Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

My Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday, especially now that I haven’t been able to spend Christmas in Jamaica for several years. The sheer joy of engaging in this ritual feast by preparing foods that are time-honoured favorites makes it very special for me. It’s a ritual that almost every American household is engaging in at the same time. Thanksgiving jumpstarts my holiday cooking routine, which will be punctuated by the Christmas fruit cake and pepperpot on New Year’s day.

Until I got to graduate school, I did not have any real understanding of Thanksgiving.  Before that, Thanksgiving was merely a brand new word in my vocabulary.   Up to then, it had meant eating dinner at my aunt’s house, which I didn’t exactly look forward to.  Otherwise, it was time to begin term papers and to catch up on reading for final exams.  Sure, I returned for the grand meal a few times during my college years.  But that was because of loneliness – everybody else was gone and I was alone in the dorms, so there was nobody to talk to.  It wasn’t because I relished the family get-together and looked forward to seeing family members who I hadn’t seen since the last Thanksgiving holiday.  By my senior year, guilt had started to kick in.  Since everybody else went home, shouldn’t I at least pretend to want to do the same?

It was during this time that I came to realize that there was an expectation – a strong one – that people traveled back to their homes to spend time with their families. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t particularly like my family at the time.  Later on when I began to hear other people’s horror stories of having to endure this holiday with their families – in fact, I still hear the stories –  I began to understand that at least some of the feasting and gluttony taking place all across the United States on that day was really a way to block out undesirable emotions, or compensate for the decided absence of love and acceptance in a houseful of people related by blood and history.

At some point when they had both settled in northern Westchester, my mother and her sister decided to take turns hosting holiday dinners: My aunt took Thanksgiving because it meant she did not work the night before, and had the day to prepare the meal and eat dinner, after which she would leave for work (She was an obstetrical nurse at the county hospital, and worked at nights).  My mother got Christmas because she worked on the day shift at the same hospital, and usually requested to have the day off.  Since my aunt always worked on Christmas Eve night, she would be too exhausted to cook on Christmas Day.   Until my mother retired in 2009, this work/holiday shift had been sustained for over twenty years!  My mother and I usually prepared a couple of dishes that I knew I would be able to eat, just in case nothing else was to my liking.   Although my grandmother always roasted a turkey at Christmastime in Jamaica,  I had not warmed up to the idea of American turkey.  I was still laboring under the received notion that 1) Americans cannot cook to save their lives; 2) everything they cook came frozen, out of a can or box and with directions; and 3) they don’t season their food – salt and pepper was the extent of it.

The meal turned out not to be as bad as it could have been, I suppose.  But for a long time, these dinners – along with the anxieties of preparing it – were the only impression I had of Thanksgiving: the frozen turkey that didn’t defrost soon enough and was never cooked by the time we got there; the brussel sprouts that were overcooked, soggy and tasteless; the stuffing courtesy of Stouffers; the yams that came out of a can;  the signature cranberry sauce which appeared as a red cylindrical gelatinous solid which slid out of the can and plopped into a bowl where it was sliced thickly, and waited to be moved onto somebody’s plate. I kinda liked the cranberry sauce only after I had mashed it up with my fork to disguise the rings molded into its form by the container.   I survived off stuffing, whatever dish we brought – usually a ham or curried goat – and the yams, having done a last-minute rescue with pineapple or orange juice, cinnamon, brown sugar and some cornstarch.

Gourmet, November 1993

Around 1993, while I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor, I went to spend Thanksgiving at Susan and Sandy’s house, otherwise known as  “home for wayward lesbians”, which was located in Stockbridge, a small farming town in central Michigan.  I was one of several folks there who did not want to spend Thanksgiving with our families of origin.  It was here that I had an inkling that Thanksgiving didn’t need to be so canned or overcooked. The turkey was delicious, the cranberry sauce came from real cranberries, which I was seeing for the first time, the desserts were beyond divine. Just good food – well cooked, lots of love, no stress. Actually, I learned a lot from Susan about preparing good food. We were foodies together before there was such a term or identity. Susan was certainly witness to the first time I tried to churn my own butter – not intentionally of course. She asked me to whip the heavy cream for the cherry pie that we were making, but she never told me when to stop. So, butter it became. I make this pie every year now; it’s the official announcement that summer has arrived in our home. I suspect that Susan might have also mentioned Gourmet magazine to me, as one that I might have recipes that I would like. Well, the first Gourmet magazine I picked up in 1996 happened to be the November issue. That was the issue that introduced me to the idea of brining a turkey, and preparing a splendiferous apple pie with a single crust. Until the magazine folded last year, I was a regular reader. And, when my subscription lapsed as it would occasionally, I made sure that, at the very least, I purchased the November issue.

Gourmet, November 1996

For me, Thanksgiving is a profoundly American holiday. The history in which it is embedded – a rather violent and self-serving one at that – and ongoing efforts to sanitize that history, is what informs the main ingredients of most dinner tables on that day: a turkey, stuffing, green vegetables, corn, squash, cranberries. While these ingredients arrived primarily through successful mass marketing efforts by agro-producers, there is something about the configuration that changes very little. I appreciate that, I really do. That’s tradition: it changes in order to accommodate various tastes and interests, but the meaning remains the same.

