I left Trinidad early one January morning, thinking that Jamaica was the two things I most needed: it was warm, and it was 900 miles away from all that was familiar. I didn’t really think about anything else. And that made the discoveries that were to come all the more remarkable.
Pre-Kingston, I cooked the things you cook when you don’t have to: baked goods, elaborate Italian sauces, and unpronounceable Arabic desserts. You simmer and slow-cook; grind fresh spices and garnish baroquely: all because no one is patiently awaiting an actual, edible product. Both parents and my innumerable siblings cooked. As the youngest by a good many years, it would have been presumptuous, indeed unseemly, for me to intrude upon the culinary goings-on at our house. I ran menial errands, tasted everything, and feigned indifference towards the whole process. Jamaica changed everything.
January: The stove that changed my life
By the time I happened, my parents had discovered the delights of the electric stove. For my limited, pointless puttering, it was all I’d ever used.
My first morning in Jamaica I am confronted by a gas cooker of mysterious design — that is, a fairly ordinary, mid-range version. I eat cheese and master the complicated coffee machine. J, who is harbouring me, drops by at midday to see how I am doing. How to admit that I fear the stove? I say nothing, and allow myself to be taken to lunch.
3 pm. I will not be defeated by technology that predates my grandmother. I will make a meatloaf; a wholesome, no-frills affair, it will prove to my hostess that I am not a hopeless invalid, as my mother has suggested. J’s kitchen isn’t like those of other friends of mine, characterised by a Spartan quality and good deal of tinned tuna. This is a real grown-up’s kitchen. I do not need to roam the wild streets of Kingston in search of some rare condiment like, say, parsley.
All is prepared — but how to cook it? Can I pass it off as steak tartare? I eschew dishonesty and salmonella, and stick it in the toaster-oven.
The toaster-oven enjoys a week-long run as my appliance of choice before I am discovered. On the weekend, I learn to light burners and oven.
And suddenly it all makes sense. Fire, real fire, not the lifeless glowing coils of the electric range. Our connection is immediate and visceral.
February: Cooking in the company of cats
I have become deeply devoted to the cats who live here. In return for their goodwill, I supply them with as much cheese as they want. They read what I write in the mornings and, if it appears acceptable, taste what I cook in the afternoons.
The chocolate pears; not my finest moment. It happens: you make three courses and feel invincible. You espy some innocent fruit and you imagine you can communicate to it the essence of a magical dessert. If you are lucky, a cat will leap from an overhead cupboard in order to save mankind from this bit of gastronomic hubris. If you are unfortunate, the cat will miss the pot and you will live to serve it to bemused and unhappy guests. I learn to read Bojangles’s warnings and never again try to do anything unnatural to fruit.
Lesson: while you may love all things chocolate, chocolate does not love all things.
Apart from Bojangles, who spends a considerable amount of time in the large mixing bowl in which she delivered her first litter of kittens, there are three other cats. The Little Cat divides her time between watching either the television or the washing machine, and lounging in the window-box. The Black Cat has a casual homicidal interest in me, and the Marching Cat will not be persuaded to vacate the linen hamper.
Does anyone really expect me to use this mixing bowl?
March: A near-death experience with divine pig
Boston Bay, ancestral home of jerk. I am not sure if there are actual streets under the thick weekend crowd, or if what we are attempting to navigate is a kind of open market of stalls, sheds, and assorted but all equally unstable-looking structures.
I have been in Jamaica for almost three months, so I know that, whatever I may have thought previously, I have never really tasted jerk before. To my endless delight I have discovered that real jerk is not merely a synonym for mind-numbing pepper. Cooked with 15-hour patience and pimento wood, this is what it means to understand meat.
The sheds are inhabited by whole cooked pigs, fish, and chickens, and, of
course, the menacing chopper-wielding jerk purveyor himself.
We are in search of the rare and magnificent jerk sausage. Unlike the other meats, jerk sausage is inherently — lethally — hot, but I will not be daunted by my nonexistent tolerance for pepper.
The beach is deserted (everyone is back at the jerk bazaar, staging what sounds like a minor riot), but for a hopeful stray dog.
Good, no witnesses.
I taste. I weep. My nose runs. I make agonised sounds. I begin to think that soon I will have destroyed all sensation in my mouth and the burning will cease. No such luck. My mind goes blank as it invariably (but never until now intentionally) does when I’ve ingested vast quantities of pepper.
But under and in spite of it all is bliss. Bless the pigs that gave god-knows-what parts of their anatomies to create this unattractive-looking but heavenly tasting thing. Rich and intense, it is essence of pig and smoke and all-spice; fiery and sweet and succulent, and unlike any other taste.
I have crossed a line: I can now barter pain for rapture.
