Reflection on President Obama’s Message as it Pertains To FoodPublished Jan 31, 2009
A key principle that Barack Obama used as part of the foundation of his campaign, was that we are not White America, Black America, Latino America, or Asian America - we are the United States of America. With that in mind, it brought me back to thinking about my fellow Caribbean nationals living in the United States, New York City in particular, where I reside.
Although we may be Trini, Bajan, Boricua or Yardi, we are all Caribbean people!!!
How unified are we as Caribbean nationals as it pertains to gastronomy?
“OUT OF MANY, ONE PEOPLE”
Although the Jamaican national motto, that espouses unity among cultures and races, reflects itself in the cuisine of the Caribbean, I do believe that food knowledge and acceptance within the different island nations has a long way to go.
Yes, we have integrated the foods of the many different cultures that have graced our shores into our own unique style considered “Grenadian” or “Trinidadian” or “Guyanese” cuisine, but how many of these cuisines really “cross-over” with each other?
How many Jamaicans really know what “Bhaji” or “Chandon Beni” is?
How many Guadeloupians make “Run Down” or “Cou Cou” at home?
How many Cubans eat “Ackee & Saltfish”, or even know what it is, despite the fact that they literally sit on top of Jamaica in terms of geography?
As a Jamaican living in New York, I think I am one of handful that recognizes just how fortunate I am that I can take a trip to almost any Caribbean island, sample their foods, experience their culture, observe their different mannerisms, watch them play sports, talk about their culture, or even meet their families, without EVER stepping foot outside of NEW YORK CITY!!!
No Passport! No Heavy Suitcases!
That’s because they are ALL represented right here in our backyard!
There is NO island in the Caribbean that can boast such a bountiful all-inclusive package!!!
I don’t think we realize or take advantage of this fact often enough.
So we generally remain disparate as a Caribbean “nation”, apart from a few exceptions such as the West Indian Day Carnival in Brooklyn or a major sporting event.
Even the Carnival, on the level of food anyway, is not a true representation of all the island nationals that call Brooklyn home, but it’s a good start.
I got very annoyed at myself once when an American came into my restaurant and belted out a laundry list of dishes she had the pleasure of consuming on a recent island getaway.
I could only decipher five of the nine, and worse, could claim only to have had three of the five. Of course like a true Jamaican, I just lied and said I had them all!!!
Then I retreated to the kitchen and kicked myself in the rear for being so “Caribbean Dumb!”
Yes, some fruits and vegetables are very similar but called a different name in other islands, but preparation methods tend to differ considerably.
More significantly, a few of these fruits vegetables grow in abundance on some islands, but are not consumed at all by the natives, yet command a premium price on another tropical shoreline. I won’t get into the story about the Jamaican who visited another island and chose his particular hotel because of the fully loaded ackee tree in the backyard that nobody seemed to bother about.
A very important contributor to Caribbean cookery, Guyanese and Trinidadian cuisine in particular, are the East Indians.
Many of the popular dishes that grace the tables on these islands are full of flavor, depth and spice, yet conform to the diet restrictions of vegans, without even trying, or touting itself as a “vegetarian” meal. They also contain many spices that scientists are now pushing as the “spices of life”, including turmeric and ginger. This is largely because many of the East Indians came to these islands following a strict vegetarian diet, and brought their indigenous spices with them. They learned to modify their cooking to incorporate the vast array of fruits and vegetables available in the islands with their spices, to make the dish taste like home, creating a whole new dimension in cooking on the island.
Although authentic Indian restaurants have become very popular with Americans for this very reason, I don’t believe their flavor profile is anything to match a Caribbean cook that “set dem mind” to the pot and “put dem foot inna it” …and a Scotch Bonnet or Ball a’ Fire pepper, wid’ no behavior doesn’t hurt either.
I believe that if the Trinidadian and Guyanese restaurants here in the United States made the public more aware of the fact that much of their menu is actually “vegan friendly”, they would see far more of the “other” Caribbean nationals, even rastafarians and vegans of all cultures, enthusiastically “tearing up” some Baigan Choka, some Bhaji, some Dhal and Roti, or even some Bora.
Let’s take advantage of all that we have available to us right here in New York City and in other major cities, and get more involved with our Caribbean culture as a whole.
The stage has been set by our new President for greater unification, respect and awareness of each other as a people.
Even though you may be from Barbados, bypass the “Flying fish” dinner for something new and exciting. Get out of your comfort zone for a moment and bolt through the door of that Haitian restaurant you pass every day but never bothered to check out. Walk straight in and ask for first thing you see on the menu that makes you scratch your head in wonder!
Don’t forget your manners, say “S’ac Passe” to your server!