BY BREANNA BURKE (staff writer)
The explosion happened so quickly that I barely remember how it started. I ran to the kitchen as the house swelled with the thick, sweet air of fried ackee and saltfish. The original tiny burst of smoke that steamed from the pot had turned into a spreading mountain of aroma that drew us all to the site of Grandma’s magic: the kitchen. Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a deep, unexplainable connection to the kitchen. In Jamaican households, it is not just a place for food. It is where the real laughter happens, where people can take off the mask and, over a glass of lemonade, reveal the parts of themselves that they keep shielded from the world all day. Most importantly, this is where we form the most intimate connection with our cultural heritage.
At twelve years old, I became obsessed with ackee and saltfish. Although it is Jamaica’s national dish, I had never really enjoyed it before, often opting for more Western dishes like pizza and macaroni and cheese. But one day, a switch turned on inside of me. My grandmother was cooking her famous ackee and saltfish, and the scent of it overwhelmed my senses. I ran to the kitchen and devoured a plate of it within seconds. Every morning that summer, she would make this dish for me while I sat in the kitchen, and eventually, I learned to cook it on my own after having watched my grandmother so many times. I could see why many Jamaicans didn’t believe in the need for recipe books. My grandmother’s hands instinctively sprinkled salt, black pepper, and thyme over the ackee. This food was a part of her and she knew it well. Over time, I also learned to season and improvise by listening to my soul. In this way, cooking is a very spiritual activity for us Jamaicans. These recipes act as connections to our loved ones who have passed them down for generations. They hold the most fragile and vulnerable parts of us, yet they create something that satisfies our souls.
Today, I am capable of making my fair share of traditional Jamaican dishes, but it is never just a dish; it is always a story. Whenever Christmas comes and I make Jamaican Black Cake with my grandmother, I am reminded of when I was younger when I used to sit and watch her in awe as she crafted this delicious beauty in her hands. Now, my grandmother and I weave this magic together. The best thing about this is that there is always so much more to learn. With the absence of a recipe book, I have the opportunity to learn from those most dear to me, and in the process, they have taught me about what it means to be Jamaican, an integral aspect of my identity. Whenever my grandfather makes ‘Run Dung,’ a traditional Jamaican dish sauteed with aromatic seasonings and combined with Coconut Milk, he always tells stories about his childhood. He details his time spent among children of Maroons, runaway slaves who paved their own path to freedom. The lessons that he learned from their bravery and even the excitement from his memories with them have translated into these stories. These moments have taught me more than any history books ever could.
So perhaps, a good ‘belly full’ is not the only enjoyable aspect of cooking. This process of creating has helped me weave the web of my identity that is strengthened by my heritage. My family, particularly my grandparents, have taught me that food truly is a pathway to the soul. When we make something together and learn from one another, it stays with us forever. I sincerely hope that this simple magical act continues for generations to come. One day, I will teach my own children how to make traditional dishes and hopefully their passion for their culture will be ignited just like mine was.
Our consumption is indeed the most necessary ingredient for our connection.