For many years, all I ever wanted was to become a pastry chef. I spent years working in the pastry kitchens of several leading hotels in Jamaica. For those few glorious years, all my dreams were as rich as dark chocolate laced with Meyers rum and whipped cream. I was filled with the enthusiasm of youth, and proud of my prowess with a palette knife and piping bag. To this day, I still can decorate a cake in five minutes flat. My most treasured possession was a small hardcover notebook that I kept in the breast pocket of my uniform. It was the fashion in my kitchen for every pastry cook to own a notebook. Whenever the pastry chef taught us something new, we would dutifully copy the recipe and in this way make it our own. This was long before the internet. Smart phones were unheard of. We learnt by making things over and over again until committed to memory. I still remember the recipe for pound cake as clearly as the day it was given to me. This notebook – this magical tome if you will; in a sense we were all sorcerer’s apprentices studying and learning from the master – contained all our secrets. Our recipes were jealously guarded and shared only amongst ourselves. My book was four years in the making, every recipe tried and true. It was a source of great pride and I often swore: “If I ever lost my book I would stop doing pastry.” […]
My culinary repertoire is limited. Numerous attempts at disputing this fact, have led me irrevocably to the same conclusion- I cannot cook! Like any male faced with this sort of predicament, it is easy to find someone else to blame. Similar to being born with a non- life threatening deficiency, my theory insists, that my failure to feed myself is a matter of genetics. My mother was a horrible cook, and hated the kitchen passionately. Somehow in the transition from womb to birth, she was able to pass some remnant of this kitchen hating gene on to me. For her, the kitchen was a mythical hydra that strove with great ferocity to protect its lair, by scorching béchamel sauce, overcooking pasta, and roasting her Thanksgiving turkey to a crisp cinder.
The Dance It’s called the line, and each night we dance: Bend, twist, lift, swing – A ghostly symphony that waits and plays by ear. An orchestra: Pots, pans, oil sputters, the Garland burner roars, Refrigerators hum, a freezer’s occasional chime. Pivot right, turn left, the MICROS begins to sing, The rhythm crests, pulses. Entrees hot and salads cold. We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves. We know our parts, and wait expectantly. The MICROS sings, the rush begins: Focus, push – the line moves as one. Cooks, shoulder-to-shoulder: Adrenaline rush, purpose, Entrees hot and salads cold. We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves. Foxtrot lively, brisk, quick, Nicoise, Waldorf, Cobb, Caesar, Salsa picante, moves meringue – sweat, pivot, timing. Seared halibut, glazed spring vegetables, Well-done rib eye, tempura onion rings, peppercorn, Sweet symphony, graceful, finesse. Tiramisu, sorbet, cobbler, Macaroon, red velvet, Entrees hot and salads cold. We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves We special few cook with hand, heart, and mind, Converting more than recipes from books, A mirepoix of memories and tradition. The bounty of the earth: So, night after night we gather – Hot kitchen, cold kitchen. Begin the dance. The chorus sings: Entrees hot and salads cold! We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation […]
The word curry has different meanings. In the English language, curry can refer to “an attempt to gain favor or approval from someone through flattery” – hence the saying, “to curry favor”. The word curry is more popularly used to describe a blend of spices that traces its origins to the Asian continent. Curry is ubiquitous throughout the cuisines of South Asia, especially India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam. Unseasoned cooks subscribe to the popular misconception that curry is a single spice. In fact, there is no true spice called curry; it is a blend of spices which vary from one region of the world to the next. Curry recipes in India can change from household to household and run the gamut from mild to searingly hot and spicy. Curry can be yellow or red or green, depending on the herbs and spices used in the blend. Common ingredients in curry powder include: coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin, fennel seed, mustard seed, poppy seed, chili pepper and turmeric. The powdered turmeric root gives curry that distinctive yellow hue which most westerners are accustomed to seeing. The word curry resides on a deeper and more personal level in my West Indian psyche. To speak of curry is to think of roti with split peas and dahl… A birthday party… the fair… the local cook shop. The smell of curry-spiced meat sizzling in a Dutch pot takes me home to my island heritage. Curry is a 13 year old boy living on a cattle farm in Jamaica, workers in […]
Sous Chef, I know you. Your life has changed. For a split second, the room stands still and in that one brief moment, I look down. “There’s an asparagus peel on my shoe.” It’s an errant thought and I mentally swat it away and force myself to breathe. My executive chef points and my eyes follow the motion of his hands and see the embossed folder lying on his desk. It’s there on paper – the title, I mean – all neatly printed in bold font. I sign my name and he says ,“Congratulations, proud, good job, yada yada yada,” and all I’m thinking is “I need a drink.” It came so quickly, Sous Chef … I know you can never be truly ready. I’ve spent years preparing for this one moment. I’ve worked hard, then forced myself to work harder. I’ve endured the insults and absorbed the pain. I remember one night when I was working the grill. It was just before service, and we had more than a hundred reservations on the books. It didn’t help that our executive chef was anal about every little detail; we were all tense and our fear was palpable. He strode over to my station and took a black truffle the size of a ducks’ egg and told me to shave some for service. I was nervous: the truffle slicer was razor sharp, and I sliced my palm open. I ran to the back with a kitchen rag wound tightly around my bleeding […]
