Background memories serve me well of the early carnival days on the road, (you see I have been wuking up on the road for while now). Those were the times when I was young, carefree and happy to get drunk and disorderly on the road. The quality of food was never a concern – only the endless supply of necessary alcohol and music. Pelau, was considered as the main staple diet for your lunch back then. Why? For one, it was easy to prepare for a mass of people. ‘Cook all a de food inna one big pot’ and serve it out to the hungry and drunk when the time came. The lunch-time serving of food would be at no specific time, other than someone ultimately drunk and hungry, would ask for food and then all hell would break loose. Everyone then seemed to smell the cold pelau and would descend upon the only two workers, with all hands up in air and waving like frenzied birds at feeding time in Trafalgar Square. The two lonesome workers would then hand out the plastic packs to mass of ‘I want food now’ hands. However, when your short like me, you don’t stand a chance, as like the runt of a big family you get run over in the sprint to get to food. Manners, kindness and courtesy go out the window when one is hungry! The attack of the meal bus for food was relentless, swathes would group and it took time. In my meat-eating, ‘I don’t give a damn how my food is’ days, I would waver my small arm, gratefully receiving my plastic pack some 30 minutes later. I still have vivid flashbacks of digging around for the pelau pieces of meat, that seemed to hide beneath the mound of semi warm rice. Chomping on that said piece and feeling happy you actually got some meat instead of bone. Pelau now makes me shudder, as really how long does that rice sit there, warm, before it gets to us? When is it cooked? Sure ain’t the Sunday morning and definitely not Monday morning, so I reckon that the pelau concoction had to have lasted 3 days! I absolutely just can’t bring myself to cook or touch it now. The vegetarian or fish options do not fare any better. Usually, a potato salad or a slab of fish in soggy cold batter with a dry portion of rice, or a blob of stale congealed gravy sat there saying “help melt me”, on the said rice. Some coeslaw also is added for the privileged few amongst us. However, for the majority of the time, that pelau screamed, ” please don’t eat me, I am not nice, I will hurt you”! Nevertheless, you ever notice when your drunk and hungry, that anything foodwise goes? Beer goggles for food comes in action and by that, I mean that lean up, lonely piece of meat, suddenly looked like a crispy, juicy piece of jerk pork, succulent looking with just enough bbq sauce to make it look like you want to suck and chew down the bone! Believe it or not there are lots of people who suffered at the hands of bad food storage. Poison, literally nearly poisoned everyone on the road one year and that’s the year I started to become fearful of what I ate on the road.
It’s all dark and mysterious out there, no-one seems to have written about food issues and complaints probably fade away in the background of Facebook and Instagram, under the guise of thanks, “I had a great time” or “the costumes were amazing”. That, or my research skills are rubbish! However, I have heard the complaints from my fellow masqueraders on the road and even now, when deliberating the mas band food experience. There are many of us who complain, but there are just as many who actually like the ‘road meals’, and I can’t argue with those that enjoy it. Perhaps my taste buds are not tune with the majority, or others are just hungry and grateful. Nowadays, the current food presentation is not longer pilau (for the lucky few), it is now a serving of ‘end of life’ chicken, stewed or fried with the usual serving of rice and peas.
I have tried to figure out the food quality that mas bands deliver on carnival day; and it is not just a general debate about the quality of food given to masqueraders in London, it is equally the same everywhere I have travelled. After all, the money we pay, why should it not warrant a decent meal? Many people do not even get to taste the food that their all-inclusive ticket price paid for. So let me ask me some valid questions. Do food trucks have to adhere to the normal food health and safety rules for food hygiene? Are these food trucks subject to the same rigid food preparations policies as street food traders? Anyone ever see the food certificates pinned up? Nope, not me. I am not sure to be honest and it’s a dangerous to even go there. I have tried in vain to find records of mas band food complaints – so its hard to really quantify any of my statements. They are essentially unfounded and definitely not proven. So, in regards to this article, it is only my opinion, that of friends and perhaps anyone else’s experience to go by.
One band I know got it right for food delivery this year and that was in St Lucia. I did not even have the pleasure of experiencing playing mas with the band, however, I could vouch for the caterers. I heard the whispers of excellent food on the road and upon enquiring further, the mas band had actually hired the jerk pan people based at the end of our road, of where we staying. Yes, my people could vouch for someone’s food, those people literally did the best jerk food. Their food truck was commissioned to be harnessed onto one of the floats and it ‘jerked up’ food fresh on the road for the masqueraders . Each masquerader was even given three food tokens – how could your belly not be full with freshly cooked jerk food, three times? Wow. Perhaps a small minority do indeed satisfy on food delivery, but I am yet to hear the experiences. However, I refuse to believe that my food experiences are the standards for all bands and that the majority do get it right.
So just how do bands review and/or improve on food quality to the satisfaction of their masqueraders and without incurring significant costs to their members? What is wrong with following the approach in St Lucia for London and give us freshly cooked food on the road? I do have to laugh, as whilst this would be wonderful to replicate in London, I do not know how that band in St Lucia wrangled the legalities of getting that food truck on the road, let alone the safety aspects. However, this was the Caribbean, they could get away with that and more importantly it seemed to work. I just don’t think an unstable jerk pan cookfest struggling behind a float, would pass any health and safety laws in London though! 🙂
Caribbean carnivals, especially the Nottinghill carnival, will always continue to dominate a special place in my heart. As despite my discussions on food given by mas bands, this only one aspect of the carnival experience which does not impact the day as an entirety. This is merely a reflection of my feelings and perhaps a very small percentage of others.