The story of Antigua’s traditional earthenware pot

Some traditions and customs can not be changed after modernisation.

Antigua and Barbuda: Some traditions and customs can not be changed after modernisation. Similarly, the Breaking bread has been a symbol of family life in cultures across the earth for millennia.

Elders people of Antigua and Barbuda had memories of communal meals in days gone by; Many will recall fondness of the times spent sitting around a traditional earthenware pot, heated by hot coals, as the evening meal cooked.

Earthware pots resolve love of the people of the Antigua and Barbuda.

With the time, folk tales and ghost stories were brought to life, and superstitions and proverbs handed down.

Culinary techniques may have grown over the years, but the skilled work of forming the clay vessels completely by hand and firing them on an open bonfire survives to this day.

Third age potter Edith Lyne is one of a clutch of people still crafting the pots from natural clay in the countryside village of Sea View Farm.

By sunrise, she is seen elbow-deep in a bag of damp black clay which she would shape into a “Jabba” – similar to a crockpot – using a calabash to plane the surfaces.

She said this whole process would take about to half an hour; then it would be left to air -dry for many days before being painted with red clay mixed with water as a varnish.

Mrs Lyne said final stage is firing arranging her creations among a pile of tree branches soaked in fuel, is the reason why the art is in decline.

“Young people can’t take the heat,” she grimaces as the fires burst forth.

Appearance may barely have broken, but the heat is already stifling in the Caribbean climes.

For Mrs Lyne’s grandmother, pottery was a flourishing business. Back then, when the country was still under British control, she sold her pieces for two pence each.

The cooking pots Mrs Lyne makes, along with the ashtrays and figurines she sells to tourists for a few dollars, are a supplement to her day job as a cleaner.

These days much of the pottery seen in backyards nationwide is largely decorative, a nod to nostalgia and handy as flowerpots. 

But some traditionalists still use the vessels for cooking, and roadside stalls roasting ears of corn on them and cooking stews can be seen sporadically across the landscape.

“Nearly every house in Antigua has a coal-pot in case the gas runs out,” Mrs Lyne says. “You can cook anything you require in it really, and it only takes a few minutes longer than a stove.”

Sea View Farm has been a hub for pottery because both types of clay used are located within its environs – although the exact positions are kept secret from outsiders.

While Amerindians are understood to have used ceramics for cooking, some of the changes which persist today are likely to have their roots in the customs that Antiguans’ ancestors began with them from Africa.

Similarities, historians say, include the pottery being non-wheel made, baked in open fires, and created almost exclusively by women.

“When I was a child, all the cooking was on a coal-pot; we didn’t use a stove until the early 70s. But my niece still uses a coal-pot every weekend,” Mrs Lyne says.

The time-honoured practise makes for a unique taste too. Coals or wood are placed inside the bowl of the structure utilised to support the “Jabba” which sits atop it.

The interior of the Jabba should be wiped with green banana before placing the food in, Mrs Lyne explains.

A typical meal might be national dish pepperpot, a hearty stew of meats and vegetables including okra and eggplant.

Some elders still eat “tratcha”, a dumpling of cornmeal, flour and coconut, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted.

The Jabba’s cousin – the “yabba”, a flat, tray-like vessel – is used for roasting cassava bread, recognised locally as “bamboola”, among other things.

“The pots are mainly used for slow-cooked food like stews and soups,” says one resident, attorney George Lake. “The use of wood or coals gives a smoky, earthy flavour.”

The days before electricity was when coal-pots had their heyday, says Myra Piper, a research assistant at the national museum.

“In my grandmother’s day, family life involved sitting sharing tales while the food cooked. Pepperpot, salt fish and rice and what we called ‘widdy widdy bush’ – similar to spinach – were common dishes.

“Old-time proverbs were also passed down, like ‘cockroach na ha no right ina fowl pen’ meaning stay away from known danger; another was ‘mout open tory jump out’, meaning once you open your mouth you are liable to say anything,” she smiles.

Food remains an integral part of Antigua and Barbuda’s local culture, but many people, such as Mrs Lyne, fear the art of local pottery might soon be lost forever.

“People don’t understand how much work goes into it; it’s a skill,” she says, adding: “There are only around three or four of us left making them now. It’s sad because it’s a part of our history.”

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