The party started at around 9 PM but my girlfriend and I decided to get there a few hours early to help set up. We made our way into the Bronx with my friend Leroy, a co-worker who had invited us, and reached the house at around four. We helped them string up a tarp and set up the sound system. It was a small fenced-in backyard but we stacked up the speakers and woofers seven feet high. They had apparently gotten permits earlier for the music, which was good, since I couldn’t hear myself think when the DJ was at work on his system. We had been working for a while and the yard was looking good, the woman of the house asked us if we were hungry. This was a pointless question with me since I am always hungry and we quickly followed her into the kitchen.
Once inside the house, the faint smells of cooking food became much stronger while she led us into the kitchen. The kitchen was about average, just like any other person’s except there was a huge pot of soup/stew on the stove. We approached it and were offered paper cups full of delicious, hearty fish soup. This was only the beginning, as I was to discover later, the party quickly progressed and grew.
Earlier in the day, there were only a few people at the house and I felt quite welcomed and comfortable. As the night went on and people continued showing up my girlfriend and I slowly became the minority. By the time the party was in full swing, the whole yard was packed and we had flowed into the neighbor’s yard to barbecue. We were two of the four white people at the party but Leroy and the hosts still made us feel comfortable. It was an eye opening experience to be the minority especially after growing up in predominantly white towns.
When the guests started showing up in force Leroy, along with a few other guys, got to the business of barbecuing. The music was pumping, the red stripe was flowing and the party was going but the fire wasn’t burning. They set up a fifty-gallon-drum-barbecue in the neighbor’s yard since theirs was quickly filling and fired up the charcoal. Once the fire was good and hot, they pulled out several bags of seasoned Jerk chicken. Leroy told me that they put the meat in the plastic bags with spices and seasonings and let it sit for a day or two in the fridge. While the chicken was coming out to the barbecue, Everton (one of the hosts and Leroy’s friend) started to mix up the barbecue sauce for the chicken. He mixed in all sorts of things and then at the end added a whole 40 of malt liquor. I was a little shocked (to say the least) but hungry, open-minded, and ready to try the Jerk Chicken. They cooked the chicken smothered in the sauce and when it had been cooking for a while the chef added a second 40 of malt liquor to the chicken directly, on the grill. Again, I was a little shocked but I was also anxiously awaiting a taste.
Finally it was done and we sat down with a plate and a Red Stripe and ate. It was the best chicken I have ever tasted, the flavor went all the way to the bone and it was delicious. We ended up leaving before it got too late but the party was great fun and a learning experience for both my girlfriend and I. It was also one of my first encounters with Jamaican food and it sparked an interest that still burns bright.
I worked at a supermarket with Leroy as well as two other people from Jamaica, Noel and Marcia. This turned out to be quite educational, as we often discussed Jamaica at work and during breaks. It was only after I had worked with Leroy for about a year that he invited me to accompany him to the party. In retrospect I am glad that I had the opportunity to work with Leroy, Noel, and Marcia because I picked up a lot about Jamaican culture just from our conversations. We got on topics like gender roles and police, since Noel was a cop back in Jamaica. We discussed many other interesting topics and it is probably because of their friendships that I have such a strong interest in Jamaica.
Now that the background is out of the way, I shall get to the topic at hand, Jamaican food. Ever since that party, where I tasted the best chicken I ever have, I have been fascinated with Jamaican food, and as my eating habits have shifted closer and closer to vegan, I have become increasingly interested in the topic of Ital cooking. This is how people refer to the healthy, Ital (vital), vegetarian cuisine of the Rastafarians. When I first started to look into this topic, I was under the impression that Rastas were very mystical and that there was some magical enlightened motive to their eating habits. The further I researched, the more I found that their eating habits are more out of availability and necessity than religious beliefs. This is not to belittle religious influences on diet but to show that Jamaicans are as creative as possible with what is available and while religion does effect diet, Ital cooking is the best and easiest style of cooking in rural Jamaica.
