Growing Up Country

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.

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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 in rows on hilly terrain as an investment for the future.

In those early days, the repetitive “thwack thwack” of sharp machetes and the angry buzzing of chainsaws became as normal as traffic on St. James Street.  Nature didn’t take very kindly to our efforts at domestication, and retaliated with a nasty counterattack in the form of ticks (grass lice).

Grass lice were especially virulent on cattle farms. They were everywhere in the waist-high grass that surrounded my house. They covered my jeans, t-shirt, and eventually my scrawny frame. I’ve plucked grass lice from between my toes, under my armpits, and my more private places. I itched and scratched for days with little relief. I was miserable, and my hatred for “the bush” grew stronger with each unfortunate encounter.

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But summer was my favorite time: no school and mangoes were in season. We had many mango trees on the farm. Best of all, there was a river running through the property. This was heaven for a country boy; mangoes to fill the belly and pools of emerald green water to dive into and explore. We would frolic for hours, searching for tiny shrimp under the rocks and trying to catch the fast-moving mullet fish that swam in the deeper pools. Bamboo poles made our raft of choice, and there were plenty to choose from. We’d take a minute to dry off in the sun, and a few Julie or Stringy mangoes for a snack before heading home, barefoot and carefree.

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I grew up country, but didn’t stay. I traded bare feet for chef shoes. Now I live in the huge metropolitan city of Atlanta, Georgia. The Decatur High School community garden is the closest I’ve been to a farm since moving to Atlanta. The garden is small,  but seeing the vegetables planted there rekindles fond memories, a reminder of life, simple and sweet. Far removed, yet close to my roots. Try this recipe for Picked Saltfish and Marinated Tomatoes. It‘s one of my favorites, and I hope it will become yours, too.

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Picked Saltfish and Marinated Tomatoes

½ lb.  saltfish

2 Roma tomatoes

1 cucumber

¼ red onion

8 sprigs parsley

1 Scotch bonnet pepper

3 tbsp sherry vinegar

3 tbsp coconut oil

6 tbsp canola oil

Pinch of salt if necessary

Soak saltfish in water overnight, this removes most of the salt from the cured fish.

Cut the tomatoes in halves. Remove the seeds and cut julienne. Do the same for the cucumber: cut in half, remove the seeds and slice into half rounds. Pick the parsley from the stems and rough chop. Use ¼ of a red onion and cut julienne.Cut ¼ of a scotch bonnet pepper into rounds.

Toss tomatoes, cucumber, onion, parsley together. Fry the whole pieces of saltfish in the canola oil about four minutes on each side until crisp.

Add the coconut oil to the saute pan. Next add the scotch bonnet pepper, then the vinegar.
Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes.

Flake the saltfish and pour the oil and vinegar mixture over the cucumber and tomatoes. Add the flaked saltfish to the salad, taste and season with a pinch of salt if necessary.

Channeling Breadfruit

As the world well knows, in the year 1789, Lt. William Bligh lost his ship Bounty at the hands of one Fletcher Christian and a handful of  miscreants on a voyage back to England from Tahiti, where the Bounty  had been sent to collect breadfruit and other useful plants of the South  Pacific. The breadfruit expedition, backed by the great and influential botanist  Sir Joseph Banks, patron of Kew Gardens and president of the Royal Society, had  been commissioned to transport the nutritious, fast-growing fruit to the West  Indies for propagation as a cheap food for slave laborers who worked the vast  sugar estates.” Captain Bligh’s Cursed Breadfruit by Caroline Alexander

 

No breadfruit trees in Atlanta, but I’ve seen the fruit for sale at Buford Highway Farmers Market, bearing faint hints of school-free summer days in Jamaica. But buying a breadfruit 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 coffee. A year and some months away from the breadfruit tree in Grandma’s backyard, I long for a taste of my homeland.

In the topsy-turvy world of our professional kitchen, this year has been a roller coaster ride with enough loops and corkscrews to keep us in a quasi-permanent state of whiplash. We’ve lost ten cooks in less than 12 months; so far only two of those positions have been filled. Can’t remember the last time anyone has had two days off in a row. Each week as the new schedule is posted, we scan the meager list of names, certain with the knowledge that one of us will pull a 12-day work week.

Relief in my eyes, a slight drop in the shoulders of Derek the grill cook, a pat on his back from Scott working next to him on sauté. Necessity has forged us few remaining cooks into kindred spirits. Necessity means two cooks working a four-man line on a busy Monday night, trying to stay one ticket ahead of the dreaded weeds.

Together we fought and survived the maelstrom; and looking back, it’s been a long year. Like sandpaper on a block of wood, cooking this hard day-in and day-out wears down the soul. Fatigue creeps in and your motor functions slow, it becomes harder to concentrate, and even though we persevere and put pan to flame – it’s time for a break.

My thoughts turn to roasting breadfruit in a coal pot or on the kitchen stove burner and the smell like extra crispy toast. Slowly the leathery, green skin chars to a blackened shell, but don’t be fooled: under that dark crust lays a golden dome that is soft, almost doughy in texture, and delicious with butter and a little salt.

For the past three years, I’ve lived and worked in Atlanta: an urban mecca that embraces cosmopolitan glitz and glamour, but is tempered with genteel southern hospitality. As an immigrant accustomed to the relaxed rhythms of an island culture, adapting to the hectic American lifestyle has been challenging. Like breadfruit, enjoyed by rich and poor alike, the mantra, “chasing the American dream,” resonates strongly among the collective populace.  It seems that each waking moment here is given to achieving this elusive sense of status.