April: Egalité, frateré, nitpatties
Martyrdom and savage attacks by feline food-critics aside, much of my time in Jamaica is peaceful. The dramatic events are punctuated by more humble, unassuming, but spiritually satisfying meals. This punctuation often takes the form of a patty.
Like doubles in Trinidad or doughnuts in the US, the Jamaican patty is multi-purpose and reliable. Available and affordable to all people, great and small, this half-moon of golden flaky pastry filled with spicy ground beef is the kind of food upon which admirable societies are based. Might the secrets of social equity be contained in food?
There are specialty types for those who must stand outside the masses — lobster, chicken, vegetarian — and their novelty value need not be discounted altogether, but the essential patty, the truly great patty, is made with beef.
As with doubles and doughnuts, regular civilians are not meant to know how to make patties — another equaliser. Not a great fan of doubles in my own country, I begin to feel the stirrings of patriotism as I share the universal Jamaican love for the patty.
But all too soon I see I am doomed to remain on the fringes: the patty’s less popular cousin, the Jamaican meatloaf, replaces flaky pastry with a dense bread-like coat. The meatloaf has all the charms of the patty, but without the tendency to flake itself upon your apparel; and while an imperfect patty can be a slightly greasy affair, the meatloaf’s hearty bread encasement leaves one clean and guilt-free.
I feel the axis of my allegiance shifting.
Food — its pursuit and preparation — is what defined my time in Jamaica. I became, if not fearless, at least unafraid. Close to home and the kindly advice of loved ones, I’d never have had the courage to make the kinds of mistakes that, with a bit of tweaking, can turn into great ideas. Nine hundred miles is more than geography, it’s a state of mind.
I returned to Trinidad at the end of April and promptly found a gas cooker to call my own.
1 pound flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ground beef suet
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
about 8 ounces iced water
a drop of annatto or other food
colouring to colour the pastry
Sift the flour and salt together. Mix the suet and vegetable shortening with some of the flour. Add the remaining flour, then add the baking powder. Finally, add the water and colouring and mix until the ingredients are bound together and don’t stick to the sides of the bowl. The dough should be firm.
Turn onto a floured board and knead till free of cracks. Divide the dough into 15 pieces, shaping these into balls. Cover and leave until ready to make patties.
1 pound ground beef
2 stalks escallion
1 stalk thyme
1 medium onion
2 cups bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
oil for glazing
Heat the ground beef in a saucepan with just enough water to cover. Use a fork to separate the lumps, then add the herbs, finely chopped, as well as the pepper and sugar and half the salt. Cook until the beef is soft, about 30 minutes on low heat. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and add the remaining salt. Add bread crumbs. Make sure there is enough gravy to make the filling moist. Add the butter, and allow the beef to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350º F. On a lightly floured board, roll out the pastry balls in circles. Put a generous dollop of beef into the centre of each circle and fold over to form a crescent. Press edges together and crimp with a fork, brushing a little oil on each patty. Bake for approximately 45 minutes, until golden brown.
The Good Life
Adapted from Enid Donaldson’s classic recipe book The Real Taste of Jamaica (Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-021-4)
At Blanchard’s Table: A Trip to the Beach Cookbook Melinda Blanchard & Robert Blanchard (Clarkson Potter, ISBN 0-609-61082-1)
Talk about having your cake and eating it. As recounted in their memoir A Trip to the Beach, Melinda and Robert Blanchard, bored by the mundane details of running a successful sauce and salad dressing operation in Vermont, decided to move to tiny Anguilla, one of the Caribbean’s smallest inhabited islands, to open a restaurant for the tourist trade. A decade later, Blanchard’s has proved an astonishing success, famous as much for the warmth of its atmosphere as for the inventiveness of its food.
At Blanchard’s Table is a memoir as much as a recipe book. Each dish is accompanied by a personal anecdote, and photographs of the Blanchards and their restaurant staff are sprinkled throughout, as are numerous chatty, helpful asides on everything from where to buy balsamic vinegar to the role of cooking in fostering family harmony. The recipes themselves are intriguing, enticing, and surprisingly straightforward — or, as Bob Blanchard puts it, “easy to get along with”. They combine Mediterranean, Asian, French, and Italian influences with distinctive elements from the Blanchards’ two homes, the Caribbean and rural Vermont, resulting in such delights as chilled avocado-lime soup with shrimp and chilies, veal chops crusted with mustard, mango, and oregano, and a breathtaking gingerbread with warm cinnamon bananas and rum. It’s therefore not strictly a Caribbean recipe book; but its friendliness and casualness, its openness to flavours of every possible origin, and the sense of sheer well-being that wafts from every page, capture some ideal essence of life in the islands.