On Mothers’ Day – Remembering Ma Ursula’s Bakes – A Queen of “Recess” Industry
Gabriel Christian, Esq.
In the unsteady aftermath of the Covid 19 pandemic I have reached back into the brighter days of memory. Days of a simpler, better and more stable time on our beloved island home of Dominica.
One of the sturdy elements of that memory is that rescued from our days at the Roseau Mixed Infant School of the 1960s and the legendary ladies who came at recess time to sell eats. In those days, our school principal was one Floss Christian, popularly known by all who knew her as “Aunty Floss.” Be it known that even people who were not related to her would call her “Aunty Floss.” How that happened I do not know.
We, as children, called those treats or snacks we ate at break-time “recess.” In those days we had no KFC, pizza, Mars bars, potato chips or M&Ms. The most formidable “recess” lady of that era was Ma Ursula of Cork Street who lived across from our school.
Ma Ursula was of a rich deep brown hue, with slightly bowed but sturdy legs. She was an ample woman; buxom. Her face always wore a beautiful ebony sheen from which gleamed the single gold tooth which was a mark of some high standing in the culture of our island at that time. To have a gold tooth marked you as a person of some substance or that you had traveled to Panama, Curacao, or Aruba.
Ma Ursula’s home, which doubled as the recess factory of the day, was always humming when we went by to buy our recess. The home itself was recessed within a cocoon of rusting corrugated fencing and wood which made up the sides of yard enclosures for the modest homes in Roseau of that time. On the path to the home, I recall a dirt beaten alley dotted with small river stones deposited by the Roseau River which once made its way along that pathway over the centuries.
On approach to Ma Ursula’s nicely appointed little house, which was gaily painted in green and yellow, one could hear the sizzling of a trying pan and the clatter of cooking pots. She always wore a nice working dress and mostly had slippers on her feet. She would be busy cooking up some guava jam, coconut tablet or frying bakes.
Ma Ursula’s bakes were fried flour dough, light, savory and delicious – oft times with pockets of air within the crispy delicacy. The more air pockets one’s bakes had, the higher the quality was according to our thinking back then. Other vendors of “recess” sold cold dumpy bakes. Ma Ursula’s bakes were prized for always being fresh, crisp, and delicious. She also made delicious coconut squares and peppermint sweets square with a red dot at the center.
She would say “How many bakes you want, little Christian? ” Ma Ursula knew my name as our father was a fire officer at the Dominican Fire Brigade Headquarters which was around the corner on Bath Road. I could only afford one bake usually; thrusting my penny into her hand. A bakes (we always used the plural form “bakes’) was about a penny – which in our day was two cents not one cent as is now the case in the US. Bake in hand, one would bite it quick, lest a bake-less classmate pounced on you to mop you. To “mop” was to beg another classmate for a piece of recess. I had to share my bakes with my sister Esther who attended mixed school with me, so I often had none to spare.
Another element of precious memories of the “recess” era revolve around the sense of community as personified by Ma Ursula and her gracious manner. It also spoke to her kindness that she would often lend us a US Army knapsack that somehow, she had gotten hold of. I was told that either a son or relative of hers was in the US Army and had sent her what was a fine green military knapsack, with sturdy canvas straps and rivets.
We would borrow that bag from her whenever we went to camp. The first to borrow that bag was our oldest brother Wellsworth, who attended Saint Mary’s Academy (SMA) with her older son Celaire. Wellsworth was one of the first SMA cadets. He was therefore a regular camper in need of a good knapsack.
Ma Ursula also had a sister who was of a lighter complexion and who cooked up recess too. She was equally pretty, smiling and kind. But Ma Ursula had the name and was the showpiece of that yard where she ran her “recess” factory. There were three other friendly boys other than Celaire who grew amidst that zone of delightful industry; Kelvin, Rennick and a younger one with memorable eyes whose name escapes me. They all attended the prestigious Saint Mary’s Academy, if I can recall.
Stores in Dominica in those days did not sell knapsacks of that kind owned by Ma Ursula, if at all. So, it was a high honor and privilege to be allowed use of Ma Ursula’s backpack or knapsack. Such sharing among our close-knit community was emblematic of the time. As said earlier, our oldest brother Wellsworth at that time was a Saint Mary’s Academy Sea Scout and later a cadet. Later, when I became a cadet at the Dominica Grammar School in 1972, I continued the tradition and would borrow the knapsack or what they now call a backpack. As a cadet at the Grammar School, I climbed Mount Anglais with that knapsack and trekked up to the Boiling Lake with it strapped to my back, navigating over huge muddy tree roots and seemingly impenetrable jungle.
After each use we would lovingly and carefully wash that gift of a bag kindly shared with us. Cleaned up nicely, we would dutifully return that prized possession safe and sound to Ma Ursula. I wonder whatever became of it.
Today, we have Kentucky Fried Chicken and I hear that we have a Subway sandwich shop in Roseau and Ma Ursula is no more. However, I think we have lost much in the way of local industry, grace, and kindness – one toward another.
Ma Ursula and the food vendors who served masses of school children and the public in that era were our titans of industry. They were our symbols of commercial wizardry by and for the common folk. They brought us pride and joy through feeding us with their culinary delights born of local products and native culinary ingenuity.
One day we can have a more modern factory making local treats as we did back then. That kind of self-reliance is going to be needed to survive the fallout from the COVID 19 pandemic. We cannot subsist off imported chicken and foreign made treats all our lives. As self-reliance advocate Marcus Garvey and our own traditional bakers and recess makers taught us, we must learn to do for self. We must seek to emulate those like Ma Ursula, and others of her noble generation, who did so much with so little.
Indeed, I have fond memories of when we lived in the reign of our own local royalty. In Dominica we had our Queen Mothers who did much with little and gave us the pride of industry on our own beloved island. On Mother’s Day 2023 we remember Ma Ursula, our own mothers of modest means who stretched the loaves of bread and fried fish (as Christ did) to feed and nurture us. Let us always honor and remember them. In so doing we can prepare ourselves for the resurrection of our best hopes for Dominica and a better world.