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Meet a Member: Magneta Mildeane Massiah

"There's never an end to it..."

As a recipient of the Barbados Service Star, along with 630 more awards and honours garnered since her retirement, one would think that Mildeane Massiah deserves to rest a little on her laurels and take some respite from the hectic schedule she sets herself; on the contrary, this pioneer of true Barbadian cuisine always embraces new challenges to "keep the brain young" as she puts it. BSTU-online interviews this exceptional culinary artist and veteran educator who was one of the frontline teachers involved in the democratisation of secondary education in Barbados.

BSTU-online: So pray tell, Mildeane, why teaching as a profession when your talents would have given you quite a few other options?

Mildeane: It stemmed from an admiration I had for those who taught me at primary school, which was Carrington's Girl's school. I really wanted to be just like some of them, simple as that. My first opportunity came in January, 1952, when they called me up for duty at what was then known as the St. George's Girl School, which was a primary school in those days [now the co-ed secondary school St. George's Secondary].

BSTU-online: What was it like teaching back then during the colonial era?

Mildeane: You say colonial times...but really, as a student and teacher back in the 50s and 60s, I didn't have a real concept what that term "colonial" meant. I just went about the job at hand to the best of my ability, with the much appreciated help and guidance of the school's headmistress who showed me the ropes concerning how to write up lesson's plans, schemes of work, etc. and just generally how to cope with being responsible for a group of some 30-odd rather energetic children for the whole school day, teaching them everything from Arithmetic to P.E. and the Holy Scriptures!

BSTU-online: And how about your secondary school career?

Mildeane: Well now, this would have started back in September, 1952, and the school was called the Secondary Modern, which then became St. Leonard's Girls and then simply St. Leonard's Secondary; it was the first of the "newer" or comprehensive secondary schools, built to educate all of those not fortunate enough to find a place in the eight older secondary or "grammar" schools; up until then, a lot of children didn't get a full secondary education. They would stay on for a couple of extra years in primary school (if they didn't manage to pass for one of the grammar schools) and then find their way into the workforce. The new comprehensive schools were meant to change all of that, but in the beginning they were still a bit like a primary school in that a teacher was given a class of children and taught them most of the subjects they were timetabled to do...and at the end of five years, these children would have taken only school leaving exams, not Oxford & Cambridge exams, oh no... Oxford & Cambridge was still reserved for the grammar schools. The intention for these comprehensive schools was, basically, to impart a practical education, to produce an individual who would go on to become a competent plumber, policeman, nurse... and it was still an honour for any of these comprehensive school student to be considered "good enough" to get into one of the grammar schools.

BSTU-online: And how about after secondary school? What were the possibilities for the average Barbadian like yourself?

Mildeane: Possibilities? [she chuckles] The University of the West Indies was just a concept back then in the fities; if you weren't fortunate enough to have the funds to go overseas, then places like the Evening Institute were the only recourse for further education. I did a few courses - stenography, typing, bookeeping etc - at that institution...and then ended up teaching there as well. It wasn't until the early 70s that the chance to earn a postgraduate qualification presented itself, and what an experience that was…

BSTU-online: How so?

Mildeane: Well, one of the requirements for this diploma in nutrition was to study and observe the condition of adolescents in various Caribbean territories (in fact, I ended up visiting 5 islands for this course). To be honest, it was quite a shock to realise that starvation was not uncommon in certain islands: yes, I mean children with bloated bellies and other classic symptoms of dire malnutrition. Perhaps it was from that time that I got the urge to travel and see more of this Caribbean of ours. I've logged quite a few air miles visiting and teaching courses in various Caribbean islands since then!

BSTU-online: Was it also around that time that your talents as a culinary artist began to emerge?

Mildeane: Actually, all this "culinary artist" thing didn't really get going until my retirment! I had actually finished my stint at The St. Michael's School and was contemplating what I would do as a "lady of leisure", so to speak, when it came to my attention that the school had not entered the NIFCA culinary arts competition that year. They had always done that when I was in charge of Home Economics studies, so it was a bit of a disappointment to me that they stopped the minute I retired. Well then, I decided to take on NIFCA that year for the first time as an individual entrant, but really it was to keep the St. Michael School's flag flying high, as it were.

Enid Maxwell Award for Excellence in the Culinary Arts given to Mildeane Massiah (2003)

National Honours: Mildeane Massiah Receives the Barbados Service Star

Mildeane's NIFCA Lifetime Achievement Award (2005)

BSTU-online: Wait a minute, you only started entering NIFCA after retirement?

Mildeane: That's quite correct and, actually, that's not the only thing I've started up since retirement. I only took up duties as BSTU treasurer after putting down the chalk for the final time.


BSTU-online: Hmmm... retirement seems to have energised you! So, was it during this time that you started to develop a truly Barbadian cuisine?

