A Diasporan’s Nostalgia: Legacy of the “School Vendor” and “Lunch Lady” Revisited – By Lear Matthews


By Lear Matthews

Do you remember the School Vendor selling snacks outside our school buildings? Not so much? OK, let’s revisit her legacy. Whether it was Miss Murray, Miss Stefie, Auntie Gertie or Auntie Sattie, her presence represented an impressionable dimension of the educational environment of urban, towns and rural primary school children in Guyana and the Caribbean since the 1950’s and to a lesser extent, today.

She was like a daytime symbol occupying a small unsolicited territorial “spot” in the school yard or close proximity of the school building.  She would “set up” a make-shift stand under a tattered umbrella, near a lantern-post or under one of Guyana’s massive oaks sheltering from the beaming sun and torrential rain.        

Typically, she was an unassuming middle-aged woman wearing a plain dress, matching “head tie” (bandana) or locally made “panama” straw hat and apron with large side pockets. Fondly known to her youthful patrons as the “Sweetie Lady”, or “Boil-Channa Lady”, this veritable school vendor was a beloved matron selling a potpourri of local snacks. She peddled a variety of succulent and tart indigenous fruit, arguably of some nutritional value to our growing youth. She also sold sweets and beverages displayed on a shallow, well-worn, unpainted wooden tray. Her popular sale items included green mango, tamarind, golden apple, guinep, dunks, gooseberry, sugar-cake, coconut ice, chip chip, hard sweetie (nevah-done lump), “tambrun balls”, plantain chips, salsay (chicken foot), “school sweetie”, fudge, mints and Pine drinks, flutie and custard-block or ice-block, the latter stored in an oversized thermos flask with a silver latch to secure the cover.

      Favourites included tamarind, plum and gooseberry syrups served in an unevenly torn piece of thick brown paper, which was often unintendedly chewed with little concern about the health consequences.  Although “stinkin’ toe” (locus)  a hard-shelled brownish fruit, was not a preferred choice due to its pungency and clamminess, it was occasionally sold by this apparent solitary vendor.  Salt, pepper and “sour” (a mixture of crushed mango and hot red pepper) were an essential part of her repertoire of flavoring condiments. Often, just thinking of the taste would “mek yuh mout waatah”. She carried a sharpened steak-knife used for peeling and “cuttin’up” fruit, which she did with remarkable savvy, dexterity and well-honed culinary skill.

As if those local goodies provided extra vitality or mental alertness, pupils would swarm her temporarily-claimed commercial space during mid-morning “recreashun” (play period) or at lunch time. Seemingly energized, many children could be seen standing around or gleefully playing while chomping, savoring and sharing snacks, for which they paid no more than a few pennies or would “trust” (credit) until Friday.  Others patronized her on their way home, licking sticky fingers and wiping them on khaki short pants or well-pleated knee-length school uniform dresses or skirts.

Some retrospective observations about the interaction between vendor and pupil are noteworthy. We knew very little about her, including her real name or her life beyond the school environs. However, this ordinary matron of small-scale commerce had important sociological, economic and psychological functions apart from her role as a snack-seller. She was not only well respected, but known to defuse conflicts, often indulging with a calm, yet stern: “yah’ll don’t fight man, behave yuh self”, offering solicitous motherly advice to her unwitting juvenile female and male patrons.

Her personality, often characterized by reticence, respect, patience and caring, reflected her trade. Interestingly, she was both loved and feared. For example, a pupil involved in a ‘fight’ may seek protection by “hiding” behind her and the aggressor dared not “cross” her to get to the opponent seeking cover. My colleague Dhanpaul Naraine informed me that Auntie Sattie was an ‘institution’ at the Saraswat High School on the East Bank of Essequibo. She sold boiled Channa, Mittai, phouloree, bara and mauby. Like other school vendors, acts of compassion did not escape her. She would never allow a child to go to class hungry, and would often give away food items. Some of these vendors were also like confidantes or guidance counselors and helped to solve domestic problems. Such kindness and support transcended ethnic group, particularly in rural communities.

       However, of no significance to us was that this adorable seller intermittently wiped her hands on what appeared to be a permanently smudged apron. At the same time she repeatedly collected and made change (mostly coins), while handling the delectable snacks. She also broke “hard cyandy” with the sweat-saturated wooden knife handle – No worries!  There must have been moments of ambivalence about the sanitary conditions under which those appetizing building blocks of our youthful biological make-up were prepared and stored.  Notwithstanding such health risks, we survived – What don’t kill does fatten. Some believe that immunity to such potential nutritional hazards was developed over time — Here we are!