Most of the food consumed in Jamaica, especially in the rural areas, consists of fresh fruits and vegetables. Meat is available but is harder to come by. People generally grow some food in garden plots or yards. They sell or trade their surplus for a little money or variety. There is a major gradation in lifestyle from the cities out to the country and up into Cockpit Country. Imported goods enter into the country mostly via ships docking at harbors along the coast. Then the goods are sent into the cities were they are mostly consumed and finally, if there is anything left, it filters out to the country. This makes for a major shortage of even the simplest consumer goods that we, in America, take for granted. Things like toilet paper, canned meat, fish and rice and all the major processed imported products are scarce at times, if available at all. The cities are becoming increasingly globalized and the wealthier people live much as we do here in America, although the majority of even the urban inhabitants have significantly less money than the lower class of America. This means that on the average, Jamaicans live at a much lower standard of living than people in America, with significantly fewer processed goods.
On top of this in-country imbalance there is also an international trade imbalance in which Jamaica is importing more goods than it is exporting. This trade deficit has been growing in recent history, especially since the fall in value of bauxite, one of Jamaica’s major exports. As well as bauxite, gypsum, limestone, aluminum, and garnets, Jamaica also exports many agricultural products. The list includes sugar, bananas, coffee, citrus, cocoa, and rum as well as many other products in smaller quantities. The U.S. 37% is the major importer of these goods followed by the U.K. 13%, Canada 11%, Norway 8% and the Netherlands 8%.
Jamaica’s major imports are machinery, transportation, electrical equipment, food, fuels, and fertilizers. The US is the major exporter to Jamaica sending about 50% of Jamaica’s imports, as of 1995, followed by a few other countries at about 10% or less. Looking exclusively at America’s statistics it is easy to see the imbalance of trade. Jamaica is also in heavy foreign debt of more than $3.4 billion and it consumes about 46% of the budget.2 On top of this, Jamaica’s balance of trade has been continually changing for the worst. In 1938 the balance of visible trade was —$2,905,000 and this figure has been growing ever since, except in 1976-1977 when it dropped but after that it continued to rise until in 1998 it was up to —$61,596,419,000.3 These figures are shocking to say the least and illustrate how Jamaica’s economic balance has been sliding more and more to imports without expanding exports to compensate. The United States is, by far, Jamaica’s most important trade partner with bilateral trade amounting to 1.9 billion in 1997.2 As well as trade, there are many U.S. citizens living in Jamaica as well as vast American investments in Jamaica totaling more than a billion dollars.
These statistics help to illustrate how Jamaica and America are inseparably interconnected. As well as trade between the two, they share similar feelings toward the British since both America and Jamaica are former British colonies. There is also a large number of Americans living and working in Jamaica and the reverse holds true as well. On top of this, the U.S. investments in Jamaica help to cement the two countries together. These close ties show up in the cultures of these two countries, each is heavily influenced by the other and they share many cultural practices.
Although there are so many levels of interconnectedness, there is still some resentment. One case is that of the Jamaican beef industry and their problems with McDonalds. The local beef industry raised the issue of beef imports at a recent meeting of the Jamaican Agricultural Society and Ministry of Agriculture. The farmers complained that imported beef is displacing their sales and they asked the government for help. The Ministry of Agriculture stated that the problem was due to local consumers and not lawmakers. McDonalds said that they import beef because local prices are 14-20% higher and thus prohibitive. In response to the attention, Burger King stated that they buy their beef locally and McDonalds stated that they buy their other meats locally. This has sparked discussions about raising import duties to level the playing field but only time will tell.
This problem illustrates the trade imbalance and how Jamaican producers are faced with very competitive prices. This leads to more imports and a larger trade deficit. This is the same problem that Jamaica has faced for some time, attempting to compete with artificially low prices for imported goods as opposed to locally produced items. The low price of foreign goods makes it difficult for local producers, processors and manufacturers to compete and thus foreign goods continue to flow in at increasing rates. The competition leads to the displacement of local production and since imported goods are limited to help control the deficit, processed goods are scarce and rare in rural areas.
