Views from the ANThill: Of Food and Buckets: Mobile Treats and Identity in Belize

A young purveyor of “bucket food” riding to her next customer 
in the small town of Punta Gorda, Belize. 
Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on July 20, 2012
I love food. I like to eat and I like to cook. I like to eat what other people have cooked. From the white tablecloth to the white paper napkin, I love to try new foods in new environments. I’ve written about food and shared recipes that I’ve created. I’ve cooked with friends and family in kitchens all over the Americas. Creativity with food fascinates me and brings me great joy. I also enjoy thinking about food in an intellectual sense, and contemplating its many roles in the lives of the people around me.

At the recent Belize Archaeology and Anthropology Symposium, I was able to hear a paper by Ms Lyra Sprang, a graduate student of anthropologist and food scholar, Richard Wilk. In her talk, titled Food, Identity, and Tourism: Politicizing and Commoditizing Food in Placencia, Belize, Sprang discussed the concepts of gastronationalism and gastroidentity as they manifest in a town in southern Belize that is popular with international and Belizean tourists. Sprang has investigated how different ethnic foods take on more or less Belizean-ness based on a variety of factors ranging from the participant’s ethnicity to advertising signs at local restaurants. In the discussion following the talk, Belizeans in the audience engaged with the topic, and expressed their thoughts on how food shapes their sense of identity as Belizeans. For instance, the finding that some youth in Sprang’s study think of imported Ramen noodles as Belizean food raised significant concern and dialogue.

Further south in the country, where I am living, the picture where food and identity is concerned might be a little different. This region is somewhat more ethnically diverse, with Garifuna, East Indian, Kriol, Mopan and Q'eqchi' Maya and even Chinese, Mennonites (of European descent), and a sizeable expatriate community living side by side. Additionally, the tourist industry is in its infancy here, resulting in few if any restaurants specifically catering to tourists, and most cooking for Belizeans. There is not a great deal of variety in the fare available at the local restaurants, except among the few that are popular with the foreign community, and I suspect Sprang’s study would reveal something different were it conducted here in the deep south (she agreed during her talk).

I am not here specifically researching food, although the topic comes up frequently in my interviews, as many associate a good diet with being healthy. What people know to be healthy, and how they consume are often two different things, and that would seem to be the case here, especially if my research participants are eating many meals in the local restaurants. I have written many field notes about food, and I have come to observe a phenomenon that was not mentioned by Sprang; something I have called “Bucket Food.

My Belizean friends don’t specifically categorize the many foods sold out of buckets around town, and so the name is something I have come up with. And I can’t be positive that this is unique to Belize, as I’m sure there must be analogous forms of bucket food in many parts of the world. I do believe, however, that it’s distinct from commonly known street food in a couple of ways. I think of street food as cuisine that is prepared by vendors on street corners and sidewalks – conveniently located for potential customers. While many of these vendors are mobile (think food trucks), they commonly set up in a fixed location and prepare lunches or dinners on the spot.

Bucket food is unique in that customers don’t have to find it; instead, it is brought directly to the consumer at home. Also contributing to their distinctness, bucket foods are pre-prepared – in people’s home kitchens – and then sent out in buckets to be delivered door-to-door on bicycles. Children are the most common proprietors, and they typically carry with them two buckets filled with goodness, one on each side of their handlebars. However, bucket food is not only the domain of the local youth, as I know of women and men from a range of age-groups that pedal around town with their bucketed home cuisine.

A bucket-full of warm-from-the-oven homemade bread that
was a great snack after an afternoon of gardening.
Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
The variety that is encompassed by the bucket food trade is quite impressive. Breads and baked goods are common snacks brought around in the evening. Kriol bread, a type of sweet roll about the size of a burger bun, is often brought warm from the oven. Also delivered fresh baked are small homemade glazed donuts, sweet buns (kind of like cinnamon buns, but without as much sugar and no cinnamon), and coconut tarts (probably my favorite!).

