Cooking on a cast iron coal pot stove

There is a corner of my UK garden that is forever Barbados. It’s where I store my cast iron coal pot during the winter. In the UK it is rare to see a coal pot and my grandchildren had no idea what Grandad was using on his birthday barbecue. They were spared seeing this rusty piece of cast iron history being recovered from its winter hibernation. A quick brush down with a wire brush; a thin coating of vegetable oil and it was ready to cook.

Bajan cast iron coalpot
Bajan cast iron coal pot in action.

At 12” wide it punches above its weight in the barbecuing stakes. It takes some skill to use – juggling pots, pans and griddle to cook a complete barbecue. Chicken legs though are always started off under the electric grill and just finished off on the coal pot. This was advice from my Mum who had read an article about food poisoning from undercooked chicken. I quickly learnt the importance of positioning the “draft hole” towards the wind to ensure that it lighted quickly and kept the coals glowing red.

This coal pot is a part of my Bajan roots; my mother’s heritage. The coal pot has been ‘part of the family’ for nearly 60 years. As well as being brought out for family barbecues it serves as a focus for telling the next generation of their West Indian heritage.

My mother came from an old Barbadian family but was born in Dominica. From about eleven years old she lived in a first floor apartment at The Pavilion, Hastings. She came to England as a War Bride in 1946.

Our home-life in England was influenced by her memories of the West Indies: with ‘house plants’ at every window – a large Monstera, a Rubber Plant and Sanseviera or ‘Mother-in-law’s tongue’; and the food she ate as a child.

In the 1950s, apart from sugar, the only food imported from the West Indies were bananas and some limes. We ate macaroni cheese and split pea soup as though they were the most natural things to have. I couldn’t understand why my friends didn’t have these meals in their homes. Mum recalled how the family meals in Dominica were cooked on a coal pot by the family cook at the rear of the house in Roseau before being brought inside and served to the family.

In 1961 we visited my Granny in Barbados where she lived at 40 St. Ann’s Court at The Garrison. My sister and I were introduced to cou cou and flying fish, macaroni pie, sweet potato and breadfruit. I didn’t like the local macaroni pie – Mum’s was best – nor Bajan bananas – I preferred ‘English’ ones. My great uncle grew Julie Mangoes which must be the best fruit in the world – at least at ten years old I thought so.

I think my Mum was surprised to see that coal pots were still being used in the Bajan countryside. It brought back lots of memories of her childhood. She had left Barbados in 1943 for Trinidad, before travelling to England in 1946. We paid a visit to Harrison’s in Bridgetown and then returned to UK by boat with a brand new coal pot in our luggage.

Earthenware / pottery coal pot
Cooking fish on an earthenware / pottery coal pot

The use of coal pots was quite prevalent across the Caribbean and some claim they were a major influence on Caribbean cuisine. In 1999 Esther Erneste had been selling coal pots for 33 years from her one-door shop in Suttle Street (at the far end of James St, in Bridgetown). “Nothing cooks food like a coal pot. The food has a much better flavour. I still cook my cow heel and dried peas and rice in a coal pot”. What is not so clear is whether most coal pots were locally made from fired clay or the more expensive cast iron. It seems that tin coal pots were made by local tin-smiths from butter, cheese or biscuit containers.

My coal pot is made of cast iron. This method of casting, pouring molten metal into a hollow mould, was patented in England by Abraham Darby in 1707. By the end of the century, foundries were springing up around the country to provide items for factory owners but also fire grates and cooking pots for Britain’s growing urban population. This was the beginning of the mass production of cast iron goods. I have not found any historical record of when cast iron pots first made their way to the West Indies but there may be some advertisements in the early Barbadian newspapers that would give some idea.

Coalpots in action
Coal pots in action – source: Coal pot and Canawi: Traditional Creole Pottery in the Contemporary Commonwealth Caribbean, Patricia J. Fay, Associate Professor of Art, Florida Gulf Coast University

In Barbados and other islands, coal-pots were made from fired clay; they are still being made in this way in St. Lucia to this day and perhaps on other islands. There is an example of a coal pot in the children’s section of the Barbados Museum. In Barbados they were made from clay in the St. Andrews hills such as at Chalky Mount.

Today we take for granted that we can turn on an electric hot plate or gas ring at the flick of a switch, but it was not always so. Electricity did not arrive in Barbados until 1911 and there was competition between the gas and electrical companies as to whether gas or electric lighting was best; or indeed safest. The gas company claimed that electric light would damage your eyes (just like watching too much television or smart phone). Many parts of the island did not get gas or electricity for many decades and the use of wood or charcoal for cooking prevailed into the 1960s. People also used coconut shells or mahogany shells. The outer fibrous shell of the coconut was easy to light and then the harder inner shell could be added. Charcoal and shells were the best fuel for keeping the heat.

After the cooking was finished, the burnt coals could be raked through the grate and then the whole pot cleaned up and stored..

I asked Lynda Lewis, a life-long Bajan resident, about her memories of coal pots. She says:

Many a young couple in our day used the coal pots as a ‘barbecue’: we could not afford a real one. We would get an old oven shelf or anything that would work as the rack for putting meat on to cook. They were used a lot at the beach by locals and fishermen to cook fresh fish straight from boat or by net or fish pots.

An earthenware pot was often put directly onto the coals or if using a metal rack, put on that. That pot would be used for stews, soups, pepperpot, and sometimes to cook one pot meals e.g. saltfish and rice, pelau, etc.

And how could I forget roasting breadfruit! With old time yellow salted butter, or a can of corned beef. Sometimes the breadfruit was stuffed with corned beef or fish, and wrapped in foil. A staple.

Many a house had a coal pot for when gas ran out or electricity went off. Casuarina wood burns great if no coals!

In days before metal barbecues became affordable, they were used as the heat source for fish fries and frying fish cakes. Particularly near fish markets or bays where fishing boats set out from. Saw one in St Philip recently being used.

Lynda Lewis. Facebook chat – March 2021

Sources:

Cast iron cooking pot – BBC webpage: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/64qC9ouhT5W7EaCOt2RNzw

Journal of BMHS Vol LX December 2014 – Electrification in Colonial Barbados: Challenges and Responses. Henderson Carter.

Coal pots in action – source: Coal pot and Canawi: Traditional Creole Pottery in the Contemporary Commonwealth Caribbean, Patricia J. Fay, Associate Professor of Art, Florida Gulf Coast University.

Weekend Nation, Friday June 11, 1999.

Nevis Historical and Conservation Society Newsletter – And so it was then – Coal Pots by Lyra Richards, February 2001


About our guest author: David O’Carroll

David O'Carroll A true & exact history of the Gall family

David O’Carroll OBE was born in the UK and grew up in Wimbledon. He is a retired UK civil servant living in Gower, South Wales, UK. After retiring he spent nine years as a volunteer Generalist Adviser for the Citizens Advice Bureau in Swansea, and pursuing his love of longbow archery, gardening, beekeeping and family history.

David has published two family histories and several articles about his Barbadian ancestors, including two in the Journal of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society. He also writes fictionalised short stories to bring his genealogical research to life for otherwise uninterested family members.

David’s links to Barbados are through the Gall family who arrived on the island at the end of the 17th century. His mother, Clara Gall was born in Dominica and lived in Barbados as a teenager.

David has recently published a history of the Gall family: “A true & exact history of the Gall family“. It is available from the author. Please click on Contact Burts and use the subject: Gall family – Forward to: David O’Carroll and BajanThings will forward your message to David. Alternatively contact David via Facebook.

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