The Incredible, Indelible Legacy of Sylvia Hunt
Despite decades of success, Hunt has become one of the Caribbean’s cultural hidden figures, a multitalented pioneer who deserves far more recognition.
In my homeland from 1962 until 1991, there was only one channel available: TTT, or Trinidad and Tobago Television. There was no flipping around to choose what to watch, and everyone watched the same things, unless you were rich enough to have a satellite dish. The television superstars of my childhood were of local origin, with foreign programs (mostly reruns) interspersed between.
Most shows were made by Trinis for Trinis. In the 1980s, Hazel Ward-Redman hosted Twelve and Under and another program called Teen Talent, where contestants competed for a trip to Disneyland in Orlando, Florida. On Scouting for Talent, Holly Betaudier showcased the singing and dancing skills of courageous locals. "Uncle" Ian Ali hosted Rikki Tikki, a weekday program for children. And on Monday afternoons before the nightly news, there was At Home with Sylvia Hunt, a cooking show that celebrated local cuisine.
I grew up watching Sylvia Hunt. She was mature, gentle, precise. She had that old-school Trini polish and elegance in her manners. The dishes she made were proudly local, using our traditional ingredients and methods. Her first cookbook became an essential item in every Trinidadian home. She was our equivalent to Julia Child; her book was our Joy of Cooking. If you lived in Trinidad and Tobago before 1988, you knew her as a consistent presence in our culinary world.
If you never watched TTT before 1988, unfortunately, you missed out; Hunt died on June 13, 1987, and today, no film clips of her program can be found. Her most popular book hasn't been reprinted since 1985. Despite decades of success in her lifetime, Hunt has posthumously become one of the Caribbean's cultural hidden figures, a multitalented pioneer who deserved far more acclaim and long-term remembrance than she has so far received.
Sylvia Hunt was born in Trinidad in 1912 to Miriam and George Dryce. Her love for Trini cuisine and cultural traditions began early in her life. The back of her first cookbook, Sylvia Hunt's Cooking: Proud Legacy of Our People, reveals that making sugar cake with her mother was a transformative childhood moment, and her aunt, Mrs. Lydia Gittens, taught her traditional home economics, needlepoint, wine-making, and other domestic skills. She attended my alma mater, Bishop Anstey High School, and in 1935 she married Elliot Hunt. Together they had eight children: five girls and three boys.
Hunt leaned into her talents to support her growing family, winning prizes for her skills in food presentation, floral arrangements, and needlework. In the late 1930s, she ran a shop from her home in Belmont, selling all kinds of fashionable knickknacks of the era: buttons, buckles, buttons she covered herself. She sold artificial flower arrangements and decorations, she made dresses, and, when fashions changed, she started selling local goodies and snacks.
World War II ushered in an era of austerity, limiting Trinidadians' reliance on imported goods. Calypso music during this time revealed a lean lifestyle, where Trinis were forced to consider growing their own food as much as possible. This was a time for adaptation and appreciation of local resources. Hunt was a master at that.
"What I really admire and think she needs to be really celebrated for is that she used everything local," said Wendy Rahamut, a Caribbean cooking titan and cookbook author. "She was the real pioneer and trailblazer for that, because in those days we had a big negative list. We didn't have an open market like we do now. Imports weren't as freely available as they are now. I mean, my mother used to have to buy butter and stash it. Sylvia Hunt really did use everything local, which is exactly what we should be doing now. Absolutely, I see her as a blueprint."
At home, Hunt would cook with her daughters, dishes like "stuffed breadfruit roll, coconut cream mould, coconut drops and coconut sweetbread, and preserved shaddock (grapefruit) peel candy," recalled her daughter Diana Sambrano. In those days, the family lived in an expansive suburb of Trinidad called Valsayn, on a property liberally studded with fruit trees. Her granddaughter Patricia "Pam" Hunt remembers her grandmother's shed being filled with bottles of homemade wine and jars of homemade preserves. When the family moved to Stone Street, Port of Spain, a similar, smaller shed was built to manufacture and house the jams, jellies, and chutneys she sold. In later years, the family moved to the hills of Cascade.
