who, each day, had kept his head down and stood silently in line, finally exploded. He threw his bucket on the ground, jumped on it repeatedly, squashing it while shouting, "I can't take it! I can't take it! I going to complain to Dr Williams. He must do something about this." The man stomped off on his way to Whitehall, the prime minister's office.

The next day, to everyone's surprise, the old man was back again in the long line, bucket repaired and in his hand, waiting sheepishly for his turn. One of the people who had witnessed his fury the day before asked, "What happen? I thought you was going to the prime minister to complain?"

The old man paused and then said, "You think this line long?"

If you feel sorry for that old man, I am sure you will feel some twinge of sympathy for me as on Christmas Eve I was faced with the flip side of that old man's plight. There I was, water more than flour, with no bucket to batter and only some aluminium foil to butter. Dr Richard Allsop's invaluable Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage explains that 'water more than flour' is a bread-making term, meaning that if too much water has been added to too little flour, the result is a waste that cannot be rescued. In other words, "The situation has become impossible; things are getting/have got out of hand; there is more strain/trouble/shame, etc., than you can bear.

'Near famaly'

His first example of the use of the term comes from Seepersad Naipaul's The Adventures of Gurudeva & Other Stories: "Go and tell Ramdas that I call him right away," Gurudeva told Dookwha. "Tell him that if he don't come right away is trouble for him - is water more than flour for him." The second is an excerpt from a play, "Ay, ay, gal, water more than flour now, de whole village seh dat Zeela deh with Bro Joe, the big churchman, she near famaly."

I was near 'famaly' too - my wife Indranie and my two teenage children, Jasmine and Zubin - as I embarked on what initially was a 'pastelle'-making voyage until the superfluity of water compared to the scarcity of flour sunk the expedition, and were it not for the prompt action of my wife, I would have floundered and my long-held and prized reputation as a chef drowned in despond. A pastelle is essentially a meat-filled pie or patty made from corn flour. It is a popular delicacy at Christmas time in Trinidad.

According to an article in the Trinidad Express, "Christmas in Trinidad would not be the same without a good pastelle. The seasonal favourite is a must-have at all events from late November until early January. But how do you make a pastelle?"

I thought I had that particular problem solved. We have a copy of the famous Naparima Girls High School Cookbook. Having gone to Presentation College in San Fernando where my sixth-form classroom was next to the girls' high school, and having also at that time developed an appreciation for both the girls and their skills, including the culinary, I figured that the recipe for pastelles would be consistent with the high standards of both the school and the book. I bought one and used it as a guide whenever I assayed a Trinidadian dish. Unfortunately, it was last seen with my daughter, Jasmine, and was nowhere to be found when I needed it most.

Not my thing

So I went on the Internet, found a recipe and put the ingredients together for the dough. Earlier in the day, I had already seasoned my minced chicken, cooked it and received high praise for its perfection. I must confess at this point that flour is not my thing. I do cremes, custards and cheesecake. I do rice dishes and pasta. But no flour. I love bread, bake, roti, pizza and pies but do not cook them unless I use the bread machine.

I hate dipping my hands in flour. I told my wife that the dough was her responsibility but she was busy and left the entire pastelle process up to me. I measured out the corn flour, threw in the water, put in the butter and the oil, forgot the salt and then found that the corn flour had disappeared. The recipe explicitly stated, "Two cups of flour; three cups of water, etc." I should have known that the proportions were wrong, but I was in a hurry. The flour disappeared without a trace in a yellow pool and I called for help.

My wife kept throwing more corn flour, and then when we ran out, wheat flour, but the mass remained sodden. Eventually, we arrived at a consistency that was workable and, with the help of the children cutting foil, helping with the ingredients, and sampling the product, a pastelle that was delicious.

If there was one thing that we were able to prove, and the moral in this story, is that even when water is more than flour the situation is still salvageable. All it takes is for people to combine their skills and energies and work together to solve the problem or save the situation.

Tony Deyal was last seen saying no more recipes for him. The next time he wants to cook a pastelle, he will use a pie chart.