This shows why manufactured goods are so lacking in rural areas and why the people who live in these areas have to depend on locally grown fresh produce as well as local meat and fish. Most people in the country can’t afford to buy much except for the bare essentials that they cannot grow or raise. The average rural Jamaican buys very few processed goods, such as; some rice, coffee or hot chocolate, toilet paper, canned meat, salted fish, and condensed milk. These goods subsidize what is grown, caught, bought or bartered from local markets. Refrigeration is limited and most people, especially in the rural areas, don’t have access to refrigeration. This means that even if they could get and afford processed goods, they are limited by the lack of a way to preserve them.
Lack of refrigeration and low availability of goods are two of the major influences on Jamaican food and cooking. As Patrick at Caribbean Corner put it "you become creative and do the best that you can with what is available." This means that you take whatever resources are available and use them to create the best food that you can. If you don’t have a refrigerator, you use fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices. If you don’t have a stove or an oven you use an open fire to roast or grill. This improvisational cooking can be found throughout the world and is prevalent in Jamaica. People make the best out of locally grown and raised food as well as limited resources and create healthy, tasty, vital meals.
Now that we have explored the political and economic influences on Jamaican food it is time to explore the cultural and especially the spiritual aspects. The daily meals in Jamaica are breakfast, dinner (a large midday meal) and supper. Breakfast may consist of a hot beverage (coffee, cocoa, tea, or herbal tea), hard dough bread with butter or jam, boiled breadfruit, yam or fried dumplings with salted cod, often served with ackee, herring or mackerel. Dinner could be fish, beef, pork or goat meat with vegetables and rice and peas (beans), along with a cool drink. For people in the cities working in offices, the midday meal may not be dinner, but lunch - sandwiches and a drink or a pattie (spicy ground beef morsels in pastry envelopes). Supper is usually substantial boiled dumplings or boiled sweet potatoes, yam or breadfruit, vegetables and beef, pork, fish or goat meat.
Tropical fruits are enjoyed after meals or as snacks between meals. The highlight of the week, Sunday dinner, is eaten on return from church. Several examples of common Jamaican foods are: patties (spicy ground beef morsels in pastry envelopes), ackee and salt fish, curbed goat, rice and peas, fried dumplings and fried ripe plantain. A Jamaican specialty is 'jerk' meat. The Maroons of the Cockpit Country are credited with perfecting 'jerk' cooking. The meat is seasoned with a mixture, which includes pepper, pimento, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, and scallions. It is then grilled over coals, covered with a corrugated iron sheet or slats of wood from the mahoe tree (source of the pimentos) or Jamaican allspice.
Ingredients commonly used in Jamaica are beef, pork, chicken, and fish as well as many fruits and vegetables, spices and sauces. In recent times processed foods are becoming more prevalent but people living in the country are still using mainly fresh ingredients in their cooking. Some of the fruits that are commonly used are: The Ackee, a bright red fruit that opens upon maturity and the yellow flesh inside is eaten. It is poisonous before ripe and needs to be cooked. It is often eaten at breakfast and with saltfish. It is an introduced species from West Africa. There is also Guava, small fruits with pink, seed-filled flesh and green exteriors. Guava is eaten raw or made into jellies, preserves, fruit cups, sauces, cocktails, and desserts. Limes (Caribbean limes) have a yellow skin when ripe, though they are often picked green, due to the fact that they go bad quickly when ripe. They are a great source of vitamin C and are used in everything from marinades, to sauces, to drinks and desserts. The Mammey Apple, also known as a Custard Apple, is a large tropical fruit with an edible tangerine colored flesh that tastes like peaches. It is most often turned into jam. Mangos are a native of India but are common in the tropics. They are used green in hot sauces, and condiments and ripe in drinks, desserts and candies.
The Otaheiti apple is a pear-shaped fruit with pink to ruby red skin and is usually eaten raw, poached in red wine, or as a drink. Papayas or pawpaws as many Jamaicans call them are orange when ripe and have a bland flavor, making them go well with sharper flavored fruits. Papayas are used in chutney or in relishes and are also eaten raw or as a drink if sweetened. Soursop is a spiky green fruit that has a pleasant smelling tasty flesh that is put into drinks or ice cream. The Stare Apple has a green or shiny purple skin and a delicious flesh that is part of matrimony, a traditional Jamaican dessert. Sweetsop, a native of the tropical Americas, is difficult to eat and consists of white flesh filled with black seeds.
