My mother tells a story of coming to a foreign country as a child, feeling isolated and unmoored from the Caribbean culture that shaped her, but finding an anchor in food.
My grandfather taught my mother to cook. He imparted his understanding of and love and respect for food. She talks about it often. Standing at his knee, his hip, then his shoulder, she learned the best ways to wield a knife, the terminology one needs to know to sweat in the highest-end of kitchens, and the devotion to creating a plate that stops someone in their tracks when they see it. She tells a story of coming to a foreign country as a child, feeling isolated and unmoored from the Caribbean culture that shaped her, but finding an anchor in food. And food has been her anchor for years; as long as I can remember actually.
Her recipes—self-published at the height of the “fusion” restaurant craze—come with a guide to Caribbean culture. Littering her cookbook at odd intervals are definitions of words like ital (Rastafari slang for of the earth), references to “pear” (avocado) and “gungo peas” (pigeon peas), and mini lessons on the importance of pimento wood (important, but not critical), allspice (mandatory), and scotch bonnet peppers (say habanero, I dare you) in anything you call jerk. Those notations seem familiar, if a bit exasperating, after years of impromptu lectures on the near-sacred traditions of bun, cheese, and sorrel on Easter Sunday. Learning to appreciate Guinness (imported, never domestic) for its signature tang while she explained the intricacies of folding your fingers into your palm while chopping felt like a chore back then.
But watching her work through the loss of her father, and first teacher, in the kitchen of her second restaurant, I’m left wondering if she feels the loss of cultural knowledge more keenly when she looks at me and my brother. There’s always a little bit lost in the generational gap, of course. It wouldn’t have been possible for my grandfather to teach my mother everything he knew; it took a lifetime to gain that knowledge, after all. But there was a commonality in their origins that made the distillation of knowledge easier. Her Caribbean accent comes and goes depending on who she’s speaking to. My and my brothers’ Caribbean accents are non-existent. Her knowledge of Patois is a decade or two behind the current generation and mine is pieced together from illicit, late-night listening sessions to Lady Saw, Macka Diamond, and Tanya Stephens. My brother understands Patois, but he certainly doesn’t speak it.
I asked her if she ever worries that we’ve lost too much in the cross-cultural shuffle, especially with my brother’s first child on the way. “Sometimes, but I see and hear little things that make me worry less,” she replied. I think she was hedging to make me, or herself, feel better. I know my cultural knowledge and awareness is diluted by too many years spent denying my Caribbean heritage to feel more socially tenable. I catch words I don’t recognize in conversations with her, I don’t feel comfortable speaking Patois in mixed company, and I don’t particularly care for bun and cheese. She’s resigned to calling my two cats her grandchildren, but she always changes the subject when I say I don’t want kids. She rarely remarks on my eating habits, but I still hold my breath when she eats my cooking or looks in my fridge and cabinets.
Maybe she’s more optimistic than I am. After all, I did call her and complain for 20 minutes because the one authentic Jamaican food truck in this godforsaken city, run by a first-generation Jamaican-American, has D&G pineapple soda and champagne cola on the menu, but not Milo or sorrel tea. And sometimes, I wonder if she’s ever exhausted by my very American complaints about food and my general quality of life. It took the better part of three years to find an authentic Jamaican restaurant in Pittsburgh, as she knows from my frequent phone calls. But I know how to cook at least 90% of the things that I’m clamouring for. I can feel her biting her tongue over the phone because that’s a ridiculously first world thing to complain about. She wants to say it, but she doesn’t because she’s proud and maybe a little grateful that I care so much.
Proud in the same way she was when I sent her a copy of my business licence for her birthday. “Your first company,” she texted. “That’s the best gift you could have given me!” I kept the retort on the tip of my tongue about capitalism to myself. She knows the violence of capitalism and colonialism first hand as a Black Jamaican woman, forced to compete in a Western, white, male dominated industry that diluted her culture, repackaged it, and tries to sell it to her on an $80 plate called “fusion Caribbean cuisine.” No, she doesn’t need the reminder when she asked for a print of my “Landlords are Pimps” art not long after she moved into her new restaurant.
I don’t know if my mother ever worried about us losing her Caribbean culture in the same way that I do. I know she worries about the mistakes I’ve made and will make. I know she worries about some of my career choices, even though she doesn’t say it. I know she thinks I’ve become a little too Americanised, a little too comfortable with American values, a little too individualistic for her liking… because she’s said that.
But, I don’t know if she ever feels like there’s not enough time to share everything she wants us to know. But that’s not going to stop her from putting her Caribbean culture, and her heart, on a plate and feeding it to us by small degrees, the way mothers hide things that are good for you in the things that you love. And she’ll continue feeding us, long after we say we’re full, because her love language and her communication style is food. And we’ll clear our plates then ask for more because we’re afraid—of the inevitable loss, and of her (but only sometimes).
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