“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.