Growing Up Country

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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.

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