Felicia, a large, tall Jamaican woman, leaned over with amazing agility and enveloped me in her arms, my stiff white chef's coat crinkling in the embrace. "Thank you for teaching us about our food," she said, smiling. She was just one of many students of West Indian descent – mostly Jamaican – who took my cooking classes here in New York on how to prepare traditional meals.
I blushed and thanked her, thinking about her words. "Our food," she had said. But the truth was that, outside of my ancestral home of Trinidad, I was as much of a neophyte as the next cook when it came to the foods of the other islands. Most of what I knew of Jamaica came from childhood visits when my Trinidadian father took me to visit his closest friend, Lola Campbell, who lived in Brooklyn. Miss Lola was Jamaican and had, like him, come to America in the 1950s for education and the hope of a better life. When the two got together, there was always a feast of curries, stewed beef, rice and peas, and a sweet bread of some kind. Maybe there would be some ginger beer or a Red Stripe for my father. The day was punctuated by rapid-fire Caribbean patois and loud laughter.
Their camaraderie made me intertwine Trinidad and Jamaica so closely that, content with my once-removed knowledge, I never felt the need to visit Miss Lola's island home.
I was jolted out of my memories as everyone began departing the kitchen-classroom at the end of class. Felicia called out to me, "One love!" using the Jamaican saying. "One love!" I answered, raising my hand in a wave.
"One love!" I answered, raising my hand in a wave. Watching her disappear into the elevator down the hall, I knew that in order to live up to my students' admiration, I had to change my ways. Their belief in my ability to be the ambassador of the larger Caribbean made me long to know more about other islands that made up my West Indian heritage – and my first stop had to be Jamaica.