A family with whom we are friends at our church in Washington DC, who happen to have Jamaican roots, came to visit us yesterday afternoon. They are here to distribute the ashes of a close relative. That part of their journey has been a series of episodes in the morass that is bureaucratic complexities and differences between countries. Suffice to say that the urn with the ashes is with Jamaica Customs, while necessary paperwork is completed to verify the body contained and the manner of death. The visitors were able to laugh about their experiences, but what they had gone through was not funny at the time. But, it had some great elements of Jamaican life:
- Get into a line, and mistakenly jump ahead of everyone else and being ‘put straight’ by those waiting
- Finding they were in the wrong line, after getting to the front, and having to join another line, after a 40 minute wait
- Finding that the person who could deal with the paperwork had just gone on her lunch break–and it would be 2 hours
- Getting ‘precise’ directions for how to find another government office: “Go straight…”
- Having to figure out the roads in Montego Bay and its limited parking
- Worrying that all of the time lost on the parish council office would mean that they could not make progress before Customs closed
Not surprising in this episode, some of our friends’ tempers got a little frayed, and that gave the local Jamaicans a chance to show a good side: “Miss, would you like a seat and a cup of tea to help calm you down?” I told our friend that she could easily have been offered a splash of Limacol.
We all settled into a steady state of reflection over how often we’d been in similar situations, but how awkward it is when you’re within a different social and administrative system.
We were joined in the early evening by some long-standing Jamaican family friends, with whom I had reconnected during the week, after a few decades We had decided to also invite them to join us for dessert and drinks on Sunday afternoon.
This being Jamaica, it did not take long for us to find that our two sets of visitors, though meeting for the first time, had one degree of separation.
This being Jamaica, it did not take long for us to get into the importance of food. The visitors from North America had not had too long to get into good country-style Jamaican food, but they had had a good sampling, and liked much of what they’d tasted. All the children present had parents with Jamaican roots, and a good base in the Jamaican countryside. They had different degrees of exposure to local food; our daughter was the ‘veteran’, in that sense. But, from what we heard, the other two children, teenage twins, were ready to try new things: they’d been presented with manish water, whole fish, bammy, cow skin, escoveitch fish, etc. They were not yet convinced that eating fish heads and cow foot was really so tasty.
The friends who arrived later were, however, foodies in the nicest sense of the word. The man, a doctor, was happy to retell how my grandmother had taught him how to cook and that she was a great cook. His and my stomachs could attest to that last point. He retold some stories from when he was a boy and having charge of the yabba when it came time to make Christmas cake. The doctor’s older than me and as a boy had been responsible for stirring all the ingredients. I could really only remember waiting for the scrapings of the cake mix, and my first chance to taste rum, as a four or five year-old. He had developed his own skill and style over the years and told of how he had prepared little banquets for fellow medics when he was a student in England. He had studied anatomy, so when it came to eating fish, especially the head, he put all his knowledge to use 🙂 I remembered some of his signature dishes, especially the big, stuffed, steamed snapper, filled with callaloo, drenched with vegetables and coconut milk. It was hard to keep control. He told stories of how my father had served up some wonderful stewed ox tail, with the skin. “Man, where did he get that from?” I was none the wise. I know my father’s prowess with seasoning and cooking meat, especially on a coal stove outdoors. Perhaps, that’s why his sole offspring loves to do barbeques, though mostly now on gas grills, but on coals when needed. I know I season my pork joints his way.
We talked about how Jamaican and other West Indian migrants to England in the 1950s and 1960s had congregated in areas and sought their opportunities for food from home for comfort and helping them to regain some sense of identity in that strange land. Weddings were especially popular for that reason, I conjectured. Funerals became that way, too, as time went on, but such events would also be a point of possible cultural clash. “What is it with the open coffins?” the English would wonder. The West Indians would be getting drunk and wailing and jumping into graves and flocking in great numbers to send off their dearly departed, not have a dribble of people present, as if the life was of a no-count. Oh, the coloniser and the colonised. Far apart after all those years so close together.
Eating fish came up as a topic that showed how different we can be. English fish and chips was not like anything served back home. Inside that batter was a piece of fish, “But where was the rest of the fish?” a Jamaican would ask and the English fishman would feel insulted. Thus, was made the lack of love between two sets of people, who totally misunderstood each other’s attitudes, and who had great difficulty understanding each other’s speech. Give many an American a whole fish and he or she may have no notion of what to do with it. Give a Jamaican a fish without the head and tail and you may have your kitchen staff hauled out into the street for a good mauling. “What do you do with the bones?” asked one of the teenagers. “Chew them up and make a pile on a plate,” came back an adult’s answer.
My daughter showed off her new-found expertise and love for Jamaican food, especially roast yam and patties. She knows that peas soup needs to have dumplings and sweet potato.
With all of our lives reduced to our love of food, what better than to get on with a mango crumble that we offered with Devon House ice cream? Simple to a fault.
One of our guests had wondered why Jamaicans had not yet figured out how to use the bounty of food we have. I pointed out that we were eating the bounty, as I’d collected the mangoes on my walks. We’d eaten some mango chutney made by a friend from the crop in her yard. We could not really emulate the big companies and package and export, for instance, but little goes to waste if it can easily be used.
The food talk was nourishing and helped us think and talk about how we could work to nurture the minds and bodies of vulnerable children in Jamaica.