She’s a mother. A grandmother. A great-grandmother. An entrepreneur. A woman blessed with talented hands.
Ms Elsie London is a diminutive force of nature with a distinct laugh that every child in the area will know. Born in Mission, Toco to parents who were labourers, Ms Elsie, as she is fondly referred to, is a daughter of the soil. The 86-year-old has been known for many years as the woman who bakes exceptionally scrumptious goods that she sold from a wicker basket. That door-to-door trade helped Ms Elsie build her own shop — she was an entrepreneur before the term became trite.
Her foodstuff is heralded as a “must eat,” especially by the locals. And for visitors on the way to Toco, it’s certainly a destination to visit. A short drive past Cumana village, her shop aptly named “Elsie’s Food Court,” can be found on the main road, ready and waiting to feed locals and visitors alike. Though, like many businesses right now, Elsie’s have been affected by the current pandemic.
“Everything just drop,” she says. “Sales not good like before, but thank God we surviving.”
Surviving is a common theme in her life and she is not shy to give an oral history of its ebbs and flows. She was delivered in a small home on a hill in Mission village, Toco by Nenn Ciderline, a midwife in the village. Her parents already had one child when she came along. By the age of seven, young Elsie was already providing for herself catching crabs and wabbin near the river, and cooking her meager meals on her own. Cooking found her early and has been a source of her livelihood for many years. Her older brother “who was a Baptist preacher,” she says, had a similar upbringing.
“He grow the same way too, all about, all about,” she laughs, talking about her brother who is now deceased.
She’s quick to clarify that this type of upbringing was the norm when she was growing up. “It had a lot of parents who make their children and ain’t see ‘bout them,” she recalls. “I never hold down my parents for not minding me because I thank them for bringing me here.”
She learnt to be self-reliant at an early age and this staunch independence followed her into her impressive adulthood. She’s always going after something to fulfill her life and “doesn’t like to depend on nobody,” she says.
Few people in Toco know what it’s like to work on the estates that brought income to many families in the region. Ms Elsie is one of them who still remains. As a youngster, she didn’t take to schooling, only attending the local primary school one or two days a week whenever the truant officer came around. At 14, she was already working in some of Toco’s biggest estates at the time, and by 17 she was producing her own large garden. Estate work, she says, was not an easy experience, but necessary to survive. As a young woman, before cooking became her mainstay, she was always able to fall back to her gardens to provide an income. She wasn’t interested in marriage — at least not at the time — like many young women in her generation. Ms Elsie’s penchant for doing things her own way followed her all the way into her adult life.
“She not easy you know,” Ms Elsie’s neighbour and friend Jessica Murray says about the 5-foot wonder woman. “She have a plaster for every sore.”
Ms Murray, 60, shares a love for the culinary arts just like her friend. A chef for many years, Ms Murray worked in the kitchens of a few of the resorts in the Toco region. She has known Ms Elsie for over forty years and remembers clearly when they became friends, even before they became neighbours.
“She use to bake by us in Anglais [Cumana] at one point when her stove was giving trouble,” Ms Murray recalls the early inception of their friendship when she was just a young woman. “And then she would come out the road with her basket, and then she would come up to Toco.”
Ms Elsie is pensive when she recalls what led her to begin her journey in selling some of the best baked goods and preservatives in the Toco region. This was something she was called to do. A vision, she says, is what brought her to this delicious path.
“A night, I dream this nice dark lady come, and she give me this basket. It had bread, sweetbread, all kinda thing in the basket. One nice basket,” she recalls. “And when she hand me the basket I say, ‘Thanksgiving?’ She said, ‘no, go and make money.’
The next day she took what little money she had, bought items to bake her pastries, and retrieved a basket she had tucked away in her house. And so began her 38-year journey of selling baked goods door-to-door. As a result of her age, she no longer sells from the basket and customers now have to go to the shop to get their cakes, sweetbreads, and pones. It is a trip, according to many, worth taking. Of her preservatives and sweets, sugar cake is a fan favourite.
With the death of her husband of 30 years, Georgie Byron, a few months ago at the age of 88, the octogenarian lives alone but is far from lonely. She pauses our interview several times to respond to passersby who hails her from the street. Between the visitors who randomly drops by and the busy life of an entrepreneur that wakes her before dawn, Elsie London is content with life in Toco.
She has lived between the villages most of her life, finally settling down in Allendale, Toco for the last fifteen years. She has no intentions of ever leaving Toco, and to her, there is nothing more offensive than even suggesting it. She has a strong allegiance to the Toco region, “I does say from Mission to Cumana is my base. I belong to the area.”
Ms Elsie turns 87 on February 24.