Jamaicans have access to many of the same fruits and vegetables that we do in America but the following are a few of the more unique ones. Callaloo is a leafy, spinach like, green served as a side or in dishes. Cho-Cho is a pear shaped, light green, light flavored squash, which grows on a vine and is known by the alternate name Chayote. It is eaten as a vegetable and also as a substitute for apples in apple pie. Pea, Jamaicans refer to almost all beans as peas. They are a major source of protein and are found in stews, side dishes, and especially with rice. Plantains, the slightly larger cousins of the Banana, are eaten cooked and are more starchy then bananas. They are often fried as a tropical side dish. Scotch Bonnet Peppers are very spicy peppers that range in color from red to orange to yellow and are used to spice up many dishes and are also made into sauces or ground as seasoning. West Indian Pumpkin or calabaza, are members of the pumpkin, squash family has a sweet flavor and a firm texture but is similar to squashes such as the acorn, Hubbard, or butternut.
Starch is a major part of most people’s diet and here are a few of the starchy foods that Jamaicans enjoy, Breadfruit, was also introduced from Tahiti and is a great starchy food when cooked and is served like squash. Cassava, a second starchy food also known as Manioc or Yuca. It is a root vegetable and flour made from it is used to make bread named Bammie. There are two major types, sweet Cassava, which is eaten as a boiled vegetable and bitter cassava, which needs to be processed to take out a poisonous acid it contains. Dasheen also known as taro, is a starchy tuber usually served boiled or as a thickener for soups and is comparable to potatoes but is a much more easily digested form of starch with particles one tenth the size of those in potatoes. Yams are an important source of starch and the three most popular varieties in Jamaica are the white, yellow, and yampee. They are usually either boiled or roasted and although they look a lot alike, they are not related to the sweet potato of America.
Jamaican food wouldn’t be the same without the spices, seasonings and colors from: Allspice, the pimento berry. Annatto is from a seed and is used to give a yellow color to dishes. The flesh of the Coconut, a member of the palm family, is used grated in some recipes. Jamaicans insist on grating fresh Nutmeg for recipes and don’t use the pre-ground stuff. It has a spicy sweet flavor and is used as a seasoning and has its place in everything from cakes and desserts to jerk sauce. Pimento is the Jamaican name given to allspice, grown almost exclusively in Jamaica and with a taste like nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, and clove. Pimento is used as a spice in many Jamaican dishes and is one of the ingredients in jerk sauce. Sorrel was brought to Jamaica from India and its flowers are dried and steeped to make a tart red beverage similar in color to cranberry juice. Stinking Toe, a seedpod that looks like a human toe, has sugary powder inside surrounded by rough smelly exterior, and is eaten on the spot or made into drinks or custard. Tamarind is a sweet, tangy pulp from the seedpod of a decorative tree; it is used to flavor many things from beverages to sauces and is also part of Jamaican folk medicine.
Now that natural ingredients of Jamaican cuisine have been explored it is time to turn to how the people of Jamaica have influenced the cooking. Jamaica is a lush beautiful land of long beaches and dense forests with high mountains in its middle and fertile coastal planes just behind its beaches. It has attracted many people since the Arawaks who (it was called Xaymaca -land of wood and water), originally inhabited the Island. Christopher Columbus and Captain Bligh both stopped off on the island on their journeys as well as many other explorers. The Island has also been under more than it’s fair share of colonial rule by the Spanish and later by the British. Now that Jamaica is finally free from the hand of colonialism it is starting to find it’s own identity.
It’s a mixing-pot of many cultures and especially in the cities, is quickly becoming globalized. Although the cities are adopting global culture more quickly, people in the country are still living in much the same style that they have for hundreds of years. This is in large part due to lack of any other option and in some part to rejection of homogeneous culture and all of the things that go along with it. Jamaica is made up of Anglicans, Baptists, other Protestants, Roman Catholics and Rastafarians. It is primarily inhabited by people of African decent, about 91% and also by East Indians 1.3%, Chinese 0.2%, Whites 0.2%, and people of mixed decent 7.3%.