In a time of modern conveniences like virtual meetings, working from home, and online school, it is astounding to reflect on the productivity of Hunt's life. As a business woman and mother of eight, she was elected to city council for northeast Port of Spain, serving as Alderman for two succeeding terms. She opened My-T-Fine Novelty Products in 1947, located in downtown Port of Spain. Her first standalone establishment showed off all of her skills: it was an eatery, a dress and floral shop, patisserie, and training school.
"Anything my mother thought of that could have been done there, was done," said Sambrano. My-T-Fine remained open until around 1985, a thriving establishment for almost 40 years. "I remember my cousins would walk to school and they would have to open up the shop until [Sylvia] was able to come in. I remember the cash register had a little key and I remember cashing in a soft drink for 13 cents," said Pam, one of the grandchildren to be raised at home with Hunt.
Hunt's roles in local government, her family of eight, and her popular business kept her busy enough, but in addition to all of that, she became a teacher at some of Trinidad's best schools, teaching home economics, sewing, and domestic science. She wrote recipes that were regularly featured in the Trinidad Guardian. The recipes she developed during this time stood in great stead for her television show and cookbooks in later years.
Television began in Trinidad and Tobago in 1962, and At Home with Sylvia Hunt began in the early sixties. The program aired weekly for over two decades, with reruns broadcast after her death in 1987. Ann Winston, who worked at TTT as program director and commercial production director, has fond memories of working on At Home with Sylvia Hunt, as well as visiting Hunt's establishment.
"In those times we wouldn't have called it a restaurant, we would say we going for food by Sylvia Hunt on Frederick Street! You sat down wherever they had a little seat," she said. "You could get a lunch at lunchtime on a plate, whatever the menu of the day was – coocoo and callaloo, stew pork, very tasty." Winston remembers Hunt as a welcoming, encouraging, generous person who was comfortable working in her studio kitchen and would often share her wares with the crew.
"During her programs, she would make more than enough for the entire crew, which was sometimes as much as 12, so that we could all get something," said V. Dave Surajdeen, former cameraman and board member at TTT. "At Christmas however, it was a feast with ham, turkey, pastelles, macaroni pies, Spanish rice, [pigeon] peas, etcetera."
From the early 1960s through the mid-eighties, At Home with Sylvia Hunt brought a specialized style of cooking into Trini living rooms across changing eras, offering comforting, consistent instructions on how to prepare foods known and beloved by a Caribbean audience. Her recipes involved ingredients like eddoes, cassava, and dasheen, coconut in all mediums (from liquid and jelly to shredded chunks), breadfruit (fried, roasted, or served in flavorful sauces), plantain, pigeon peas, and local vegetables cooked down with salted cod or pig foot.
"She was like an auntie," recalled Franka Phillip, former BBC producer, founder of Trini Good Media, and writer of Caribbean Beat's food column. "I remember her quite patrician way of speaking and of course the famous way she said 'salt.' She was the only local person on TV at the time, cooking. She became the reference point for a lot of people in terms of advertising and just in everyday speaking about food."
Regrettably, no video clips from twenty-plus years of At Home with Sylvia Hunt can be found, just a few photos from the family collection. "I'm not sure what happened to the At Home footage, as I think that the video tape recorders were recycled weekly. These were in the days of two-inch tapes that were not just costly, but bulky and heavy," said Surajdeen. "Back in those days home recorders were not necessarily commonplace," added Phillip.
In 1985, Sylvia published her first cookbook. Proud Legacy of Our People quickly became ubiquitous in Trinidadian households, and the bold cover stood out among the weather-beaten foreign books in my mother's collection. Her intent with the red, white, and black cover was to showcase the cultural heritage of the people of Trinidad and Tobago with the flag's colors, but over time, the self-published books faded to a burnt orange. TTT alumni Ann Winston holds an autographed copy among her most prized possessions. "One of my favorite recipes is her black fruit cake," she said. "That recipe to me is the best recipe for making the black fruit cake. She has old-time things like tooloom, covity pocham, salt paime; hers is a very good recipe."
Her second book, Sylvia Hunt's Sweets, was a slender volume dedicated to local candies and childhood snacks made from shredded coconut, molasses, and fruit rinds, relics of delights abandoned once Western imports began to flow more freely. She was responsible for her own publishing, and consequently these books were available in limited edition. Her second and third books are even harder to find online. On forums across the internet, people lament that their copy of her first book was misplaced or stolen, desperately searching for a new one.