Although they co-existed amicably, her only real competition was the Shave-ice man. Precariously balancing a huge crocus-covered block of ice (perhaps a product of D’Aguiar Ice-house) on a “Carrier Bike”, he provided a welcomed icy treat. This helped to ‘cool us off’ from the broiling sun and tiresome school yard game-activities such as lass lick and bat-an’-ball.  The Shave-ice man would partially mold shaved crush-ice with the bare palm of his hand, then doused it in thick red syrup (whatever the source of that sugary ruby product). The first few “sucks” were a momentous, heavenly savory experience. Oh how sweet it was! Do you remember the time when a desperate pupil (student) would hurriedly “lick” his/her shave ice or otherwise contaminate it to avoid sharing a piece, even- a lil-kanchie bit? Or when a young man could afford to be extravagant and “show off” by treating his girlfriend to a shave ice or sugar cake? Oh yes, a time of true innocence!

The “Lunch Lady” – another unsung “Back-in-time” heroine

At a different venue and adult patron population, the Lunch Lady label described the post-emancipation role of village women. Former schoolmate and Guyanese journalist, Claudius Prince reminded me that these women had to support their family when some men left the villages, until they were able to gain employment and send home cash. Items such as fish-and-bread, dhal pourie, potato ball, local fruits and home-made fruit drinks were prominent on the Lunch Lady’s menu. Some of them extended their vending location to the train station and various work-sites.  The modern-day version of the Lunch Lady has been of growing popularity among private and public service employees and other workers as dedicated patrons.

The interaction with street vendors, both with primary school pupils and working adults in the home country has been quite common to many of us. Street vending in urban and rural areas where various ethnic foods are peddled represent the plurality of Caribbean cultural cuisine heritage, well-known as a source of tasty “street snack food”. In addition to the School Vendor, other outdoor vendors included vintage local culinary “specialists”, namely: The channa man; black-pudden lady; cook-up rice seller; Cassava bread seller (Amerindian); nuts vender and “Badamlacha” seller (Hindu). Some of those vendors were also successful food caterers for popular local events, such as Parties, ‘Fairs’, Weddings and ‘Excursions’. The days of the above-mentioned types of vendors may be long gone, but not forgotten. Nevertheless, whether in the Caribbean,  North America or Europe, ‘street food’ seems to be attractive to youthful and adult patrons, perhaps not only because of convenience, but acquired taste.

Postscript: I trust that this second journey down memory lane reminded you once again of “the way we used to be” and extensions into your adult life. I encourage you to share this nostalgic journey with your children and grandchildren. It is important to note that although there may be fewer vendors today selling outside school premises in the Caribbean, they are subject to health checks and food hygiene certification as mandated by the Ministry of Health (Food Services Division). One could not imagine the “Sweetie Lady” or “Lunch Lady” wearing a mask and gloves back in the day – now compliments of COVID-19. Indeed, Dis Time Nah Lang Time!

Dedicated to generations…Walk good!
The Author
Lear Matthews is a Professor at State University of New York. A former lecturer at the University of Guyana, he serves on the Editorial Board of the Caribbean Journal of Social Work. His most recently published book, English-Speaking Caribbean Immigrants: Transnational Identities examines how immigrants adapt to life in North America while maintaining connections with the home country. He is the co-creator of the Guyanese nostalgic video: Dis Time Nah Lang Time. This article is a revised, extended version of a similar theme published in Stabroek News, 1/9/17.….Hoping these reflections recapture nostalgic experiences that provide some comfort at a time of multifaceted tension, and social and economic unpredictability.
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  • Joyce Smith-Ordor  On 10/27/2020 at 8:43 pm

    In my youth, the blocks of ice were supplied by W& R(Weiting & Richter (don’t remember the spelling) in the then British Guiana. D’Aguiar Ice House was non-existent.

  • Jo  On 10/28/2020 at 12:34 pm

    Fabulous recount of happy school days. Odd how free we were in the lunch hour, from “formal supervision”. The school yard was our domain to play, hang out with friends without any overbearing adult presence. Best of all..so many sunny days as a regular feature. Missing that regularity now that it’s the fall season. Will keep. Thanks for the taking the time to write on behalf of working women in our country.

  • Francis Quamina Farrier  On 10/28/2020 at 10:30 pm

    As the song “Passing Memories” by Eddie Hooper, do return from time to time . Thanks Dr. Lear Matthews for reminding us. Yes, the Lunch Lady was our heroine.

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