Boom and a pack of Shirley

I was having a tough time coming up with a topic today. I had wondered about the crazy stunt by an artiste named Ikon of an attempted suicide by climbing a radio antenna and threatening to jump unless his song was played on air. This could have been in bad taste, given the actual suicide of one of the greatest comedians the day before. But, I suspect Ikon was only thinking about how iconic he could be. Selfish. Whoever hadn’t heard of him before at least knew his name. The song? Can’t say that I’m bothered to look for it.

That’s the sort of half-baked attempt attention-grabbing that often goes on, though usually without putting a lot of innocent people under stress or wondering if they would have someone’s fate in their hands.

Most people try to just get on with life and make the best of bad situations.

I then went to the supermarket. I love to watch people. It was early afternoon and a few people were grabbing what looked like afternoon snacks. In Jamaica, that’s often a soda and some chips (banana or plantain). I then say a man with a bottle of ‘Boom’ energy drink and a pack of ‘Shirley’ sweet biscuits.

Boom energy drink: product of Jamaica
Shirley biscuits: product of Jamaica

Both are local products. As were the other item I’d noted being bought.

I asked him if that was his lunch. He explained that it was to get him through the afternoon, including when he got home to watch CNN News. I wondered if the depressing content of CNN broadcasts needed offsetting with the sugar boost. He didn’t seem offended by my curiosity, which is good.

At the back of my mind were two things. First, how we get by out of home when we need nutrition. I’d read an article last night about good things to eat to get through a round of golf–usually, about four hours, and often in full heat. Boiled eggs, peanut butter and jelly, fruit, were all high on the list. I’d had a bus bans, plus eggs with toast at about 6am, before heading out to play. It seemed to hold me well. I had to hit a peanut butter and banana sandwich, then some pasta later, once I’d gotten home again and the energy drain was kicking in. Chips and soda were far from my mind.

Second, was the bubbling debate about the ‘buy Jamaica, build Jamaica‘ campaign, run by the Jamaica Manufacturers Association JMA).

This campaign has good intentions and can draw energy from the fact that Jamaicans are good patriots, even though they love to flaunt things bought abroad. Nevertheless, many Jamaicans see foreign goods as also more expensive, and not necessarily to their tastes. Look at tinned processed cheese, which would bomb almost anywhere else.

But, are we really being targeted as consumers? People may just respond to price, and Jamaican is likely to be cheaper. They may also just be responding to need and familiarity. Our packaging often comes in for much criticism, and the look of things affects many people’s choices. So, we ought to see a push to let people know that the contents are the best or near the best.

I steer away from imports, simply because I see few things that I MUST have that are not local. I don’t have a choice with certain things, such as gasoline or cars. But, I do with a lot of foods. It’s my contribution to reducing our food import bill and also pressure on the exchange rate.

But, others are not discerning or just don’t care, or just don’t trust Jamaican goods, etc. Foreign,even from developed countries, is no guarantee of anything positive, as China has found with scares over imported milk products from New Zealand.

So, the JMA could do a lot more convincing and so could our consumer advocates, who could help us understand what the market is made up of and what represents value for money, local or imported.

For the love of our children

My heart grieves when I see what some parents are allowing their children to do, and often with adult consent, encouragement and funding, in public. This week, I saw children enjoying the last days of summer holidays, doing something that made my blood boil. A boy and girl were seated on a shady bench. The boy reached out to the girl and offered her a bite of his lunch. She smiled shyly then opened her mouth and closed her eyes. He pushed the sandwich towards her lips. Her mouth opened slowly and in one savage bite, she took half of it. As her mouth worked I could hear her moaning in delight. Could a hamburger be so good?

Modern Jamaican children have been led down a devilish path of foreign influences, which threaten to stifle our little island’s great culinary culture. When I drove a family friend around Kingston early this afternoon, she told me a story about how her mother had worked as a cook at King’s House. She recalled how she’d been sent to Constant Spring Market to buy cow skin so that it could be boiled to make gelatin and then have colouring added to it to make home-made jelly. I laughed. My grandmother had also worked as a cook and I had never come across this gem.

