Cooking up stories

A few days ago, I wrote that we could get a lot of Jamaican history recorded if everyone who has the ability to record the actions and words of someone from an older generation did so. Jamaica is full of story tellers. I heard about a school in the Blue Mountains portion of the parish of Portland that was creating its own oral history bank by having older citizens come to the school and tell stories, which were then recorded on an electronic tablet. But, stories are all around us, if we just listen.

Last night, we were invited to share curried chicken and rotis with a group of teachers and their friends and family. It was a must-accept invitation. My little fish-daughter was swimming in the Karl Dalhouse swim meet at the National Aquatic Centre, which began at 5pm. The dinner seemed like the ideal end to her evening and excellent preparation for a weekend full of races. After her race last night, she and her mother headed home while I continued time keeping for a while.

As luck would have it, though we left 30 minutes apart, we arrived at the gate of the residence at the same time. I went behind my wife’s car and said to the guard that I was going to the same place as she was. Then I saw my wife turn her car around and start to head out of the complex. She told me that the guard said that we needed to find the residence on another side of the complex. Off she went. I was a boy scout, so I got out my phone and called our host–who had told me that she lived just down the street from us. Yes, I was in the right place and in seconds I could see her waving as we talked on the phone. I called my wife and told her to high-tail it back.

Our host had her mother visiting from the countryside, which was a pleasant surprise. We went through the usual introductions and settled into relaxing. Little by little the stories started to flow.

My wife had found out that a relative of our host’s husband was also a relative of hers in The Bahamas. Small coincidence? The relative was due to join us for dinner.

I started sharing stories about how we had found related people as members of the swimming club that my daughter had joined in Kingston. We felt like family with that team and were even happier to be part of it. More coincidences?

One of the guests asked me about my writing, and I gave him a little insight into what it tries to be and why I write. Then, our host told us that her mother was a mystery writer who got paid for what she does. Her mother, who was born in England, had married a Jamaican, and lived on the island for over 40 years, explained that she could not tell us about her writing, done under a pseudonym. her daughter had never read any of these mysterious works. How intriguing.

The appetizer arrived and we tucked into a tasty salad made with cabbage (grown at the school) and salt fish, which went well with crackers. Our host’s mother had made it. We were in danger of spoiling our appetites as we ladled heap of the salad onto biscuits. We talked about some of the exotic dishes that were popular in Jamaica. One of my favourites, curried tripe and broad beans, had its lovers and its haters. We talked about eating braised liver and bananas. We reminisced about living in England and going to the butcher to get the cuts of meat we wanted, not pre-packaged as was common in the USA. I love of braised kidneys with port and talked about times when I used to live in Wales and would get a present of a pack of meat of sausages from the local butcher whenever the local football team, for which I played, won at the weekend.

The roti cooker realised the danger, so moved quickly to intervene and place his signature dishes in front of us. Out came the dish of curry and alongside a plate full of ‘buss-up-shut’. No more invitations needed. We all tried to be polite as we hastily grabbed at our makings of our dinners. This food is best eaten with the hands, and preferably in clothes that don’t show curry stains.


Within minutes, conversation had slowed as eating took over.

As the evening went on, we were joined by some more guests and the evening rolled on. This is a regular gathering and we were glad to be part of it.

We talked about devoted parents who spent their weekends watching and supporting their children 🙂 We talked about living in England. We talked about enjoying travelling around Jamaica’s countryside and enjoying what it offered. I described my recent trip to Mandeville and the pleasure of coming back to Kingston with a car laden down with produce: a trunk full of bananas and yam and a car caked in mud were signs of a good trip.

We were asked, after a good rest, if we were ready for dessert. Silly question. Lychee cake was being offered. My wife asked from where the fruit had come, and several of us explained that Jamaica produces plenty of the fruit, including in my father’s yard. We were well-behaved as plates with hefty slices of cake were passed around. Again, conversation slowed down.

My daughter left with her mother soon after 9pm so that she could get a good night sleep. Reluctant, of course, to leave the company of some adults who were enjoying her company.

The rest of us settled comfortably into a round of stories. We talked about nicknames–a staple of Jamaican life. How do you get a name ‘Clock’? Have one arm shorter than the other.

The funniest stories were about attending the ‘wrong’ Nine Nights. It’s a great piece of Jamaica’s culture that deaths are celebrated and the party atmosphere of a ‘set up’ is something that many Jamaicans enjoy. From what we heard, these have now become more festive, with ‘ban’s’ being part of the events, and even some ‘winding up’.

Nine Nights celebration
Nine Nights celebration

We heard that our host and friends had gone to pay respects to the family of a grandmother, only for find that in the a settlement of some 1500 people, there happened to be two such celebrations going on at the same time. Just their luck to walk into the wrong one. Still, walking with bottles of rum and ready for manish water and curried goat, they boldly waltzed into the mingle. Why be surprised that no one was coming up to you and talking? Well, it’s because you’re at the wrong place! Eventually, they found their way to the right place and got into the revelry they had been awaiting. Singing, dancing, drinking, praying. I hoped that the group of Nine Night chasers would give a sample of their singing routine, which I heard ranged from Gospel, through Soca. We rolled around as we imagined this wandering band of duppy watchers.

I was fading, after a long day of activity and I needed to get my sleep, too, with a day on a swim deck awaiting me. We hugged and kissed and wished each other a good weekend, as I headed home.

Another friend, with whom I’d played golf earlier in the day, had mentioned to me that every Friday he gets a lot of Parrot fish and has a good ‘fish feed’ at his house; Saturday is soup day. Jamaicans (and other Caribbeans) love to get together and just lime (as the Trinis call it)–just hang out with each other. Food and drink, as the world over, make the gathering so much better. 

My story-telling idea has its place, but clearly, we thrive on being able to share our lives with others, not only by being together physically, but also from airing our experiences. We get to know a little more about each other that way. Doors open. Doors close. Chapters start. Chapters end. We never know how we will intercept each other’s lives, but a good beginning comes from telling a little tale.



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