Food & Drinks, Life

I adore my Jamaican grandma’s cooking but not for the reasons you’d think

No matter how busy we were during the week, we always had Sunday dinner together.

I come from a long line of incredible cooks. We all want to believe that our aunt, grandma, and mother all make the tastiest meals on the planet. I know everyone says that, but for me it’s legitimate.

My grandma can make banana fritters that would make the devil himself beg for seconds. My aunt’s jerk chicken and barbecue sauce force you to slow down in fear of nibbling off your own fingertips in your eagerness to finish.

They are the most amazing cooks I know and every bite of their food is like a step back in time for me…

As a child, I spent weekends over at my grandma’s house. Back then I was an only child to a single mom who had no choice but to work on the weekends. Come Friday evening, I got carted away to my grandmother’s house.

[bctt tweet=”Jamaican food is all about care and patience.” username=”wearethetempest”]

It was a modest home on Long Island that she shared with my grandpa, my two aunts, my two younger cousins, and my dad. There was never a dull or quiet moment in that house, and since I spent a lot of the time at my own house with my head between the pages of a book, it was always an exciting change.

Sundays, in particular, were always bittersweet because while they meant the inevitable start of a new school week, it also meant Sunday dinner. After years of living State-side, many of my family’s Jamaican traditions had been mixed and blended with American ones. Sunday dinners, however, remained unchanged. No matter how busy we all were throughout the weekend, we still looked forward to that one meal together.

They tended to go a little something like this: after a basic breakfast of fried eggs and milky tea, by noon I was starving and spent most of the day being teased by the scents of the cooking wafting from the basement kitchen. It felt like my aunt and grandma disappeared down there for hours. They only made an occasional appearance to grab an extra pot or pan from a cabinet upstairs.

Jamaican food is all about care and patience. Sauces and curries need time to stew and simmer. Spices and seasonings need a chance to marry. So, by the time dinner was finally served, it was well into the evening.

The menu was different each week. On some nights it was as indulgent as oxtail. On other nights, the main dish was as simple as canned salmon and white rice. All I know, however, was that every single time, it was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. And, if we played our cards right, my cousin and I would sneak an extra piece of meat from the ancient Dutch pot when everyone retreated back upstairs.

[bctt tweet=”You don’t grow up realizing that not everyone eats the same foods you eat at home. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

When you’re really young, you don’t grow up realizing that not everyone eats the same foods you eat at home. This is especially true if you were raised in an immigrant family. You don’t realize that the spices you use and the meats you eat are deemed “foreign” to American tongues.

Once I got older and started going to school, however, I learned very quickly. I grew sick of answering questions about why my curry chicken was so fragrant and why it left a faint yellow stain along the tips of my fingers. Or why the fish I ate didn’t come frozen, breaded or shaped like little sticks. After awhile, it got easier to simply leave the bully beef sandwiches at home and settle for “safe” options like pizza and hamburgers.

I spent many years eating the more acceptable foods out in public while only indulging in the good stuff at home. It was recently that it dawned on me that the way I treated the foods of my culture was the same way I treated my culture as a whole.

While I was never actively ashamed of by my background (I’ve always loved being Jamaican), it was something I very much treated like an afterthought. I wasn’t Jamaican in public. I was only Jamaican at home. In those safe space where the patois freely rolled off the tongues of those around me. And where scotch bonnet pepper was as common a pantry staple as peanut butter.

For years, I had unknowingly been splitting my identities in two and I realized I hated it. Since then, I began to make a conscious effort to be unapologetically Jamaican and Caribbean all of the time. The last few years have consisted of me discovering exactly what that means.

On some days, it means bringing in a bowl of my grandma and aunt’s leftovers into work for lunch. And then popping open the lid, letting the spicy and herby scents of turmeric and thyme, fill the air, before promptly savoring every bite.

[bctt tweet=” I made a conscious effort to be unapologetically Jamaican and Caribbean all of the time.” username=”wearethetempest”]

  • Avatar

    Shanicka is a Senior Pop Culture Editor at The Tempest. A writer of Jamaican descent living in New York, she believes pop culture is a necessary and accessible way to observe and critique society. Often and without prompting, she enjoys talking about Harry Styles, BTS, her year abroad in London, and the complexities of the Caribbean diaspora.