Mildeane: Be careful with that term "truly Barbadian cuisine", I'm not too sure if there's any such thing; for example, do you think macaroni pie is Bajan?

BSTU-online:  Of course....

Mildeane: Well, it isn't. It's actually a very English dish, they call it Marcaroni and Cheese pie and equal quantities of marcaroni and cheese go into the making of the dish. Now then, the Barbadian style of preparing it may be somewhat different (we tend to use a lot less cheese and a different sort of cheese than the English would), so we have just adopted and adapted it! A lot of stuff that we parade as our own is not our own at all. The only dish which I would identify as uniquely Barbadian is cou-cou and flying fish. None of the other Caribbean islands do that.

BSTU-online: But doesn't this style of preparation count for something? How about your innovations with the various chutneys and jams made from local produce?

Mildeane: Well, the Bajan way of seasoning food is our trademark and we might consider that to be "Barbadian cuisine"; as for my stuff, it's still very experimental and I wouldn't want to label it "Barbadian" just yet, but using local produce is certainly a start. As recently as 20 years ago, the Home Economics text book used by Erdiston Teachers' Training College (called "The Berridge House" if I remember correctly) was strictly British...replete with recipes on how to make plumb pudding and Yorkshire pudding. What other books could we use? There were no local cook books in print and, in any event, we did British exams. All the same, I always had the idea of experimenting with local produce, so I used to take the British cook book recipes and modify the ingredient list a bit, to "try a little Bajan thing on the side", coming up with things like Soursop jelly and Golden Apple jam. Come to think of it, it was CXC's emphasis on using local foods for their examinations that started the gradual move away from the "colonial era" as you would say. A Trinidadian woman was the first to come out with a Caribbean cook book, but there were still very few Barbadian recipes in it.


BSTU-online: You've raised a very interesting point there about a lack of Bajan cook books. Well now, as someone who has won the island's most prestigious culinary prize -- the Enid Maxwell Award -- an unprecedented three times, do you have any plans to come out with one?

Mildeane: Actually, that's not as easy as it sounds. The NIFCA organisers have been trying to bring out a book of recipes for years but publishing a cook book isn't just simply a matter of collecting a bunch of recipes, sticking them between two covers and dumping the whole lot at the printer's. Recipes have to be pre-tested to see if they'll come out right using a variety of different ingredients such as different types of flour, sugar, etc. All of those big well-known cook book publishers like Betty Crocker have their labs and testing facilities. The fellows over here are trying, but you know how it is...


BSTU-online: In the same vein, have you ever thought about producing on a commercial basis?

Mildeane: Producing on a commercial basis? Man, you really don't want me to live long and keep on drawing my pension, do you? [She laughs] Anyhow, I do actually have plans to produce a cook book but I'll have to give up some of my current activities, like teaching basketry to various senior citizens' groups (both here in Barbados and occasionally in other Caribbean islands) and keeping up with my trade and credit union committments...there are times when I leave home on mornings and don't see the inside of these four walls again until late in the evening. I keep on making New Year's resolutions to bring out a cook book and people keep on promising to help...but I've a sneaky suspicion that they're eager because they smell a profit. I'm not in it for that.


BSTU-online: Ah, now that you've mentioned your credit and trade union activities, tell us a bit about your contributions during the early days of the Barbados Secondary Teachers' Union Co-Operative Credit Union, weren't you one of the founding members?

Mildeane: Yes, our credit union was launched back in got started a bit late because back in those days, credit unions were considered organisations for the working class. Grammar school teachers, many of them British expatriates, weren't supposed to need such financial support. Well, times have changed and all teachers are struggling like everybody else! I was (and, actually, still am) a member of the BUT credit union, so Patrick Frost asked me to get our credit union set up since I had some experience in these matters...formulating by-laws and so forth. Come to think of it, our credit union operates in a low-key fashion just like the trade union: no fuss, getting things done quietly and without controversy. Those are the same qualities that I love in our trade union, negotiating and winning cases without having to resort to the picket lines. Militancy can be counterproductive.


BSTU-online: So, what lies ahead for Ms. Massiah?

Mildeane: I suppose what lies ahead is pretty much the same as what lies behind [laughing]. Well, I think I'd like to do a bit more travelling. I don't think I've seen enough of the Caribbean and the wider world yet, so it's time to wear out a few more passports...and perhaps they'll call me again to give handicraft classes to some senior citizen group in some island. There's always something that needs doing. There's never an end to it, you know...


The sun settles lower in the sky, causing the shadows to lengthen and the heat to grow less intense, and this constitutes a sublimnal reminder. With a start, Mildeane looks at her watch and consults her diary. We've spent an enjoyable time chatting away but there's an afternoon appointment to attend to. This retired lady has set a schedule which she intends to stick to. There is, indeed, never an end to duty.