How Jamaican-Canadian home cooks are keeping traditions alive

When writer Bee Quammie was pregnant with her second daughter, her biggest craving was ackee and saltfish.

The thing is, if there’s anything a Jamaican restaurant will run out of first, it’s likely going to be this breakfast dish.

“There were two times I can remember that I got to the counter, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re sold out.’ And I started bawling in the restaurant,” she recalled.

She’d look at the person who bestowed the heartbreaking news and think: “You don’t understand how badly I need some ackee and saltfish right now.”

But it wasn’t until well after her daughter was born that she finally learned to cook Jamaica’s national dish herself.

Growing up, between her mom, dad, aunt and grandmother, kitchen duties were covered and a spread of Jamaican staples like curry chicken, oxtail, and rice and peas were always ready and cooked to perfection. So, Canadian-born Quammie never bothered to learn.

And moving from London, Ont., to the GTA where Jamaican restaurants are abundant just gave her another excuse to put off mastering her favorite childhood dishes.

“I think as a child and when I was living at home I really took that for granted.”

Her rationale: “Oh, somebody’s always gonna make red pea soup, someone’s always gonna fry the dumpling perfectly.”

But all it really takes is a move away from home, a long-stretching pandemic or a family member passing away to suddenly make learning about traditional home cooking more urgent. And with Jamaican culture, like some others, traditions are passed down orally, via family. So, cooks like Quammie who are just starting out call mom first.

In 2020, a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Quammie says she wanted to treat herself to her favorite meal — ackee and saltfish — for her birthday. So, she propped her phone up on the counter and her mom de ella talked her through the steps on a WhatsApp video call.

There’s room to adjust and add things like bell peppers or tomatoes, but for the most part all you need is salted cod — soaked in water to remove some of the salt, a can of ackee, onion, scotch bonnet pepper and black pepper. And on the side, you can have a variety of things to balance out the saltiness: flour dumplings, fried plantain, boiled green banana, yam and sweet potatoes to name just some of the options.

Ackee and saltfish—and other dishes—is a staple Quammie now wants to perfect. Lately, she’s been getting her two daughters in the mix helping. Sometimes they may glance at Quammie’s plate and say, “that looks funny. No, thanks.”

But when they’ve helped cook, she can say “we’re eating the food you made,” and the hesitance quickly becomes hunger.

For Jamaican-Canadian home cooks, learning to make traditional food isn’t without its challenges. Measurements and recipes are often unheard of among parents and grandparents (and in my mother’s case, outright scorned). Cookbooks are far and few outside of the Caribbean. But online resources have become a decent jumping off point.

Brooklyn-based Tiphany Archibald started a Facebook group in early 2020 called Caribbean Cooking Skills that has amassed more than 100,000 members from mainly the US and the UK, many of whom are a generation or two removed from their island heritage.

After the pandemic hit in March 2020, the group slowly grew and became a comfort to many members who have messaged Archibald to say thanks.

Archibald said she wanted to create a space for new cooks that needed to ask questions and, well, make mistakes.

“Do you put the curry powder in the pan first, or the meat?” one user writes. And everyone offers a different technique.

For others, YouTube is a staple for being able to see the steps that go into making a dish — and listen for things like a Jamaican accent or childhood stories as a litmus test to see if you’re getting the real thing.

All these virtual guides sort of mimic the way a lot of kids learn — by observing family, sharing rituals and talking with each other.

Jody Anderson, 27, has spent the past decade slowly learning to make every Jamaican dish. And the cooking journey has given her more reasons to text her family from her.

As she roams Montreal grocery stores, she’ll send a photo of the oxtail and red snapper she picks up to her family back in the GTA. Secretly, she is also hoping her family de ella will correct her if the packages of meat and fish are not, in fact, oxtail and snapper.

To her relief, no one has corrected her selections. Even better, they’ve offered tips.

Her dad once responded with a phone call during which he advised she asked the butcher to chop the oxtail into smaller pieces and remove some of the fat. Ella’s brother told her to look for clear eyes and a bright red under the gills when picking fresh fish.

“I didn’t know any of that,” Anderson said.

She’s built her skills slowly since high school — moving from rice to oxtail — and still laughs at her past and current attempts.

“It was bad. It was bad. Oh man, it was bad,” she said about the early days.

But the skills came in handy when she recently returned to Montreal and was living in Airbnbs while house hunting.

“I felt really good that no matter what kitchen I was in — from kitchen to kitchen — I could make a really good soup. I can make a really good chicken stew. The same night I arrived there, I could just make a great meal for myself to sit down with and feel really good about myself,” she recalled.

Anderson started keeping a recipe book of meals and has plenty more she wants to add to it: rundown, fritters, curry goat, peanut porridge and goat head soup are still on her list to learn. No matter if it’s something she doesn’t eat, she wants to be able to make it for the benefit of family members who love it.

Even for a professional chef like Suzanne Barr, the earliest lessons started as a kid in the kitchen. She reflected on her cooking journey in her new memoir “My Ackee Tree.”

For instance, a few times a year, her family would form an assembly line and make dozens of patties from scratch to stock up and freeze.

“That was our family time,” Barr said. “You know, learning how to enjoy the food that we have eaten our whole life but also doing it together.”

It’s something she now shares with her son Myles, who has grown up watching and helping her cook.

Through watching her mom and dad cook, who were both Jamaican yet had entirely different styles of cooking, it dawned on her that she could develop her own style within the cuisine. When she once asked her dad to show her how to make stew peas, she didn’t really get any help at all. He just said: “Well, how do you think it should be made? Go ahead and make it.”

Barr realized that she wouldn’t be a cook like her mom, or dad.

“I’m just going to be my own cook,” she said. “And serve food to my family, my friends and they’re gonna enjoy it because it’s coming from me and it’s coming with love.”


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