“The bigger the elbow the sweeter the pot.” There is a popular belief in Bahamian culture that heavy set people are the best cooks, women in particular, especially if the fat of her upper arm hangs over her elbow. In the past this woman was usually a beloved mother or grandmother and was known as a Gussie Mae. For years Bahamians used size to determine the best cooks around the islands and the theory was almost always proven true by the humble yet flavorful dishes that filled the bellies of families in times of and before Bahamian Independence.
The twentieth century in the Bahamas was a time when women fished for their meat and pulled the rest of the ‘fixings’ from a 50 meter herb and vegetable garden in the backyard. Bahamian women connoisseured the miracle of causing two fish and five loaves of bread to feed a multitude and found a way of making one can of corned beef and a pot of rice satisfy a family of eight, sometimes more! Tin plates laden with corned beef steamed bright red with tomato paste and sticky white rice was and still is a staple in Bahamian households and was sired the name ‘Fire Engine’ for its color. Veggies like green peppers, onions and thyme, sometimes potatoes and cabbage were added to ‘stretch’ the pot, a way to ensure everyone at the table would have a belly full.
‘A belly full’. This was the goal of most Gussie Mae’s. Husbands and children would wake up to big metal pots of steamed fish and guinea corn grits, stew conch or souse simmering on the stove and the smell of Johnny cake or sweet buttery white bread baking in the oven. Weekends were always a treat. Coconut or pineapple tart, banana or potato bread, crunchy peanut or benny cakes would spend Saturdays proudly cooling on the kitchen counter for the family to enjoy after a BIG SUNDAY DINNER.
A Bahamian Sunday dinner was then and still is unrivaled throughout the cultures. Every plate heavy with the traditional choices of peas and rice or corn and rice or crab and rice, red meat, white meat, fish, shellfish, crustacean or something out of the sea, cole salw, potato salad, baked macaroni and cheese, fried plantain and the list goes onnnnnn. The clanging of plates silenced only for the head of the house to offer up a prayer of gratefulness to God, and then again when aunts and uncles would share brazen stories across the table and burst out in fits of boisterous laughter. Children who weren’t allowed to eat with the grownups for the sake of the themes of the conversations were sent outside and would only dash back into the house for drinks of Switcha (Bahamian lemonade) between intense rounds of catch and freezes, tag, hide and seek or ring play.
Children would sing their ringplay song loudly from outside, the lyrics almost beckoning the Gussie Mae they loved to come and join them outside. They sang ‘There’s a brown girl in the ring tra la la la la, there’s a brown girl in the ring, tra la la la la, there’s a brown girl in the ring tra la la la la and she looks like a sugar and a plum plum plum. ’ When the song got to the part that said ‘Girl show me your motion’ the heavy set Gussie would roll her large bottom to the rhythm of the song until it was time to go into the kitchen and start preparing the pot for Monday’s breakfast.
The legend of the Gussie Mae is not as widely recognized in our culture today, but every true and true Bahamian still knows that if you are ever in search of a hardy plate of authentic Bahamian food, check out the cook’s elbow.
Featured Image Photo Source: Chantal Bethel