Cooking up a storm


Cooking up a storm

Donna P

Thursday, April 02, 2020

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So yuh betta can cook, tink yuh deh yah fi yuh pretty looks,

Yuh waan live a restaurant and come done man bank book.

— Mr Lexx

Those lines from Mr Lexx's song have been in my head for the past week or so. It has reached a haunting crescendo at times, alleviated by the melodic strains of Black Uhuru crooning, “Guess who's coming to dinner? Natty Dreadlocks.” I don't think anyone from outside is coming inside to dinner soon with all this physical and social distancing going on, but, the cooking vibes in cyberspace have certainly soared. Whether it is out of necessity, or to just pass the time, many people are now rustling up something in the kitchen and, to not be outdone, some are sharing photographs of their culinary delights on social media, while others are hosting live sessions of their cooking journey.

The excitement for some is palpable when they do something and find out that it actually works. My good friend of many years, a vegetarian who sometimes eats a little fish, cooked her first real meal this week — lentil soup with carrots, pumpkin, sweet and Irish potatoes, with coconut milk. She was excited at the outcome of this “real meal” that is more than “doing some pasta”, and is now planning to expand her meal planning and recipes during this period of staying home to include more home-cooked meals. And, to top it off, she is planning to invite us over for a dinner party or take a meal to us when this is over. Of course, I was equally excited, and I am sure that she will learn some new ideas, especially as more and more restaurants and other food vendors close their operations and we all stay inside more. At the end of all this I'll have to get her a gift — maybe an apron — to cheer her on.

Over the years, I have enjoyed cooking; baking; making juices, jams, preserves, and these tasty things, and I continue to give thanks that Jamaica is blessed with a never-ending supply of fresh fruits. Something is always in season; be it mango, tamarind, guava, star apple, naseberry, orange, sweetsop, soursop, custard apple, otaheite apple, pears, among many others. Yes, nothing goes down quite so well as some well-stewed tamarinds, tamarind balls with brown sugar, or some stewed guavas, and growing up in the country these activities were run-of-the-mill. Who remembers stewed jumbilin?

In those days, regardless of how bad things got financially, Sunday dinner was always special; no matter how simple. That was the time and place when we were compelled to sit together and eat as a family. Mama was always very serious about this, and I know many families still uphold this Sunday dinner tradition. Of note, some also have a standing order for Saturday soup. However, the updated conditions of modern life have changed quite a lot of this for many Jamaicans, with many working outside the home and finding less time to prepare meals. Perhaps it was the rush and bustle, but it seems as if we now put far more stock into buying meals than into preparing them. Yet, the intimacy of preparing food for your loved ones and the sharing of oneself through the positive energies that go into food preparation are priceless. A good curry chicken back, spiced up with Scotch bonnet pepper, with some plain rice or some dumplings, is a great meal if that is what you like. Yes, many of us have “run a boat or two ah bush or dung a river” with family members and friends. Those times brought us together in moments of sharing and giving thanks for friends and family that remain priceless.

Sharing your food with someone else is a sign of intimacy. Indeed, the first thing many couples shared was probably a meal. Where gender is concerned, feeding and sharing food has a broader meaning for women than for men, because for women feeding may more strongly implies care-taking, while for men feeding may more strongly imply romantic involvement. The saying that, “The way to a man's heart is through his stomach,” may have some merit here. Yet, aside from couples who are romantically involved, the act of preparing a meal and sharing it with friends and family members is an expression of how connected you feel to them. This is different from ordering takeout or buying a 'box food' on the road and then sharing it with someone. I do not want to discount the interest that someone may show in ensuring that another receives a meal; however, I do wish to foreground the underlying positive thought that energy and emotions all go together with meal preparation and sharing.

Additionally, preparing our own meals, or as many of them as possible, also puts us more in control of what goes down our throats. You can monitor your salt and sugar intake, reduce or eliminate your gluten intake, and increase your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. Plus, the positive energy expended in meal preparation adds to your sense of well-being. There is nothing quite so great as sitting down to eat a meal that you prepared and enjoying every single bite, or watching someone else savour your cooking.

So, now that time may be hanging heavy on your hands because we are more inside than outside, it's a great idea to go back to cooking or to learning how to cook.

My good friend, Chef Noel Cunningham, has been encouraging his followers online to try new ideas during this time. His strawberry-mint cocktail shared on Facebook Live last week proved very stirring. Even as new recipes are important, Chef Noel noted that he highly recommends everyone to try to prepare a favourite meal and as many comfort foods to also help with mental health at this time. He underscores the fact that food plays an important role not only for nutrition or to stop hunger, but it also sets our mood. Of course, he reminds us that food brings everyone together and, since we all inside, now is the time to cook with the family to build bonds, and also try new recipes. Even if you live alone, this is a good time to try new recipes. I've tried several recipes from Chef Noel's cookbook and highly recommend his Coconut Mango Lime Smoothie and his Jamaican Saltfish Pepper Pot Soup as two easy-to-make recipes.

Who knows how you will come out on the other side of all this? If you are just starting your culinary journey, refining your skills or honing your culinary excellence, cooking is an excellent way to pass the time, manage your nutritional needs, hone your skills, and share with those you love. Continue to keep safe and healthy along this journey.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or

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