Seedlings from the ackee tree were brought from West Africa along with slaves in the early 1700’s. Every Jamaican knows that ackee can be poisonous; never pick the fruit before the pods fully open on the tree. I’ve never been poisoned by ackee. Growing up, I was a willful child, but I did pay attention when my grandmother was teaching me how to prepare it. We would sit on the verandah with the basket between us, filled to the brim with bright orange pods. As she plucked the ripe ackee arils from the pod, I would use a small knife to remove the shiny black seed. Grandma loved to gossip, and as we worked she would tell stories of people who had been poisoned by ackee. She would always end by pointing a finger, warning, “Jomo, don’t forget to tek out the red membrane; is poison, yuh know.” Eventually the creamy yellow arils would fill the plastic container on my knees, and we would head to the kitchen to boil them. Ackee, breadfruit, and salted codfish are all transplants that traveled along slave routes in the heyday of European colonialism. Both plants adapted well to Jamaican soil and flourished in our tropical climate. As for salted codfish, it was a staple of any oceangoing fleet of that time –especially the British colonists who settled the Caribbean. Establishing vast sugarcane plantations, colonists bought slaves from West Africa to work the land. The slaves were forced to adapt to their new surroundings and gradually […]
Albany, St. Mary, is a small village deep in the Jamaican countryside. In its heyday, St. Mary was known as the “banana parish”; hundreds of acres were dedicated to growing the plant for export to Britain. In the “good old days”, Jamaica had a preferential trade agreement with Britain, guaranteeing better prices for Jamaican bananas in British markets. Then in the “best interest of free trade”, multinational fruit distributors quickly put an end to that arrangement. Thanks to Dole, Chiquita, and Delmonte, the Jamaican banana industry lost its small share in the European marketplace. My story begins long after the heyday of the banana plantation. My mother had recently remarried, and her husband (now my stepdad) had decided to follow his dream and become a farmer. For us, it meant leaving Montego Bays’ bright street lights, movie theatres, supermarkets and neat subdivisions of concrete houses. I was nine and I cried when I saw my new home. We had no neighbors. I was swallowed by a kaleidoscope of varying hues of grass, trees and shrubs. Searing like a Scotch bonnet pepper, bush was coming out my nostrils, my ears and my brain. Bush as far as the eye could see – surrounded by it – bush was everywhere. But my stepfather worked hard to turn this wilderness into farmland. He rented a huge D9 Caterpillar tractor to create a patchwork of crude roads so the Land Rover would not break an axle. Pumpkin and Scotch bonnet pepper were planted for export. Seedlings from coconut trees were planted […]
There are no breadfruit trees in Atlanta although I’ve seen the fruit for sale at the Buford Highway farmers market; but buying a breadfruit nestled in air conditioned comfort, thousands of miles from its native soil, is not the same as roasting one just picked from the tree. For me, it’s as natural to eat a slice of hot buttery roast breadfruit as it is for Americans to enjoy a bagel or croissant with their coffee. It’s been a year and some months and I long for a taste of my homeland.
Mango Lady Her pushcart was parked on the sidewalk, and she read a book while patiently waiting for customers. She had a large orange parasol to protect her precious mangoes from the mid-day heat. Call it a mobile fruit stand with wares just hours picked from the tree. A fleeting glance at all those mangoes made me pause; but it was her smile that made me stop: There were oranges for sale in a red cooler, complete with a little machine to peel them as you waited – A few hands of ripe bananas: yes I saw those too, all different shades of yellow – But set just so a hundred mangoes to catch the light. I asked their names and she laughed as she pointed: Julie, Bombay, Blackie, Stringy, Long Mango. One hundred for Julie, fifty for Bombay, everything else hundred per dozen. We spoke for a while and I made my selection; she looked at my face and in my eyes: A few extra mangos, for you to enjoy, and flashed another beautiful smile. I look at these pictures, a moment in time: The mango lady and her cart of sunshine This wonderful recipe by Barbara Walter was taken from The Hotel Mockingbird Hill blog. The eco-boutique hotel overlooks the picturesque town of Port Antonio on the northeastern side of the island. I find Barbara’s blog a constant source of inspiration. Mango Gazpacho with Pickled Shrimps 2 ½ cups water ½ cup vinegar 1 ½ tbs pickling spice ( we use our own homemade jerk spice) 1 tbs minced lemongrass 1 ½ tbs […]
“Wherever the hog is killed there the camp is pitched—water is always nearby in these wonderful mountains—and, a fire being kindled, the process of “jerking” is begun.” Charles J. Ward I’m longing to travel to a place with burnished walls and ceiling darkened from years of smoke and soot. A place where every breath draws in spices and roasting meat. A place of razor-sharp cleavers, and the repetitive staccato of meat chopped into finger-size portions. I know my prize will be tightly wrapped in layers of butcher’s paper. Meat larded with fat, protected by crispy skin. My fingers greasy and my tongue seared by scotch bonnet pepper. I want the mongrel dog to look directly in my eye and patiently wait for scraps. My freedom food should come with friendly smiles, green trees, an island breeze. My Red Stripe is ice-cold and everyone speaks patois. Today, I’m enjoying fried fish with festival, but my heart longs for jerk pork. Thank the Maroons, Jamaica’s first freedom fighters. Descendants of escaped slaves. Deserted by their Spanish masters in the British invasion of 1655. The Maroons fought to stay free: to survive in our mountainous Cockpit Country, they hunted wild boar and raided sugar plantations for food. Always on the move and on the lookout for the British, the Maroons devised an ingenious “smoke-free” method to cook meat. They dug a hole, layered it with hot coals, well-seasoned wild boar, and pimento leaves, and then covered the hole again. With no campfire to announce their presence, the Maroons […]