It’s not cornmeal porridge without nutmeg, and that’s a fact! Funny thing is: I have a serious prejudice against nutmeg. I prefer the subtle sweetness and floral scents of cinnamon and vanilla over the assertive and distinct flavor of nutmeg in my recipes. If nutmeg had a personality, it would be the narcissist of the spice world.
Honestly, my nutmeg phobia stems from a love/hate affair with hot porridge. I lived with my grandmother for many years, and the smell of nutmeg-spiced cornmeal permeating the house always meant two things. Two things any normal Jamaican boy would rather not deal with: a school day and cornmeal porridge for breakfast. Irrevocably etched in my psyche, the smell of nutmeg dredges up memories of khaki uniforms – and my grandmother’s implacable belief in the powers of porridge.
Nutmeg, as I’ve grown to discover, is a spice that must be used judiciously. Apparently, my grandmother never got that memo. In her kitchen, she always had a knob of nutmeg ensconced in its own miniature grater, just waiting to be dusted into a bubbling pot of cornmeal porridge. To complement the floral bouquet of nutmeg, she added condensed milk for sweetness and a bit of dried orange peel for a hint of citrus. Jamaicans love to use condensed milk to sweeten everything – in fact, no true Jamaican larder is complete without a can or two of condensed milk.
Jamaicans also have a special fondness for hot breakfast cereals, a tradition we owe to our former British masters. In Jamaica any kind of hot breakfast cereal, whether cornmeal, rice, banana, plantains, peanuts or oats, is massed under the collective description, “porridge.” But the culinary legacy of 17th-century British colonialism meant little to a 10-year-old boy growing up in Hopewell, Hanover. As far as I knew, Jamaica shared none of Britain’s damp, cold and gloomy climate – far better weather for a bowl of porridge. In my mind, happiness was a cold glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a plate of fried breadfruit with ackee and saltfish for breakfast.
Hot cornmeal porridge in our 90-degree tropical heat was a recipe for punishing schoolchildren. I was part of a diaspora of children paying penance for acts of unruly behavior before we ever got a chance to commit them. My grandmother must have felt that I was a particularly worthy case for such treatment: Each morning I received a large dose of cornmeal porridge, like medicine.
It has taken more than a decade of cooking professionally to grudgingly make peace with nutmeg. I’ve come to respect this spice for its unique taste and its ability to create depth of flavor when added in the right amounts. Eggnog, béchamel sauce, creamed spinach, pumpkin pie: none of these recipes would be authentic without a touch of nutmeg. I would also argue that our Jamaican version of cornmeal porridge would not be genuine without a hint of nutmeg.
Cornmeal is cheap and versatile, and a little goes a long way. Cornmeal can be made into porridge for breakfast, dumplings with dinner, and pudding for dessert. In retrospect, my grandmother’s penchant for thrift, coupled with my voracious appetite, greatly influenced her choices for my breakfast. It also helped foster my strong bias against nutmeg and my aversion to any form of porridge as I grew older.
My grandmother hasn’t made cornmeal porridge for me in many, many years. Out of sheepish guilt and a bit of nostalgia, I’ll make a bowl for myself in my tiny apartment in Atlanta. Now, when I sit at my table, spoon in hand, each mouthful reminds me of her, and the dried orange peel hanging on the windowsill. And the yellow stove tucked in the corner right behind the kitchen door.
I remember her inspecting my bowl to make sure I finished every last drop before leaving the table. These memories have developed the slightly blurred patina of age, but they become more distinct and the image sharpens when I taste the nutmeg. I have come to appreciate and even miss cornmeal porridge… sometimes.
JOMO’S CORNMEAL PORRIDGE
4 cups water
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
Condensed milk (sweeten to taste)
Put two cups water in saucepan to boil with salt, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. Mix cornmeal with the other two cups of cold water and pour gradually into boiling water in saucepan and stir. Keep stirring until mixture is smooth. Lower heat and allow porridge to simmer until cornmeal is cooked.