First Course: Patties & Patois
I arrive at the Kingston airport eager for my first taste of Jamaica and to expand my knowledge of Caribbean cuisine. My goal: take back to my cooking students the culinary essence of the island their forefathers called home. I am confident that my West Indian heritage will give me entrée here, but when I meet my guide, Carey Dennis, who will accompany me on this weeklong adventure, I am shaken by his formal, old-school British demeanor. As we head around Kingston Harbor, Carey recites that it is "the seventh largest natural harbor in the world" in proper tour guidese. I nod politely and look out the window at the street-food vendors that look so like those in Trinidad. They're selling green or "jelly" coconuts – bought for their cool water but so-named for their gelatinous flesh – and candies homemade from ginger and coconut. Peanut vendors are selling nuts wrapped in narrow paper cones rolled tightly so the salty, peppery nuts can be tipped right into the mouth. The fruit stands I see bring to mind all the fruits I can't get in the States.
"My favorite fruit is pommerac – do you have that here?" I ask.
"Pommerac," Carey muses.
"What does it look like?"
I launch into an animated explanation of the pinkish fruit with white flesh that tastes something like strawberry. As I form its shape with my hands, he suddenly bursts out, "Otaheite apple?!"
"Yes!" I say, "That's its real name. Captain Bligh brought it from the South Pacific." For the first time, Carey genuinely smiles.
"That's a real nice fruit!" he exclaims, and we start to talk about what else Bligh brought over, including breadfruit, a starchy tree fruit used as a filling staple to feed the slaves who were Carey's ancestors and, later, the indentured East Indians who were mine.
The ice has broken by the time we pull up to Devon House, the late-19th-century estate of Jamaica's first black millionaire and now a national monument. After a tour of the housemuseum with its wide plank floors and cedar- smelling antique wardrobes, so like those in my father's house in Trinidad, we stop at the Brick Oven, a patisserie in what was the estate's old kitchen. Here we pass by sweet rum cakes and pone, dense, syrupy cakes made from grated cassava. We order beef patties – a fitting starter to the coming days of indulgence – and eat them on a tree-shaded bench in the courtyard. They are as big as softballs and have flaky crusts. The spicy meat filling is good and hot, but not hot enough to stop me from gobbling mine down in five or six bites, chased with an ice-cold Red Stripe. Standing and brushing the pastry crumbs from our clothes, we head back to the car for our journey to Strawberry Hill, a mountaintop boutique hotel about 40 minutes north. As we pass through the city and up the hilly slopes, we see references to Bob Marley everywhere – his image on walls, his name given to everything from corner stores to schools.
This leads to a discussion of reggae, Trinidad calypso and more food. Carey tells me he is an avid home cook. Relaxed now, his language has eased into a light patois as we laugh through descriptions and anecdotes to try to learn what the same foods are called in our respective lands. The unspoken undertones of our easy conversation speak to a pact we are making as fellow island folk – one through which we will follow the story of our collective culinary heritage, hand in hand.