But, have we been swept up by the waves of industrial progress and forgotten what we owe to the next generation? I loved it when two third grader children with Jamaican-Bahamian parents, born and raised in the USA, said boldly to their class mates in the US that they loved turkey neck most in Thanksgiving dinner, NOT mashed potatoes and gravy. Hail, parents and grandparents!

This morning, I met a class mate of my daughter’s here in Jamaica and asked what she’d had for breakfast. “Breadfruit and bacon,” she told me, proudly. So, it should be. This week, I’ve fed my daughter a steady diet of porridge before going to school–not oats, but hominy and cornmeal. I can embrace progress with this seeming backward gesture, because Jamaican food manufacturers now produce good versions of these staples that take less time to boil at home. It’s no big deal for me to make separate servings of different porridges. I’ve a cupboard loaded now with peanut, plantain, hominy and cornmeal porridges. Come, Mister Hurricane, if you bad!

My wife’s also gone a bit retro and bought an ice cream churn so that we can spend weekend afternoons making homemade ice cream. So far, mango and soursop have been dished up and were hoping that the guests who enjoyed it with us will soon pack up and leave. Two weeks’ stay over from a Sunday lunch is a little, forward, no?

I’m not someone filled with crazy nationalistic notions. I don’t think that all children need to spend 6 weeks in the country areas each year with grandparents or family members who farm or fish. But, talking about nights spent walking through the bush with a fire-stick or no light, feeling your way to your destination, makes me think that the modern generation is in danger of turning into a bunch of soft people. A friend just told me a story of two men walking through the bushes one night and they came to a river. One man, who knew the area, said to his visitor friend “Just jump!” He leapt and waited for his friend to follow. His friend summoned up courage and jumped. He landed on a slippery rock but kept his balance and stood on dry land. His friend then pulled out a lighter and set fire to some twigs, and they both looked down to see a raging torrent of water that was about 8 feet wide and about 30 feet below them. “Just jump? You mad!” said the visitor.

You don’t need zip lines for adventures. Go to the river and catch crayfish. Try taking a herd of cattle to the pasture. Milk cows. Fetch water. Collect logwood. I’m sure I can sign my child up for some ‘adventure’ activities at a camp, but I like simple.

This week, I decided to be firmer in my efforts to stop this slide down a slippery slope to ‘I’m a getting’ lost. I introduced my daughter to some essentials of life. Others may not agree on their relative importance but I’m not going to stay friends with anyone who thinks these things are not essential. Here’s a list of things I made sure she experienced this week:
*How to eat piping hot cornmeal or hominy porridge with chunks of hardo bread dropped in (I concede that Excelsior crackers work great, too). [As a friend reminded me, whole wheat bread has no place being near porridge.]
*Drinking a water coconut from the shell, without a straw.
*Eating soft coconut jelly with a sprinkling of brown sugar. (She’s even made her own variations, leaving some water in the coconut so that the sugar starts to dissolve a little into syrup. Children are inventive.)
*Ackee and salt fish on water crackers. (Water crackers make many a snack excellent.)
*Eating a slice of hardo bread with condensed milk. (She’s young, so I did not introduce her to the full sandwich.)

Her life changed forever when she tasted the bread and sweetened milk. Blame me!

Some of these things are part of the ‘inside secrets’ of Jamaican life. We eat patty and coco bread. Don’t listen to foolish talk about “too much starch”! We eat corn soup. All hot drinks are ‘tea’. Ah so we dweet!

Driving through Faith Pen last week, it was a given in my daughter’s mind, newbie though she is–to stop for roast yam and salt fish–and the fish was SALTY.

Though some of these tasty treats may owe their origins to poverty and hard times that some may want to forget, they’re very much a part of who we are. Bulla and pear, anyone?



National heroics

Imagine that! I wrote a piece yesterday, which featured Minister Roger Clarke, and there I was in an audience under a big tent, listening to him, at the launching of an agricultural financing project in Morant Bay, St. Thomas.

I’ll be interested how the local media report this event, but I have several reactions. The man is keenly aware of his image, and embraces it. He told the audience how he loves seeing his cartoon in the papers and wishes he could see one everyday; he frames each one and can’t wait for when he gets his royalties for helping sell papers. He mimicked the Boltian pose from yesterday’s cartoon, and shouted its caption.

