How often do you book a reservation to a restaurant but have the option of walking through a farmers’ market with the chef – who doubles as a tour-guide, and triples as a historian – to pick out your ingredients, and learn the history of Guyanese food, and the people who make it?
Well this is what multi-award winner and now world renown Backyard Cafe offers its guests.
The Guyana Shop is we own.
With such pride in his voice, and a smile hidden by his mask but was surely evident by the creases under his eyes, Chef Delven Adams can’t stop boasting “Is we own” to the two Guyanese young men that were under his guide.
On a humid Saturday morning, my *ex-boyfriend and I arrived at our meet-up point, The Guyana Shop, a store by the Guyana Marketing Corporation that features locally made products: from peanut butter, cassareep and other cassava products, dried fruits, candies, jellies and jams, oil, flour, cereals, and an assortment of snacks.
If it’s made in Guyana, by Guyanese, it will be there. Branded and packaged with nutritional content like any supermarket product, ready for your shelves and the international market.
When they said Guyana is the breadbasket of the Caribbean, they really weren’t lying. For millennials like us this term may have lost meaning, but it was evident that with the diversity and bounty of Guyanese produce, it is almost laughable that supermarket shelves are filled with anything else.
When I talk about diversity and bounty, it’s not just food. Think skincare products, mouthwash, shampoos, insect repellents, and pharmaceuticals among the list of products.
Bourda Market is we own.
You THINK you know Bourda Market, but do you?
Yea it has that unique distinction of having a drive-thru; yes, it’s where you get your fresh greens from, but do you KNOW Bourda Market?
A hub for produce on Plantation Bourda that was put in punts, and pulled to Stabroek Wharf for sale and export; the pastures for indentured labourers and former slaves that met to sell and trade what little they had; the descendants of those labourers that now occupy stalls – generations after generations – passed on like family inheritance to ply their business.
Do you know the lives and stories of the people calling out “Aunty” and “Uncle!” – how Mr. Singh, 20 years ago would lay in a hammock under the trees of Bourda Green on a slow afternoon; or how Aunty selling baigan at $400 a bundle would wake up 3:30 am every morning to make her way down to the city from the farmlands, as far as Black Bush Polder in Berbice?
Let me tell you about the brother who sews and repairs your trodden shoes, how he learnt from his father, and his father before him, a skill passed on from the days of slavery; or the Bush Doctor at the corner of Robb St. who has bottles for “Kidney stones”, “Blood pressure”, and most recently, “COVID-19”; chemists in their own right, passing down intricate knowledge. For these Guyanese, there is pride in this heritage of being a vendor at the Bourda market.
These are Guyanese. Every wrinkle beneath their eyes, every coarse hands, the grey hairs, is a story of being a Guyanese, of feeding Guyanese, of providing for Guyanese. And despite their hardships, they do it with a smile – because HOSPITALITY is part of their family business, and hospitality is part of being a Guyanese.
As a student of political science, what I found most interesting about Bourda Market is that it was the centre of our democracy – long before we attained a colonial government of our own countrymen in the Public Buildings. When you want to speak to groups you go where they are, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow spoke at the wharves, Cheddi Jagan on the Berbician Plantations, but Bourda was where you spoke with EVERY GUYANESE, from every colour, every class, every walk of life.
Bourda Green, once a field with trees and tables that served as stalls, was the stage for politicians. It was where the public validated, or rejected their leaders: if Guyanese were pleased or disgruntled at our leaders, Bourda is where this was made known. It was where Cheddi and Burnham stood to sell the common man the dream of Independence, where social movements began, and where the political careers of politicians ended – it is said that Former President Janet Jagan still shopped herself at Bourda, but after throwing the court order over her shoulders, the vendors and shoppers at Bourda made it known how disrespected they felt.
Jagan’s presidency was cut short and she was the last President to ever shop physically at Bourda.
You couldn’t ask for a more immersive tour – you got to hear the stories of the people, touch the products, smell the fish, taste the paw-paw, ask for more sour on your eggball, and tie that package of astonishment with the satisfaction of cool, fresh coconut water right from the nut.
What is most admirable about Bourda market is the support the vendors give each other. A self-sustained hub. Breakfast is eaten at the snackette right there before the day’s business begin, the ingredients are bought right there; phones are bought and repaired right there, clothes are sewn and shoes re-stitched right there. They support each other in their livelihoods.
It would be wise to remember that you and I are guests in their house, but it is also wise to remember, and take pride that you – we – are also part of that family; and just like any relative would be excited to welcome you to their home, so do the people at Bourda Market.
The Backyard Cafe is we own.
Some gems are meant to be on crowns and shared with the world, others are held in museums as an exhibit to who and what we are. The Backyard Cafe is an example of such a gem, not entirely inaccessible, but sought only by those who are appreciative of what it is to be a Guyanese (or at least to understand the bountifulness and diversity of our nationhood).
Chef Delven quite literally welcomes you to his family – there is mama who helps him prepare meals, and the waitstaff who goof around with each other like brothers, making us feel right at home. Like any good Guyanese family get-together, we frolicked in the backyard.
It’s warm, it’s quiet, it’s natural.
You would not believe a highway is being constructed just a few blocks away.
You’re surrounded by art: the memoirs of those who came before, the crafts and the lively painting. There is an ingenuity of creativity and nature to every inch of the cafe; the plants, the woodwork, the lighting, the tables and bar, and the utensils.
There is the laughter of the macaw next door, and the singing of the kiskadees flying by; over there is the neighbours playing, and right around there comes the smell and the crackling of the fireside. We waited in bliss, relaxing from such a walking tour. We waited, in each other’s arms, amazed by what the day turned out to be.
For Richard and I, a Guyanese gay couple living in Georgetown, one must be aware of their surroundings; needless to say the family at the Backyard Cafe did not make us feel uncomfortable in the least. We all spoke, got to know each other, sat together, and laughed. It’s odd to say but we felt taken care of, we felt accepted, we felt loved.
If you don’t like a particular ingredient, then they’d make you LOVE it. Chef Delven has a belief that it’s not what you cook, but how you cook it – don’t worry too much about the fish, the okra, or the callaloo – it’s really about the ingredients, the preparation, and the pairing.
Everything he uses is sourced right in Guyana, not just the market where we feel, smell, and pick our ingredients, but right there at the Cafe. Just stretch your arm and pick the passion fruits that will be made into your juice and dessert, and on special order – a cheese cake!
There is no menu per se, as meals are specially designed based on your diet, interests and tastes, but what I can guarantee is that you’ll put down your knife and fork and savor the food from your fingers to your mouth, smacking your lips, just like you would at your family cook-out.
After such a meal you brace back, smile, look around and think about your day, about nature, about history and culture, heritage, and what Guyana is blessed with. You smile, and you say proudly to yourself, “Is we own.”
*ex– (broke-up on January 15, 2022) because I wasn’t willing to “commit” apparently.
Featured photo courtesy of Saeed Hamid.
Courtesy is extended to the Guyana Tourism Authority for awarding me this experience.