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Book Review


Candice Goucher, Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2014. Pp. xxi + 241. Bibliography and Index. $24.95.


     The Caribbean has a long history as a cultural melting pot, and its cuisine certainly reflects this. "Jerked" meats, which are prepared with local allspice and pepper, thyme and garlic from Europe, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon from Asia, and wrapped in plantain leaves from Africa, are an excellent example of this diverse culinary heritage. In Congotay! Congotay!, Candice Goucher examines the history of cross-cultural contact that shaped Caribbean cuisine and uses this to delve deeply into the social impacts of slavery, the plantation economy, and globalization.

     Goucher's book is organized into six chapters, each dealing with a separate theme. The first chapter introduces the foods of the early Atlantic world with a focus on the indigenous cuisines of the Caribbean and the maritime staples of cod and sea biscuit. Much like preserved cod was soaked to remove the salt in which it was encased, Goucher argues that Caribbean chefs stripped European foods of their old meanings and infused them with the flavors of the region. The second chapter uses the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to examine the numerous African influences on Caribbean cuisine. Enslaved Africans brought a variety of staples to the region, including rice and yams, and embraced New World substitutes for familiar foods in the form of corn (for plantains) or coconut milk (for palm oil). Thanks to their startling autonomy in terms of food procurement and preparation, Goucher contends that "the logical outcome of the Caribbean's culinary history was the triumph of African influences" (83).The third chapter looks at how sugar was consumed by slaves even as producing it consumed their lives. Goucher also looks at how the abolition of slavery in British colonies led to the arrival of one million Asian migrants who brought with them their own distinctive culinary heritage, one which lives on in the popularity of curries and roti today. The fourth chapter focuses on food as a form of resistance, arguing that the spiritual importance of food in Africa and the relative autonomy of cooks on slave plantations enabled them to poison masters and perform illicit religious rituals. The fifth chapter reveals the ways food factored into gender dynamics in Caribbean societies. This includes fascinating sections on male bonding over bottles of rum ("liming") and the use of various foods as aphrodisiacs, including callalo and chocolate. The final chapter grapples with the impact of globalization on Caribbean cuisine and argues that postcolonial economic policies have tended to privilege overseas producers while making food more expensive. In a region shaped by the slave trade and European imperialism, globalization is just the latest in a series of unequal relationships that have shaped the way people understand food.

     Food is obviously the focus of this book, and Goucher's enthusiasm for the subject flows through every page. Recipes for everything from pepper-pots to mojitos are included, as are more general descriptions of countless additional foods. But her use of food as an entry point to crucial themes like imperialism, slavery, migration, gender, sexuality, resistance, and globalization is extremely significant. Her knowledge of the scholarly debates on these subjects is impressive, and she makes a number of important contributions. In the chapter, "From African Kitchens," she argues that the millions of African slaves brought to Caribbean were never "dominated completely by European tastes or cuisines" (59). By noting the African origins of popular Caribbean foods like metagee and jambalaya, she suggests that slaves retained aspects of their culture and were active participants in shaping the Atlantic world. This fits neatly within Thornton's scholarship on the slave trade, and supports his critique of Elkins' vision of brutalized slaves stripped of their past. This chapter is critical to Goucher's main scholarly contribution – how cuisine reveals the "architecture and agency of African cultural identity in the Caribbean" (83).

     Goucher's book is organized thematically and never attempts to provide a narrative history of the Caribbean. However, its thematic chapters are ideally suited to undergraduate level world history courses. The sections on cod fishing, the slave trade, sugar production, syncretic religions, and globalization could each be used to spark discussion in a general survey of world history from 1500 to the present. Congotay! Congotay! is a mélange like the food it describes and is similarly the better for it.

Dave Eaton is an associate professor of African history at Grand Valley State University. He can be reached at


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