Interview with my mom.
Behind every cook, every recipe and every meal is a story. My parents are the introduction to many of the stories I tell, even today, about food. This isn’t a surprise because I, like many others as fortunate as me, learned about food and cooking from my mother and father. I spent Sunday afternoons in the kitchen with my mom after church and watched her brown, braise, simmer and sauté meat, veggies and starches to be served for dinner. Sometimes she sent me out to the garden to pick tomatoes or cut thyme. My mother, Verine, is the second of nine children born in the Manchester parish of Jamaica. Even though she and her sister, my aunt Jennifer, moved to Connecticut when they were nine and ten years old, my mom still starts stories about growing up with “back home in Jamaica.” Deeply embedded in her childhood are tales of climbing her neighbors trees, cooking for her siblings and watching the home while my grandmother went to sell fruits at the market on Saturdays. While I have endless memories of my mother’s stories, I’ve asked her to share her memories of and thoughts about Jamaican food here:
How did you first learn to cook?
When I was younger, my duties in the home were to clean the house on Saturdays and wash clothes, while my mother went to the market. Jennifer’s duties were to go to the store, buy groceries and she would cook, but I’d also help her. Lots of times, I was responsible for making breakfast and lunch for the other children.
What are some of your first food memories, then?
Cooking porridge. Cornmeal porridge, or bulgur porridge.
And why do you think that’s stuck out as one of your first memories?
Because it’s one of the first meals I made on my own. But I also used to make coconut drops and sweet potato pudding as I got older. I used to make coconut drops and I sell them. I also learned how to fry dumplings and sell those too, when I was younger.
Budding entrepreneur? At what age?
Well, I came here when I was 9, so between 2-9!
Why is the food of your childhood so important to you?
It’s part of my culture. I’ve learned over the years that eating Jamaican food is much healthier than eating the processed food here [in America]. So I’m going back to roots. Over the past few years, I’ve been going back to basic, natural everyday cooking and eating. A lot of the foods we ate, we cultivated them ourselves. We had our own farms and used to plant foods; when I say “food” I’m talking about yam, and bananas, and sweet potatoes, cocoa, and things like that. My mom used to have plantains and banana trees around the house. Ackee was something that was very commonly grown in our area. So during ackee season, we knew our neighbors and us would have ackee and breadfruit to eat. We felt very close to our foods and our food sources.
In raising us, me and Olivia, was it important to you that we learn how to make and love Jamaican food?
Yes, because I wanted you to know the foundation of your culture. I wanted you to be able look back at what we inherited as West Indians and I didn’t you guys to lose any part of that. So I raised you eating it, and at the same time learning how to cook it and appreciate it.
Why do you think food is such an important part of Jamaican culture?
We have many other activities and qualities within Jamaican culture that tend to fade as more people migrate away from the island. Jamaican food, the ingredients and preparation are still very original to the island. A lot of times there are no “main ingredients.” If you’re making ackee and saltfish, you know that’s what you have to put in it. But if you’re making soup, you just throw in it what you have. Those things are ingrained in the culture.
How do you feel like Jamaican dishes reflect the spirit and history of Jamaican people?
It brings back a lot of African history, where we came from. When people were brought to Jamaica, there were a lot of different cultures that passed on traditions. For example curried goat is a dish that incorporates ingredients from Africa, the British, India with the curry. Jamaican food speaks for itself, for its history, for the melting pot of the island.
What’s your favorite meal, fruit, vegetable or dessert?
My favorite fruits are naseberries, mangoes, soursops, sweetsops. I also love sugarcane, which isn’t a fruit, obviously. It’s the plant used to make sugar itself. I love it. My favorite Jamaican meal is ackee and saltfish with plantains and fried breadfruit. And fried dumplings, which I can’t eat anymore.
Speaking of which, how do you feel like your recent discovery of gluten-intolerance and digestive issues have affected your Jamaican food consumption?
It’s been a blessing, honestly. I’ve been able to move away from lots of processed foods [containing gluten]. Jamaican food is mostly all natural, unprocessed and from the Earth. Like yellow yams, sweet potatoes, all came from the soil. It’s made me rethink a lot of what I was eating. Right now, I’m asking myself what used to be natural to me to eat in Jamaica, and it’s what I want to eat today. And I’ve seen the effects on my health. I actually see being gluten-intolerant as a true blessing.
Since this is Cool Foodings, I have to ask you, what do you think makes Jamaica and its food so cool?
I would say the spices that we use. From the scallions, to thyme, to hot peppers that we use to season our foods, give it that special pop. The flavors, even the smell of the food turns people on to it. That’s cool. You walk into a Jamaican restaurant or kitchen, and you can tell exactly what’s being cooked—you can tell if it’s oxtails, or cow foot, or stewed peas. There’s a special fragrance the spices give Jamaican food that sets it apart.