on printed photographs, my untold story & a bonus trinidadian pelau recipe
Two days before I was scheduled to be recorded for my The Kinsey Collection: Untold Stories video, I received an email:
"Don't forget to collect some old photographs of your family for filming this week."
Oh. Right. Photographs. And that's when I realized that I had absolutely no old pictures of myself or my family on hand.
I want you to let that sink in for a minute: I'm a photographer, I've been a photographer for close to 20 years, and yet I can't easily access photographs. To be honest, the oldest low resolution pictures that I can access are only those I've published on Chookooloonks over the last nine years; however, if you were to ask me to print high resolution shots, I would be reduced to whatever's currently on the hard drive of this computer I'm typing on now, as well as a couple of relatively recently-purchased back-up disks; say within the last 4 or 5 years or so. The other high resolution images are on various other computers that I have in my office closet, and I don't even know if those laptops turn on anymore.
And I shoot almost every single day.
In a panic, I called my mom. "Mom, I'm doing this video, and I need old photographs of our family -- as far back as possible. Do you have any?"
"Oh," she said. "Um. Yes! There are some albums upstairs. You can come over and take a look, if you want ..."
Twenty minutes later, I was at my parents' house, and my mom led me upstairs to a closet that was filled with old photo albums. As I pulled them out, I had a sudden flashback memory to my teenage years, when I remember my dad sitting down one weekend with tons of shoeboxes and envelopes full of photographs, meticulously adding each image to these albums in chronological order, complete with captions. I remember thinking that it was such a tedious task he was undertaking then, but looking at the dozens of albums that were available for me to go through now, I felt nothing but appreciation.
Alex and my mom sat down with me to go through all of the albums, my mom providing the background stories to the images. Alex was rapt, and I was too; although I was also slightly embarrassed that I'd never done the same with all of the photographs I've taken. And there's really no excuse: nowadays, you can just upload the images to a printing service, and they're mailed to you the next day.
It appears that I have a weekend of shoeboxes and albums in my future. Because honestly, technology comes and goes, but an actually photograph that you can hold in your hand is, apparently, forever. *
Anyway, I picked some of my favourites for the shoot, and it all worked out great. The video of my untold story (which you'll see later in this post) features some of the images, but I wanted to share some of my favourites that didn't make into the recording (or made it only briefly).
The image above is of my maternal grandparents, Henry and Carmen Alexis, on their wedding day. The were married in the early 30's, and I love my grandmother's wedding dress: could she possibly look more Great Gatsby? And check out their disparity in height: my grandmother was a petite 5'1", whereas Grandpa was a strapping 6'4" (he's where I get my height -- I'm taller than both of my parents, at 5'8"). Also, it turns out the beautiful foliage-covered house behind them was my grandmother's parents' home; Mom tells me that it doesn't exist anymore. This makes me sad.
I was extremely close to Grannie and Grandpa, and actually lived with them for 2 years when I was a teenager. Grandpa died in 1989 in his eighties, Grannie died in 2009, at 102 years old. They were both amazing people, and very good to me -- it was for this reason that I chose their surname, "Alexis," as my daughter's first name.
These are my paternal grandparents, Randolph and Floris Walrond. They feature pretty heavily in the video, so I won't say much, except that Granddad was 36 years old when he married Grandma, who was 18 (scandalous!), and they had 9 kids. My dad was their second. Granddad was born in 1899, and his grandparents were slaves. He died in 1998, at 99 years old.
I'm sort of amazed that I knew a member of my family who was born in the 1800s, and whose grandparents likely told him stories of growing up enslaved on a Barbados sugar plantation. I wish I had thought to ask him more questions about his story when he was still alive.
Grandma, on the other hand, is still going strong at 94 years old -- her mind is as sharp as a tack, and she's full of stories. She also still does crossword puzzles like a fiend. She's amazing.
The next couple of photographs are some favourites of my dad. Dad attended the University of Birmingham in the UK for his undergraduate petroleum engineering degree; the photograph above is of him in his first year, at the age of 18, seeing snow for the first time in his life. I love that someone had a camera nearby to capture that scene.
And finally, the image above is my all-time favourite shot of my dad, ever. It was also taken while he was in college in England. I'm not sure who the woman is -- she's either his landlady or the mother of a college buddy, I can't remember which -- and, weirdly, Dad has absolutely no recollection of what they were laughing about. But I love, love, love the unbridled joy on their faces. Love.
So, anyway, those are my favourites. And now, without further ado, here's the video we shot for The Kinsey Collection Untold Stories: Our Inspired History, sponsored by Wells Fargo -- I share my dad's story, and also how I try to keep my Afro-Caribbean culture alive in my home now:
Click here or on the image below to watch -- and please feel free to share your untold stories of your family in the comments, below!
One more thing ...
... because I mention in the video that one of the ways that we stay connected to my culture is food, I thought I would share the recipe to the meal that I cooked in the video, Trinidadian pelau. I chose this particular recipe because of an experience I had a couple of years ago, when I was visiting Kenya: the Kenyans have a local dish called pilau , and I wondered at the similarity between their dish and the Trinidadian one. One night, I met a professor from the University of Nairobi who, when we introduced ourselves, mentioned that she had a very good friend from Trinidad.
"Oh, good!" I said. "So you're familiar with Trinidadian culture! I have a question: I noticed that Kenyans have a local dish called pilau ..."
She didn't even let me finish.