I’ve had to learn to live and work with punctual precision. The train for work leaves at a specific time, I’m scheduled to work a specific shift, I clock in and out four times daily. We have a ten-minute window to put out the first course, and 15 minutes later the second course is fired. Every action has been codified: don’t forget, in my kitchen, “If you have time to lean, then you have time to clean.”

But at night, I still dream of my grandmother’s tall breadfruit tree swaying in the breeze. In the islands the breadfruit tree is taken for granted, as one is found in almost every backyard. When in season, May through August, they bear prodigiously, and the “fruit” is a staple on the tables of every Jamaican household.

Sense of purpose renewed, I begIn making plans for my trip. I’m met at the Montego Bay airport by my Aunty Marlene and my cousin Zoey. It’s good to be back, and we hug and chat amiably as we leave the airport and head to Grandma’s house.

Its summer, it’s warm, and we cruise along the Howard Cooke Boulevard with our windows down. There’s a comfortable cadence as we gossip about the latest Jamaican news. Suddenly, my aunt mashes the brakes and exclaims loudly, as the car screeches to a halt in the middle of the road. We watch in disbelief as a man wrestling with the steering wheel of a white Toyota Corolla careens across the divided highway, missing our front bumper by a whisker.

In shock, we follow his sudden trajectory as the car runs across the road, climbs the sidewalk, catapults into the air, and lands upside down in a shallow gully.

“What the rassclaat!”  I gasp in exclamation, not even realizing I had just said a Jamaican cuss word out loud.

My aunt pulls off to the side, leaving the keys in the ignition as we rush to the overturned car. All around us, traffic comes to a grinding halt as other motorists leave their vehicles to offer assistance. Luckily, the driver climbs out, barefooted and unhurt and sits on a large rock, looking slightly dazed. The car is on its roof, the four wheels are still slowly spinning and everyone is chatting excitably about this man’s narrow brush with death.

My aunt moves closer to get a better look at the hapless man and suddenly begins to laugh, she taps me on the shoulder and says “Jomo, kiss mi neck, mi know him! Jomo ! Nuh one madman dis.” Shaking our heads in disbelief, we return to the car, leaving the madman still perched on top of the stone surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.  He’s crazy, and I think she’s correct in this. He probably stole someone’s vehicle and decided to go for a joyride.

I can’t help but chuckle at the thought that my first taste of roast breadfruit was almost sideswiped by a madman careening across the highway. What a way to spend your first hour in Jamaica! Goodness Gracious! I’m home. The miles pass in a blur as my thoughts return to my grandma. She’s at home cooking, and I look forward to sharing a meal with her again.

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Love Breadfruit.

“Once Upon A Mango 2” – Juicy Poetry & Recipes from Sunny Jamaica

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 salt

Boil ingredients together. Remove from heat.

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

¼ cup chopped green salad onions

1 ½ tsp minced jalapeño chili (bird peppers)

12 uncooked medium shrimp, peeled, deveined

Stir into the chilled water the parsley, onions and pepper and shrimp, chill and then cover overnight in glass container.

2 large ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted

1 small green apple, peeled, chopped

1 small celery stalk, chopped

3/4 cup fresh orange juice

1/2 cup chopped seeded peeled cucumber

1 tbs fresh lime juice

2 tsp chopped peeled fresh ginger

1 large jalapeño chili, seeded, minced

1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Puree all these ingredients together. Chill for at least 2 hours. Ladle soup into 4 bowls and top with 3 shrimp each and garnish with parsley. The recipe below, also by Barbara Walker from her Hotel Mockingbird Hill blog, is equally delicious and just as easy to prepare.

Mango Gazpacho 

2 mangoes peeled and pitted (just under 1 kg total)

2 cucumbers, de-seeded

3 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice or to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Finely chop 1 mango and 1 cucumber and set aside. Coarsely chop remaining mango and cucumber and puree with ¼ cup of water in a blender until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir in finely chopped mango, cucumber, onion and lime juice and 2 cups of cold water. Chill in the refrigerator for about two hours. Stir in cilantro just before serving, along with 1 teaspoon of salt.

Jerk Pork: Our Jamaican Freedom Food

“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. WardIMG_7471

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.

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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 could prepare their meat unobserved by the British. The heat, smoke, spices, salt, pimento leaves and long cooking time created a peppery kind of pork jerky. Curing the meat by “jerking” also kept it from spoiling in the humid tropical climate.IMG_7900It takes a skillful cook to make really good jerk pork. It all starts with butchering the carcass. A razor-sharp knife removes the bones so the meat can lay flat. Then an exotic medley of herbs like lemongrass, scotch bonnet pepper, oregano, pepper elder leaves, bay leaves, thyme, ginger and scallion, are used to marinate the meat.

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Then he turns his attention to the grill. The coals have to be the right temperature; the pimento and sweet wood must be fresh and green. In Jamaica, the pimento and laurel trees are crucial to the unique flavor of jerk pork.

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Coal is stoked under the grill until blazing hot. Both sweet wood and pimento are laid on top of the grill followed by the seasoned pork. A zinc sheet is a practical way to cover the slowly cooking meat. The meat sizzles and pork fat falls on the cherry red embers. The green wood releases aromatic oils and fragrant smoke adding another layer of flavor to the pork.

Every Jamaican has a bit of Maroon blood in them.  It shows, in the rhythmic drumming of our music.  In the rich diversity of Jamaican patois. The way we dance.

Our taste for yellow yam, green bananas, cassava, coconut oil, river crayfish and wild pigs.  The Maroons taught us to love the foods of our island home and gave us the herbs to cook them with. The essence of Jamaican jerk pork has not changed for centuries, it still remains as it should; an aromatic distillation of meat and spices and heat and smoke. Our freedom food.