Gabrielle Spence

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Isabelle, or “Izzy” Spence clings to her mother, Gabrielle. The two, who moved to Muncie from Trinidad and Tobago, are near inseparable. Each week, the two prepare “Sunday lunch” to maintain the Caribbean cultural practice of cooking big on Sundays.

Passing on traditions: Caribbean native stirs up culture in Muncie

By Sabrina Schnetzer

In her cozy apartment kitchen, Gabrielle Spence stirs noodles as her daughter, Isabelle, watches intently, waiting for the noodle to meet the gooey cheese of her favorite dish—macaroni pie. Cooking on Sundays is a tradition the Ball State graduate student brought with her 16 years ago, when she moved to Muncie from Trinidad and Tobago—a small island nation off the northeastern coast of Venezuela.

“Good food brings people together and sustains the life within us,” said Spence, who will graduate in May 2018 with a master’s in business administration. “In my country, we call get-togethers ‘limes’ and at the center of a lime is usually good food and drinks.”

Cooking for the week results in a giant Sunday lunch, said Spence, who often invites other Caribbean exchange students to share in the meal. A typical gathering includes: two meats, say beef and fish; a fresh salad and bread; and one or two starches like potato salad, rice or macaroni. “You get the whole nine yards on Sunday,” Spence added.

She drains the noodles.

“In Trinidad, Sunday lunches are a tradition among most families,” she explained. “Sometimes men prepare certain dishes while women prepare others. Preparation can start as early as the morning before church, and it’s the biggest meal of the week. Siblings, parents and grandparents all come to the table for their favorite dishes.”

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Traditional Trinidad macaroni pie is not to be confused with the American mac and cheese. The former is often much firmer, cut into slices, and carrots, grated onion, tomato and herbs are regular additions. The dish is often served alongside callaloo (leafy greens), stewed chicken and a salad.

Just the Two of Us

But while Spence is nearly 3,000 miles from home, she cooks alone—maintaining the native tradition to hold tight to the flavors of home and stir in life lessons as she passes down recipes to her princess-loving 7-year-old.

“Being here at Ball State is essential for the pursuit of my higher education and advancing my career,” Spence said. “Food is a huge part of my culture, and maintaining it in our lives helps keep a part of home with me. As she gets older, I hope Isabelle will appreciate the flavors more so she, too, will pass them on to her family.”

Observing the first-grader watch her mother in the kitchen, there is little doubt “Izzy” will not become an equally skilled cook, although Spence is honest about the struggles of inviting little hands into the operation.

“Izzie is my alpha and omega. I live for her and love her hard,” Spence said. “She is always so eager to help in the kitchen, but there are often lots of dropped eggs and pots,” Spence added, as she and Izzie giggle through a recounting of a calamitous batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Spence blends the noodles with cheese and butter.

Packing up memories from America

When she graduates, Spence plans to return to her hometown, Arima, in Trinidad, to advance business in the easternmost and second largest area of the three boroughs of Trinidad and Tobago.

She will certainly miss friends and the flavors of America—namely pumpkin-spiced and apple-flavored drinks of the fall. But one taste Spence said she will gladly leave in the states: doughnut bread pudding.

“The first time I saw and tried donut bread pudding, I was very confused,” she said. It’s a sweet pudding casserole made with stale glazed donuts and topped with chocolate sauce. It’s delicious, super sweet and indulgent, but it’s an odd combo for me.”

Spence pulls a steaming casserole dish out of the oven, and Isabelle comes running from her room. Spence places the dish down on the counter next to the artwork her daughter brought home from school.

The two eat, like they do most everything—together.

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Macaroni Pie

Ingredients

  • 32 ounces elbow macaroni
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 4 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
  • 3 cups milk
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 tsp salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add macaroni and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente; drain.
  3. Add butter, 4 cups of cheese and milk to pot of macaroni. Mix until fully melted.
  4. Add eggs, salt and pepper into pot. Mix until fully incorporated.
  5. Pour into a pie pan. Cover with remaining cheese.
  6. Bake in the oven for an hour.
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