There’s a great story about the origin of the beloved corn soup of Trinidad and Tobago. Just one problem: I don’t know it. No one seems to know it. I recently heard a story about someone who knew a story, but that was the story: Someone out there knows it; good luck finding them.
But I have a theory. The steel pan is our country’s extraordinary musical innovation, our national instrument and gift to the world. There is something of our soul in pan. And feeding that part of our soul is corn soup.
David Rudder is one of the most influential and prophetic singers of our indigenous music: calypso and soca. In the season leading up to Carnival, the steel bands practice, in Rudder’s words, “living on nuts and corn / from dusk ’til dawn.” I have a lot of respect for the veracity of Mr. Rudder’s lyrics. He never lies to us. He said “corn,” not “corn soup.” My theory has the conviction of his words.
I have no recollection of life without boiled or roasted corn as common street food. Sold on the cob, the boiled variety came out of a mammoth stockpot, and the roasted lazed on a wire grill over an open flame. Of the soup, I can summon no childhood memory. It is as though the world is split neatly, sort of the way the ice age worked. There was a time of no corn soup, and then came the time when it was spread far and wide. It turned up all year round. It came to be sold in restaurants. Now it is ubiquitous to the point you’re hard-pressed not to find it.
My theory, like all the great ones, is simple. Pan rehearsals are notoriously late-running affairs. People get hungry. Proper hungry. Not something that can be handled with a fistful of peanuts and an ear of corn. I believe that one day someone selling corn at a pan yard looked upon the starving masses and, realizing that the supply had come to its end, went home with a full wallet but a heavy heart. There was a need to give the people something more substantial. But it needed also to be affordable and portable. And so corn evolved into corn soup: full of vegetables, tubers, and dumplings, a soup fired to fuel the hands that beat the pan. This was to be a nation-building food.
A note on corn: The corn we use is not the soft, sweet American variety. Not the ears dappled in shades from butter to gold. This is a hardier variety, capable of absorbing all the seasonings added to the soup. Use whatever corn you can get your hands on, but keep in mind the time it takes to boil.
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 pounds pumpkin
8 blades spring onion
2 stalks celery
6 pimento peppers
2 sprigs thyme
8–10 cloves garlic
8 ears fresh corn (dehusked)
2 tins cream-style corn
2 cups split peas
3 vegetarian bouillon cubes
2 ounces salted butter
3 Tbs salt
To make the dumplings, mix 2 cups flour and salt in a bowl. Next, starting with 2 ounces water, mix ingredients until firm. Add extra water if needed. If too much water is added while trying to achieve the consistency, just add more flour and a pinch of salt. Knead into a smooth ball and leave covered for 15–20 minutes.
When dough is ready, pinch half-inch pieces off dough and roll lengthwise in palm of hand. Repeat until you’ve made all the dumplings you can. Put them onto a floured tray so they won’t stick together and cover.
Wash and peel carrots and cut into quarter-inch circles. Peel and wash pumpkin and cut into small cubes. On a chopping board, pound the blades of spring onion up the entire length. Do the same for the celery and pimentos. Something like a pestle works well for the pounding. To make things easier later on, you can tie the celery, spring onions, and thyme together. Peel and pound garlic.
Cut the ears of corn at 2-inch intervals. (Use a knife and make slits in whole corn before cutting.) Open tins of cream-style corn. Measure and wash the split peas.
Make the soup!
Into a large pot toss the corn, pumpkin, carrots, spring onions, celery, pimentos, bouillon cubes, split peas, butter, and 1 tin of cream-style corn. Pour enough water to cover all the ingredients, then add 6 more cups of water. Bring ingredients to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium and leave for approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour or until split peas and all ingredients have softened or melted. About 20 to 30 minutes in, add 1 cup water. When ingredients have softened even more, remove stems of celery, spring onions, and thyme. Use an emulsifier to ensure no peas or other veggies are left whole. It should all be satisfyingly smooth.
Add second tin of cream-style corn and 1 cup water. Taste for salt.
Add the dumplings. Raise heat back to high and cook for additional 5–6 minutes.