But there are also foods that are more like a meal, or at least part of one, that are delivered in buckets. Fresh panades – shredded fish (usually snapper), cooked, folded into a corn tortilla and fried, served with shredded cabbage and hot sauce – come around once in a while. I’ve had the Belizean-famous Johnny cakes brought to my door. Popular throughout the country, and known as a travelers’ food, these small, dense, English-muffin-like breads are brought warm and can be plain, or stuffed with cheese, meat, or beans, or some combination thereof. Another favorite comes from a middle-aged East Indian woman who rides her bike around with buckets full of roti. She has options too: vegetarian (just lentils), chicken or beef, all with a nice serving of hot sauce.

There is also a Maya woman and her two or three children that come to my house on bikes with buckets a couple of times each week. They don’t have any prepared foods, but instead bring the market door to door. I buy my vegetables for the week out of these buckets. She has brought me mangos, avocados, papayas, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, carrots, cucumbers, okra, callalloo (a local green – amaranth), cilantro, kulantro (a local plant similar in flavor to cilantro), chives, dried local red and black beans, and a host of other tasty veggies. She has one of the most weighed down bicycles I have ever seen and a variety equal to that found at many market stalls.

Another favorite around town is the late afternoon ice-cream bike, perfect for a snack after the heat of the day. Delivered by an older Maya man in his 60s that rides around ringing his bell on a bike with a small cart on the front, the ice cream usually comes in two flavors. In the cart he keeps his cooler (which is really just an insulated bucket!) for the ice cream, cones, cups, and scoops. He may actually have the most popular bucket food in town, as he is often seen surrounded by children and adults alike.

There are, of course, other foods sold out of buckets, but the above are some of my favorites. I should add that bucket foods are very inexpensive (most things cost less than a US dollar), and are affordable for most people in town. They provide afternoon snacks to people in a town where late-day socializing on the porch is a cherished pastime. Bucket food is also a means for enterprising families to earn a few extra dollars every day, and this can not be understated in a place where poverty is prevalent and jobs are scarce. After hearing Sprang’s talk, I wonder how “Belizean” bucket food is. I wonder how such food fits into the local and national identity. There is no prestige in eating or selling bucket food, but there does not appear to be stigma attached to the practice either, as people from all walks of life enjoy the food. It is a culinary practice that I think all the people here in the south are familiar with, yet it is so woven into the fabric of everyday life that it does not stand out. I do know bucket food is something that I’ll always remember about my time in Belize, and something that I’ll always look forward to enjoying when I come back.

douglas carl reeser is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, and is a contributing editor at Recycled Minds. He is currently working on his dissertation research in southern Belize, examining the intersection of State-provided health care with a number of ethnic-based traditional medicines. He also loves food.
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  1. Anonymous8:18 PM

    Helps to create a sense of community too!

  2. I love that she offers roti in vegetarian form. My first thought was that this takes the idea of a food truck and makes it more environmentally friendly. I've seen a number of food trucks in our area now and the amount of energy being used as they sit there making their product seems like such a waste. In some places it may be necessary, I'm not sure about here. I like this approach, preparing in the kitchen and sending off to anyone that might want some. Not only do you get to sample local foods prepared by a caring hand but you also get to meet people around you. Like the post above mentioned, it is a great way to build community.

    1. There is an analogy to be made between the food truck and bucket food phenomenons. I think bucket food is sort of like the older cousin to food trucks. This made me think about variety too. A food truck is sort of like a restaurant on wheels that often offers some sort of menu. Bucket food sellers don't often have a great deal of variety, but the number of different sellers makes up some for that. And yes, I think delivering foods on bikes would be a lot more environmentally friendly than driving around those gas-guzzling trucks - which makes me wonder too - is supporting those trucks a poor environmental decision?

  3. Community and Bucket Food! I hadn't thought much about it before it was mentioned here in the comments - but yes, it does contribute to a greater sense of community. I chat with nearly all of the people who stop by the house with buckets full. Over time, the conversations have become longer, and a little deeper than just a hello, nice day kind of talk. I then almost always see these faces around town, which serves to make the town a little smaller - more of a community.

    Thanks for sharing the great insight!


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