The rub of time is that when you meet your ancestors, they’re already old. I know my grandfather not as a young man, clean-cut with a skinny tie, but as Papa Winston, a cloud of a white beard ringing his chin and laugh lines like rivers creasing his eyes. But I have to admit, when I met him in Miami a few months ago on our way to Trinidad, he had all the joy of a young man embarking on a new adventure.
My grandfather was born in Trinidad on Christmas Day in 1941. When he moved to the States at age 25, he carried with him Scotch bonnet peppers, a college degree, determination, and dreams. He met my grandmother, Cassie, in 1977 and settled first in Long Island, New York, then Yorktown, Virginia. Time flew, he grew, became a father, then a grandfather 10 times over, and then a great-grandfather. He didn’t make it back to Trinidad often, but he carried his home in his West Indian accent and in the flavors of his cooking—an inheritance of hot pepper sauce and goat roti. I grew up with those Trini flavors, which are now part of the story of the African diaspora I tell at my restaurant, Kith/Kin, in Washington, D.C. Since he retired, Papa has been back to Trinidad a few times, mostly for funerals, as his siblings have been whittled down from a dozen to now just eight. I had never gone with him to visit. Until now.
We arrived in Port of Spain and stepped directly into history. Trinidad and its twin island state, Tobago, have been deeply imprinted by centuries of colonialism and bloodshed from British, French, and Spanish occupation; the importation of Indian labor and African slaves; and the exploitation of indigenous Carib and Taino cultures. The less-terrible legacy of all of this is that the culture has been blitzed into an astonishing and vibrant mix. You can trace a straight line from the fluffy plates of cou-cou, a polenta made of cornmeal and okra, back to African slaves who arrived in the 18th century. There are French riffs on dishes that are chopped and screwed through the patois and come out a thousand times better and spicier, like buljol, a salt cod, pepper, and tomato salad. Thanks to the large Indian population, spicy pholourie, an evolution of pakora, and golden fried mashed potato pockets called aloo pie are hawked on every street corner. Cumin, a staple in the Indian pantry, is here called geera and used in my favorite Trini dish ever: chunks of spicy-as-hell geera pork.
Fresh from the plane, Papa and I were hungry and made a beeline for the parking lot. There, a man with a cooler for drinks and a shopping cart for ingredients sold lunch in the blazing sun. He sold doubles: two pieces of bara, a flatbread, with curried chickpeas, or channa, and a Scotch bonnet hot sauce that burnt my face off. It was feeding people at its most elemental, and it was delicious. Papa and I ate, checked into our hotel, and waited for the sun to set and the air to cool.
In the morning, Papa said he wanted to show me something. We took a car to Saint James, a sprawling neighborhood in the north of the city where my grandfather (and years later, Nicki Minaj) grew up. Through the narrow streets we drove, past halal butcher shops and grocers selling fruit from the backs of their trucks. Papa led me to where his house was. Was. The corrugated tin walls had been replaced by something slightly more permanent, but the stream behind the house that cut through Saint James and had served as a shortcut from one friend’s house to another still flowed there. He walked me by the church where he’d roll into 6 a.m. mass after staying out all night long and to the Catholic school where he won the scholarship that eventually got him to America.
Then back into the car we went to head north toward Maracas Bay along a winding road, the green cliffs on one side and the ocean stretching blue on the other. We stopped for lunch at Richard’s Bake & Shark, a Trinidadian institution. Back home, Papa often makes me fried shark—and I make it myself, too—but here, the bake, a puff of fried bread, was so fresh it felt completely new. Sitting with my grandfather by the side of the road, eating our lunch quietly, I remembered some lines from a poem by Derek Walcott, one of the West Indies’ best-known writers:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.