Sylvia Hunt lived to see two of her books published and was eager for the third. That book, Sylvia Hunt's Menus for Festivals and Daily Use, was released posthumously in 1989. The back cover description goes into further detail: "This third book was being compiled at the time of her death and was of particular interest to her, hence her family's wishes to have it published. Her collection of menus and recipes, published and unpublished, represent a lifetime dedicated to her country's cooking heritage."
Her third book offered ideas for celebrations like weddings, cocktail parties, christenings, and Christmas, as well as uniquely Trinidadian occasions like Carnival, Independence Day, Emancipation Day, and Indian religious festivals celebrated as public holidays in Trinidad and Tobago, like Divali and Eid al-Fitr. Her eldest son, John Hunt, wrote a foreword for her final book that reveals ambition deferred and muted by pragmatism: "Sylvia Hunt's dream was to produce a book on Trinidad and Tobago's cooking that could rival the classic cookbooks of the English language. She realized the market and the time was not ripe to make such a venture viable, thus she contented herself in producing works which would gain popular acceptance."
Perhaps now, the market and time might be ripe for her return. We live in an era when pioneering Black women are being honored years after their time, in print and on film. People are more interested in growing their own produce, creating from local resources, and experimenting with recipes from far-flung places in a way that they weren't in Hunt's day. Maybe now an international readership and the ready audience of Trinidadians and Tobagonians around the world can appreciate the unique flavors and perspectives of her recipes. Perhaps now, an unassuming titan like Sylvia Hunt can be lauded for her groundbreaking and tireless work. Her surviving relatives have finally regained the rights to her intellectual property, and they are figuring out next steps on re-testing her recipes before bringing the book back to print.
"We're in discussions with a publisher and our hope is for them to work with my mom to update the book over the next 12 months," said her grandson Christopher Sambrano. "My cousins and I are excited about the prospect of honoring our grandmother's legacy. She made an indelible mark on all our lives." Sambrano has been put in place of managing the family trust, and all the surviving relatives are working together to make this dream a reality.
The Hunt children and grandchildren view the republishing of her first book as a testimony to her legacy as a culinary figure, as well as a matriarch. "After she died, I took it really hard," said Pam Hunt. "I cooked no more. I baked no more. I grieved a long, long time. But now I'm so happy. We have a What's App cousins chat, [and] now that we're moving forward on this project, we are so happy. People have been looking for the book. People want it. It's long in the making."
Hunt's path blazed a trail for many to follow. Wendy Rahamut credits Hunt for inspiring her own career in Trinidad as a television presenter, cookbook author, and leader of her own culinary school. "She appeared on TV every week and her recipes actually appeared in the [Trinidad] Guardian newspaper the following week. My mom had clippings of her recipes, way back when," she said. "So, fast-forward a little bit to when I started doing Caribbean Flavors, a television show I started in 1998, I thought about her. I sort of did the same thing, air it on TV and then put it in the paper the next week. That idea actually came from what she did, and it worked really well."
Today's new crop of chefs and food influencers may not have grown up watching At Home with Sylvia Hunt, but her legacy endures. The pandemic has forced more and more people around the world to recognize the importance of local cuisine, and the need to reduce food waste. More of us recognize the benefits of eating, drinking, and growing as locally as possible, just as Hunt did back in her day.
"Now we need more people to do cooking not just of local dishes, but of dishes that use local products," said Franka Phillip. "I don't think we exploit enough the possibilities that exist for Trinidadian food, and I think we need to do more of that."
There's an old expression that we must give the greats their flowers while they are here, and make no mistake: Hunt got hers. She won awards for her homemade wines, jams, and jellies. She was awarded the national award, the Humming Bird Medal, in 1986 by the late President of Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Ellis Clarke. Despite it all, she remained grounded and diligent. Pam Hunt remembers a woman who worked hard for her family and her country. "She gave her grandchildren high standards, and when I think of her, I feel so proud," she said. "My grandmother had a TV show! She won a Hummingbird Award! But even though she achieved all that she achieved; she was so humble. I would never hear her bragging about accomplishments or anything like that. She was a salt of the earth woman. She just did what she had to do, whatever it took, to make sure her family was taken care of."
With her family fueling a reprint of her most popular and tangible work, there is hope that her legacy won't be forgotten. It has been over thirty years since Hunt died, but maybe now she can finally get the kind of worldwide recognition she has always deserved.