The diversity amongst Jamaica’s inhabitants makes for an interesting cooking style that borrows from many cultures and places, both in style and ingredients. Jamaican cooking styles and recipes are passed down from generation to generation and make creative and delicious use of the available resources. Since cooking is passed on through parents to children through experience and most rural people don’t have external influences on their cooking, Jamaican cuisine has remained traditional and is slow to change. At the same time, it is starting to feel global influences more and more and processed foods are becoming more prevalent.
In this turbid cultural climate exists the Rastarafians. They are a fast growing religious group that believes that Haile Selassie, the former ruler of Ethiopia, is the messiah who will lead the black repatriation to Africa and save black people everywhere from the evil hand of Babylon. Rastas believe that Blacks have been suppressed in a white world of Babylon and that returning to Africa and raising black pride and dignity will save them. This is, of course, a huge generalization and synthesis of a vibrant fluid religion that has many sects with different beliefs but all share this general outline and follow the teachings of the Old Testament. This is where the religious taboos come into play.
The Rastas generally, adhere to a set of strict guidelines regarding diet. Rastas are forbidden to eat pork and this is the one rule that seems to be accepted by all Rastas. They also tend to be vegetarians and avoid eating beef, pork, chicken and goat. As well as avoiding animals, they also tend to avoid shellfish and fish with no scales as well as large fish, which are perceived as having more developed spirits or souls. Basically Rastas believe in not killing other creatures and this leads most to a vegan lifestyle which is referred to as Vital or Ital, meaning the natural state of their diet.
Rastafari is a philosophy that very rigidly adheres to the laws of nature. This is most important in the food they eat. If the body is a temple it should be protected and cared for as such. All things in nature, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, have been provided by JAH and should be held sacred. Rastas believe in a concept of one love. This refers to the belief that we are all one, I and I, and shouldn’t hurt any other living thing because we are hurting ourselves. They believed that we were all one until the devil brought us the concept of other and now we classify and compartmentalize ourselves to help justify mistreating other living things. This concept is at the heart of Rasta Ital cooking. They all may be One; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that They also may be One in Us; that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me And the Glory which Thou gavest Me I have given them, that they may be made One, even as We are One: I in them, and Thou in Me, that They maybe made Perfect in One. (John 17:21)9 This passage illustrated the biblical basis for the concept of I and I.
As well as avoiding meat and fish, Ratsas avoid processed foods. This is the other part of Ital, processed foods are no longer Vital because they have long since died and are only still here because man processed them. This means that they are no longer natural and thus not Ital. Preservatives, artificial additives and things of this un-nature are avoided for good reason and the use of any added processed salt is also strictly prohibited. For ye are the Temple of the Living God, as Jah hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God and they shall be Me people (Romans12:1)10 Rastas take this passage to heart and assume that whatever they are polluting their bodies with also is polluting JAH.
Although it would seem to someone with a western diet that these rules cut out most foods, Rastas are allowed to eat. Things that are natural and created by the hand of JAH are permitted. They will eat some fresh, the flesh of fruits and vegetables as well as spices and herbs. Rastas believe that JAH gave them every herb on the face of the earth to eat and so, they are essential ingredients to the diet of the Ital man. The most widely used of these herbs is the holy herb, collie weed, Ganja, or marijuana. It is the strongest of all the herbs to Rastas and it is tradition unlimited by dish. It is used to enhance and embellish all foods, baked, boiled, fried or stewed. Great care should be taken in preserving the natural state of all ingredients from the preparation and serving to the eating of Ital food. Because of this, the most devout of Rastafari will use only cooking and eating utensils made of natural materials, such as clay, stone, or wood. Most Rasta recipes are based on ingredients commonly found in Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands, which means they are mainly comprised of tropical fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. As with any recipes, though, there are many variations depending on region, availability of ingredients, as well as preference. The only provision, being that any substitution, addition, or accompaniment must be of a natural and organic origin.
