Tantalizing treats

hang just out of reach, taunting

both cats and children.

Grandma had a special way of protecting goodies from both cats and children. Sturdy chains, with giant hooks at the ends, hung from the ceiling. There were three chains in the kitchen and whenever a basket dangled from one, we knew it held treats, either those Aji (paternal grandmother) made, or bought from the market. There could very well be jalebis or gulab jamun or salara or pastries waiting in there, tempting us. Later, when I read about Tantalus, I could relate to his situation.

Aji did share the treats among us, but the children were many and the portions not very generous. We longed for more and we devised many a plan to get to the baskets, but we did not have the courage to disappoint either Aji or parents by such behavior. The cat must have had similar thoughts about raiding the baskets but unless it could walk on the ceiling it just had to continue staring at the one in which it knew freshly fried fish sat.

It was a foolproof way to keep the cat from the fish and us children from the treats that if we ate too much of would give us stomach aches and rot our teeth. Many of us already knew the pain of toothache and had lost several teeth through tooth decay. Maybe dental checkups may have helped but we had never heard of such a thing, one only visited the dentist if a permanent tooth was causing trouble, baby teeth were just yanked out by brave adults who risked their fingers to do the job.

The most delectable treats those baskets held were the cakes that were baked only at Christmas time. Very few homes had ovens so the local bakery would charge a fee per pan to bake cakes. They were always fruit cakes that were liberally studded with maraschino cherries and raisins and citron. I was never a fan of citron so in later years when I baked these cakes, I omitted the citron.

The other, even more coveted Christmas cake was called simply, black cake. Black cake has its roots in the English plum pudding. It is a dense, moist, fruit cake that is loaded with ground dried fruits such as raisins, cherries, prunes, and yes, citron. Bakers in Guyana added a local twist to make this fruit cake their own – they added rum, liberal quantities of rum.

Baking black cake was quite a production. Months before, the dried fruits would be washed and ground, usually by hand using a meat grinder and then soaked in wine and rum. The fruits for the less dense fruit cake would be chopped by hand the day before baking. On baking day ladies would rise early to whip up their batter and pan their cakes so that they could be first in line at Joe Gomes bakery. It was first come, first served, and one wanted to be there early before something went wrong with the oven and their batter ended up wasted because they did not have a refrigerator. It would be some years before I saw a pan that was made specifically to bake cakes in. Typical cake pans were the sawed-off bottoms of butter tins or biscuit tins (salt biscuits were crackers, sweet biscuits were cookies, and they mostly came in tins). The pans were well greased and floured to help the cakes slide out easily.

These cakes, both fruit cake and black cake, were such delicacies that they were doled out a little at a time. We savored every morsel knowing that we would not have this again until the next Christmas. Christmas was also the only time that we had apples and grapes. The stores only stocked these fruits then. They were imported and very expensive, but most families shouldered the cost to make that time of year special. Many older folks still refer to apples, any variety, as Christmas apples.