"It's the EXACT SAME THING," she interrupted. "Once, the faculty decided to have a potluck dinner, inviting everyone to bring a dish from their homeland. I walked in with pilau and my friend walked in with pelau, and we both looked at our dishes and burst out laughing. They're identical!"
I've since looked up the recipe for the Kenyan dish online, and in fact, they are very similar (we usually use chicken, but beef and goat meat isn't uncommon either), but the preparation is slightly different. So I have to suspect that some variation of this dish came over from Africa during the slave trade, and then got its own specific West Indian twist over the years in Trinidad. Nonetheless, pelau (rhymes with "pay-NOW") is definitely comfort food: it's basically chicken-and-rice (and-sometimes-peas** ), but with a stick-to-your-ribs goodness like no other. Every Trinidadian cook makes their pelau slightly differently -- add a dash of something here, remove something there -- but here's my recipe:
KAREN'S TRINIDADIAN PELAU
• About 10 pieces of chicken (bone-in for real authenticity, otherwise I like using boneless chicken thighs)
• 3 cloves of garlic
• fresh ginger (I use a piece about the size of a two cloves of garlic)
• "seasoning" (in Trinidad, we use something called "green seasoning," but Tony Chachare's Creole Seasoning, or similar, works)
• 1 large onion, chopped coarsely
• Soy sauce
• Worcestershire sauce
• Vegetable oil
• Brown sugar
• 2 cups of rice, uncooked
• 2 cups of water
• 1 large bouillon cube (or as Alex calls it, a "BOOYAH! cube")
• 1 13.5-oz can of coconut milk
• Salt to taste
FOR THE MARINADE:
1. Clean the chicken, removing any excess fat.
2. Grate 3 cloves of garlic and the ginger into the chicken.
3. Ad onions.
4. Add seasoning to taste.
5. Add enough soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce to fully coat the chicken pieces. Mix well, and let stand for 10 minutes.
1. Place enough vegetable oil in the pot to cover the bottom of the pot, and place on high heat. (Note: any large pot will do -- it needs to be large enough to hold all the ingredients -- but I use a cast-iron pot for my pelau, and would strongly recommend getting one for yours. There's something about it that makes it taste really authentic, to me.)
2. Add 2 potspoonfuls (where "potspoon" = "those large spoons that you would use to stir a stew while you're cooking") of brown sugar to the oil, sprinkling it evenly over the surface of the oil, without stirring .
3. Leave it on high heat until the sugar starts to turn dark brown, almost black, and starts to bubble (a close family friend once described it as looking like "the head of a Guinness"). Depending on your stove, this should only take a couple of minutes.
4. SLOWLY ad d the chicken pieces to the oil, one by one. WARNING: THE OIL WILL SPATTER, so be careful, and if you have any little ones, now would be the time to get them away from the stove.
5. Once you've got all the pieces in, let the sugar "brown" your chicken, stirring well to ensure the pieces don't stick.
6. After the chicken is browned, add the remaining marinade to the pot, and turn the heat down to medium.
7. While your chicken is cooking (give it about 10-15 minutes), put 2 cups of uncooked rice in a bowl, and "clean" the rice by adding enough water to cover it. This is a Trini thing -- I don't know if everyone does it -- but using your hands, stir the rice for a minute or two. Then strain the cloudy water from the rice -- this removes most of the starch.
8. Add the drained rice to the pot, and stir until it's coated with the liquid from the chicken mixture. Let it simmer for a minute or two.
9. Add two cups of water to the mixture, and stir.
10. Add the coconut milk to the mixture, and stir.
11. Crumble the bouillon cube ("BOOYAH CUBE!!") over the entire mixture and stir, adding salt to taste. Cover the pot, and let simmer until the rice is cooked and the liquid has been completely absorbed by the rice. You'll want to stir the pot occasionally, to ensure the rice doesn't stick.
Once the rice is cooked and the liquid is absorbed, your pelau is ready. This recipe makes a lot -- enough for 5 people to have a hearty meal -- but personally, I think pelau leftovers taste even better than when it's fresh, so feel free to refrigerate any that's left over for lunch the following day. Also, just as a matter of interest, I like eating fresh tomato and avocado slices with my pelau, so you might try serving them on the side.
* Several months ago, I quite vociferously left Instagram, for all sorts of lawyerly reasons. I hadn't missed it, but little did I realize at the time that a few months later Alex would start clamouring for her own account. Since Instagram actually does do a good job of private accounts, this weekend I signed her up. The problem? Since she has a private account, if I want to monitor her activities (and comments on her images), I have to have an account myself -- so I broke down and got my own, as well. All this to say if you're on Instagram, I'm back, and I'd love to see you there -- I'm heychookooloonks. Also, if you're on Instagram or otherwise take photos with your iPhone, and are getting the urge to print photographs and put them into albums like I am, check out this post by my friend Andrea -- a machine that turns your camera phone photos into Polaroids? Yes, please.
** A quick admission to those of you who are Trini: you'll notice in my recipe, I don't include pigeon peas. That's because I don't like them. However, my grandmother, Carmen Alexis, always maintained that true pelau doesn't include peas, but "rice-and-peas" does. And it would be disrespectful to argue with her now that she's gone, don't you think? So for the purposes of this post, I'm using her as the highest authority, God rest her soul. If, however, you can't bear for your pelau to go without the peas, add 1 can of pigeon peas, drained, at the same time you add the rice to the pot.
Many thanks to Wells Fargo for sponsoring this post.