Friday, January 29, 2010

Island Home Comfort

Food and comfort for me go hand in hand. It can be a slippery slope, but comforting and 'flavorful memories' are always good and calorie free. I was eleven when my family and I immigrated to the United States from the island of Jamaica. It was a particularly turbulent and politically violent period in the nation's history and, though we could carry only so much from our life there in our hands, our hearts were full of rich and sustaining memories. The best of these generally have very distinct and delicious scents, tastes and flavors.

Our house in Kingston was surrounded by tropical fruit trees and with overhanging fruit from neighboring homes. A walk in the garden brought scents of lovely ripening and ready to be eaten fruit from varieties of mango trees, coconut trees, an almond tree, a sour sop tree, a star apple tree, a breadfruit tree, an ackee tree and others. Inside our home, gatherings would often center around the kitchen and food. Like many Caribbean families, our home was blessed with extended family. My mother's mom and aunt (Auntie) lived with us, and Auntie was, in my mind and heart, a master chef. Throughout the day our noses would tickle with tasty scents from foods being lovingly prepared in her kitchen, and I was often her little helper.

Mornings might bring simple favorites of eggs and toast with butter and guava jam, or she might let us help make pancakes on the stove's large griddle, but my favorite breakfast is traditionally Jamaican: ackee and salt fish. It is cooked with ripe tomatoes, scallions, onions and spices, and served with dumplings, boiled green banana, root vegetables, avocado, baked or fried breadfruit and Jamaican Hardo bread - yum! During the day my mother ran a school (K-6) in a large garage attached to our house, and so until High School I was able to run from the classroom to my Auntie's kitchen for my lunches. She’d often prepare a savory soup and sandwich with some sliced mango or orange for dessert. I did sometimes envy the kids with the cute lunch boxes that they’d bring from home, until my mother got me one of my own that I then rarely used. Dinner in Jamaica was early and Auntie would pull from her repertoire of Jamaican delicacies -assorted bean stews with white rice, rice and peas (with red beans or pigeon/gungo peas), Jamaican curry, Escovitch fish, and more - and the dishes were always accompanied by fried or baked plantain and healthy vegetables. The coconut for the dishes would come fresh from the tree and I would on occasion pick peas from garden vines for her rice dishes. Supper was the last official meal of the day and would often be a hearty porridge with nutmeg, or an especially fragrant rice, chicken and ginger soup (though my little brother's favorite seemed to be white rice and ketchup - yuck!). Supper was fun because we were allowed to have it in the living room in front of the television that carried Jamaica's single television station (JBC) in those days.

My mother didn't do the day to day cooking when we lived in Jamaica, but would treat us to special requests like her fantastic fried rice. She is a fabulous cook in her own right, and ran a restaurant before she opened her school. But my mother always regretted not having learned more from her father - who from all reports cooked scrumptious dishes from his homeland of China. He died when she was in High School, but it really would have been quite something to have a record of his creations.

Today my family members and I live in different states across the country, so when we can get together there is a feast at my mother's beautifully prepared table. She whips up multiple courses with remarkable speed and seeming ease, and our gatherings always include at least one traditional ackee breakfast with all the trimmings and extra Johnnycakes - always a favorite - (and were in fact my grandmother's specialty). My younger brother (who used to like rice and ketchup suppers) ended up working for some time as an Assistant Editor at Martha Stewart's 'Everyday FOOD' magazine and my mother's Johnnycake recipe made it into one of the editions (see: ). Thankfully, my mother adapts many of her Jamaican and other dishes to suit my largely vegetarian (sometimes pescatarian) lifestyle. I try to watch as she cooks but it can be difficult to document without a camera's eye - it all happens so quickly, with measures in her head and the dishes seasoned to taste. In all of these remembrances, I recognize that there is a wonderful cooking tradition in my family that I have yet to fully embrace (and memorialize), but I find myself more and more inspired to try.

Cheryl C

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