The Rastafari have three colors that symbolize their movement and each of these colors has it's own significance. Red for the blood, green for the earth and gold for the sun.11 These colors help to symbolize what is important to Rastas and it is not green for money and gold for Gold and riches it is the earth and the sun, that which sustains all life. The Rastas realize that they are dependent on the sun for energy to grow the foods they eat and the earth for providing a place for them to grow. They also hold the human body in very high esteem, hence red for blood, and as such believe in not polluting it. These concepts are at the heart of their diet. All natural foods made by the earth that allows us to live on it. They capture the closeness of Rastas to the natural world.
Rastas believe that their diet, along with their beliefs and other religious practices help bring them closer to god. This is especially true regarding the smoking and consumption of Ganja. It is a very sacred herb to the Rastas and they use it on a regular basis to help them keep close to god. When a Rasta has "Eaten", meaning smoked, some herb they are said to be Ire is to be at one with nature.11 The state of being at one with nature, at peace with ones self, and with all things around us is to be of the highest state. This state is a combination of close ties to nature, chant and drumming, and a healthy Ital diet. This allows Rastas one with nature and Jah and that is what most are striving for.
Religious aspects influence some Jamaican’s diets strongly especially among the Rastas but there is a second major influence. That influence, as stated above, is that of availability. Not to belittle religious fervor but most Rastas do not have easy access to processed goods. Although I have found many great resources on Jamaican cooking, many if not most were written or produced by white males. This, in my opinion, means that all of that information is produced from different, mostly non-Jamaican perspectives and as such needs to be taken with a grain of salt, sea salt of course. For this reason, I feel that the words of Patrick Brown hold the most weight out of my resources and I will close with a quote from my interview that I think sums up my opinion well. " People are creative… The same could be said about dress as food, you become creative with what you know…. You know no other way except what is passed down and what is imitated or learned from other countries over time. You (ideally) pick your breadfruit, roast it, and eat it… It is the same if you live in Canada, the America or England, if you are a native you are still looking forward to going back and eating fried fish, avocado, breadfruit, and other native foods… (Referring to Jamaican cooking) why change it?"
This quote captures the essence of Jamaican cuisine; it is people making the best of what is available and coming up with innovative and delicious ways of preparing local foods. The quote also gets another major point across, and that is once you have lived in Jamaica and are used to the food, you will always long for it because no other food will make you feel so good.
1: Interview with Patrick Brown owner and cook at The Caribbean Corner Restaurant, 12 North Winooski ave, Burlington Vermont
2:U.S. Department of State Background Notes: Jamaica, March 1998. Released by the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs. Downloaded on 4/11/00
3: The Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute statistics downloaded on 4/10/00 from http://statninja.com
4: Globus & NTDB, STAT-USA, Jamaica; Livestock; Jamaican Farmers Protest Imports of U.S. Beef; AGWORLD ATTACHE REPORTS USDA, FOREIGN AGRICULTURAL SERVICE.
5: Downloaded on 4/13/00 from http://cwr.utoronto.ca/cultural/english2/JamaicaEng.htm#_1_9
6: DeMers, John, The Food of Jamaica; Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean. Periplus Editions, Boston MA. 1998
7: U.S. Department of State Background Notes: Jamaica, March 1998. Released by the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs. Downloaded on 4/11/00 from
8: Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Beacon Press. Boston, MA. 1997
9: Downloaded on 4/10/00 from http://www.webcom.com/nattyreb/rastafari/
10: Downloaded on 4/10/00 from http://members.aol.com/praizejah/Links.html
11: Osborne, Laura and Osbourne, Ivor, The Rasta Cookbook. African World Press, Inc. Trenton New Jersey. 1992
Interview with Patrick Brown owner and cook at The Caribbean Corner Restaurant, 12 North Winooski Ave, Burlington Vermont
Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Beacon Press. Boston, MA. 1997
DeMers, John, The Food of Jamaica; Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean. Periplus Editions, Boston MA. 1998
Osborne, Laura and Osbourne, Ivor, The Rasta Cookbook. African World Press, Inc. Trenton New Jersey. 1992
Taken from http://debate.uvm.edu/dreadlibrary/dreadlibrary.html