I was surprised when he touched on something similar to what I wrote, by saying that people must be wondering “What is it with these people and chicken back?” In making fun of his own image, he tried to clarify himself, saying that he had urged people to eat things other than chicken back–chicken meat, pork, fish, beef…and ox tail. He quipped that those who were now worried about the poor were really thinking about their poor dogs, for whom they usually bought chicken back. That may open up more avenues for problems.

But, he wanted to outline ways in which his ministry was trying to build bridges between local supply and demand, and rebuild production in areas where good capacity once existed but had been reduced. Jamaica’s imbalance of food imports and exports has some odd elements. Why was Jamaica importing so much ‘Irish’ potato when it could grow much more? Could the right varieties of potatoes be developed to help reduce imports of potatoes for fries? Tilapia had been produced previously in plentiful quantities, but that had diminished greatly. More onions can be produced. “We love onions! Look how much is put on the fried fish at Border?” The mortality rate for certain livestock could be reduced. Grown animals could be brought to market faster. Many crops have been hit by diseases. It was interesting and appropriate that Mr. Clarke was paired with the Minister of Health, Dr. Fenton Ferguson, who is MP for St. thomas East. Those two portfolios should work closely together.

Morant Bay has a revered position in Jamaican history and folk culture. It was the site of a rebellion in 1865, which involved the capture and execution of Paul Bogle, a native of St. Thomas and Baptist preacher, and George William Gordon, a landowner and politician. Bogle was much concerned about the conditions of the poor. Gordon was critical of the British Governor, John Eyre, for his handling of these grievances and support of abuses by the white landowners. Bogle led a group of black farmers to discuss their grievances with the Governor, but they were denied an audience. This lowered confidence in the British rulers and the group gained in membership. Bogle and members of his group were then involved in several protests, which resulted in the police being beaten into retreat. Brutal reprisals followed and a warrant was issued for Bogle’s arrest for riot and assault. He was captured, tried and executed. Gordon was also arrested for conspiracy and executed. The incidents set off political debates in Britain over the manner with which Jamaica was being governed; they became pivotal in the relation of Britain with Jamaica. Both Bogle and Gordon were made National Heroes in 1969.


Ironically, Jamaica’s small farmers are still under the cosh. They are sometimes at a loss to fix the ‘markets’: difficulties in moving produce; options for dealing with gluts; inability to deal with big producers and retailers, who could turn quickly to imports; financing problems; losses from praedial larceny (by the “two footed puss”). But, small farmers are the backbone of much of the food production which Jamaicans love to see and eat: yams, potatoes, callaloo, ackees, dasheen, cho-cho (Christophine), okra, mangoes, plantains, peas, more…


Take a road trip through the island and you’ll see that up close. Most people love that aspect of Jamaica, along with the many and tasty options for cooked food on the road. We know the wildly varied offerings at produce markets, such as Coronation. Let’s not get into health issues here, but our local producers know what people want, even if what they have to offer seems limited compared with supermarkets.

So, we are headed back to Kingston and roadside vendors have much of what we could want by way of fruit: sweet sop, sour sop, mangoes, plantains, bananas, naseberries, plus honey, molasses, and noni juice. My wife is easily tempted, and when she hears the prices, not for single fruit but for bowlfuls, she’s transported back to our days in Guinea, when we got similar offerings. We buy enough to share. A happy carful.

Buy local, eat local! It’s more than a hollow mantra. I do not like temperate fruit enough for them to get first pick. Sure, I’ll find a use for them, but do I want to pay four times the price just to have blueberries or Bartlett pears? I don’t think so. Those whose income allow, can choose the many imports, but is it because we have to show we can? When I ate jackfruit this week did I wish for something foreign? No. Our visitors don’t come here to eat what they buy in Bethesda. In Gandhian style, it’s good to try to be the change you wish to see.

I’m not on a campaign to erase the US$1 billion food import bill singlehandedly, but I can see ways to dent it.

Now, I’m going to check how my little market garden is starting to grow.