BLS Professor Regina Bernard recently spoke with Michelle and Suzzane Rousseau, cook book authors and owners of SummerHouse restaurant in Kingston, Jamaica. In honor of Caribbean Heritage Month, they spoke with Alumni about the rich variation of Caribbean foodways, they shared stories about foods from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, and New York. And we all celebrated May 18, Haitian Flag Day.
When they were five and seven respectively, the sisters moved from Kingston, Jamaica to Port of Spain, Trinidad. “Trinidad was vastly different to Jamaica yet still familiar. Up until that point, our life had been a series of birthday parties with donkey cart rides, bun eating contests, Tastee beef patties, porridge and milo along with warm grandmotherly hugs and an overabundance of friends, family and loved ones. Moving to Trinidad was dramatic – we felt isolated, friendless with little contact to home and our family (as we had no telephone phone for the 4 years we lived there).
“We were insiders and outsiders at the same time. Our family’s move triggered the explorer in us. We became each other’s companion and abandoned ourselves to a fantasy life that we believed real – one that involved exploring gardens, seeking adventures, searching for fairies and magic, reading and storytelling and a whole bevy of new foods to embrace. It is there that we became exposed to an entire new cuisine whose roots hail from African, Indian, Spanish, French and Portuguese inhabitants. In Trinidad we encountered ingredients and flavors in Caribbean food that were revelatory and we began to understand the juxtaposition of the refined with the rustic that is so typical of the islands. This dynamic and exciting new culinary discovery awakened our palate to that particular salt, sweet and spice balance that is unique to Caribbean food.
“Our daily trek home from school, and any outing, always included a variety of roadside street food episodes – an exercise in the extremes of sugar, salt and hot pepper to be sure: salt prune dust sold on a square of brown paper, tamarind balls that were simultaneously tart, spicy, salty and sweet, Channa (a snack of crisp fried chick peas seasoned with culantro, hot pepper and lots of salt), pepper mango, pepper cherries, and pickled pommecythere sold in plastic bags in all the local spots, roadside doubles (curried chickpeas on a fried flatbread), shark and bake (a beachside fried fish sandwich), snow cones around the savannah smothered with fruit syrup and the addition of condensed milk. These foods were fantastic discoveries to our palates, the layers of flavour were mind blowing and we gobbled them up.
“While we were eating these foods on the street – our mother regularly prepared classic Jamaican dishes like escovitch fish, oxtail and beans, ackee and saltfish at home. Mummy’s repertoire also included regional dishes from our new Caribbean home like pelau (a one pot dish of chicken, rice and pigeon peas) and Guyanese pepper pot – a rich meat stew seasoned with cassareep (cassava syrup). She was the consummate home cook and hostess, and through her we began to understand the connection to cooking as a way to show love, forge a sense of belonging, welcome strangers, create memory and celebrate heritage. Pelau is still a favorite of ours and we consider it to be the ideal meal for a houseful of guests, lazy weekend lunches with friends and family plus it’s the perfect antidote for late night post fete munchies. Serve it with a beautiful green salad, fried ripe plantain, sliced avocado, a good hot pepper sauce and, of course, a rum and coconut water on the side.”
Professor Bernard’s short film about her mother’s cooking, “Ethel’s Magical Hands” (2015)
reminds us that the legacy of women cooking is so critical throughout the Caribbean and its diaspora.