Gourmet, November 1997

Experiencing the regional and ethnic variations in the thanksgiving feast has certainly helped me to accept that I could choose what I included and it would still be my Thanksgiving dinner, not somebody else’s. NPR did a wonderful story last year about the thanksgiving feasts prepared by chefs from various backgrounds.

The best turkey I have ever had – besides mine – was made by my uncle’s then-wife who is from Egypt. I visited them in Virginia in 1993. It was divine: so fragrant and stuffed with an assortment of finely minced vegetables, dates, onions and who knows what else. It was hard to believe that this was the same turkey that was being perennially bad-mouthed.

Then, there’s the turkey prepared by my Haitian family: who knows how Marthe seasoned it, but it came out tasting like — Haitian food. Just enough pepper, a hint of cloves, and served with riz djon djon, lambi, potato salad, pen patate, etc.

At my partner’s family home in the Bronx, the usual suspects appear at this feast: baked chicken, rice and peas, curried goat, roast pork, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, sorrel and rum punch. And sometimes, the turkey.

So far, I have decided not to include any Jamaican dishes in my Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted this meal to be distinct from every other holiday and special event. I also wanted to use it as an opportunity to discover what else America has to offer in the way of food. For this, I choose to harvest from my stack of Gourmet magazines, and garnish the dishes with my own history.

Gourmet, November 1998

Gourmet, November 2000

I have to be honest: I feel like Thanksgiving is really a special bonding time between myself, the magazine and my kitchen.

Gourmet, November 2001

Of course, the dishes I prepare are informed by my own Jamaican cooking style. Thyme, allspice/pimento and ginger are applied quite liberally across the dishes.

Gourmet, November 2003

Gourmet, November 2005

Gourmet, November 2007

Last year, I actually allowed someone to help me prepare the meal: my mother. But usually, I do it all by myself, save a dish or two that specific people choose to make. Mostly, I prepare the dishes from memory. But each year I return to those well-thumbed food-splattered back issues to find one recipe that I had skipped over, had tried once many years ago or never at all.

Gourmet, November 2009

It will take a long time to exhaust all the variations. After that, maybe I will include a Jamaican dish or two.

This year, I prepared the smallest Thanksgiving meal ever. It was a drastically scaled-back version for three people, and had to be done within two hours. We spent the morning and early afternoon volunteering at the thanksgiving meal for LGBT elderly folks at the Center on Halsted.

This year’s menu:

* roast turkey breast seasoned with thyme/sage/parsley/orange zest/garlic butter
* ham with bourbon gingersnap crust
* butternut squash soup with chicken, carrots & dumplings
* green beans with shallots & figs
* roasted yams in orange juice, ginger & maple syrup
* cornbread/sage/sausage/cherries/walnut stuffing
* pumpkin chocolate tart
* poached pears with brandy
* cranberry cider
* lambrusco bianco
* sparkling apple cider

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“Bottom Yard”


When I was a child, I loved to go with Grandma on that once a year trip to Bottom Yard.  The goal was to collect the rent from the families who leased small parcels of land from her.  But really, the fun was in discovering parts of the property that I hardly ever saw or knew existed, and to get the breadfruit, coconut, pear, sour orange and sweetsop from the trees that were scattered around.   Some families made a big, even dramatic, effort to gather up whatever produce was available, as if to cover up the fact that they hadn’t bothered to share one iota of anything for the rest of the year.  But such is life.

Indeed, I find that the best time of the day to walk through Bottom Yard is when the cool breezes come in the late afternoon.

I would walk past Mas’ Squaddy’s shop on the left, continue on down the hill past Miss Myrie’s shop, and only then cross the street and make a sharp right in through the gate and make my way through the property and towards the shortcut that would bring me to the library/grocery store/youth group at church/visit Mrs. Jones/Granville All-Age School/ballground.

Shortcut draw blood, long road draw sweat; this echoed in my head each time that I walked hurriedly through, a murmured good evening here and there, careful not to seem too nosy – don’t want to fa’as in the tenants’ business lest they think I was sent to carry news.  Some of them recognize me as Miss Mida’s granddaughter and would call out or would whisper this to others sitting around them.  I always felt a little bit uneasy with that status, for it is a status.  The adults I passed didn’t look at me directly, eyes averted, as if they thought that I was really spying on them, although pretending not to be.

I realize that my grandmother was very intentional about my visits to Bottom Yard.  I was directed towards and allowed to interact with particular families, including the children.  They were about my age, sometimes older, and I could reasonably say that I grew up with them.   They belonged to families that seemed to have been around as long as my family had been in the community.  Some were more like my extended family than anything else.  There was Miss May and her daughter Annette; Miss Alma and her children; Icy, her children and her sisters and their children; Miss Cynthia, her husband and her children; Miss Pearl and her daughter Michelle; Miss Ivy and her daughter Paulette; George and Pauline  and their daughter Taneesha (her twin, Ayeesha died soon after birth).

As I grew older, I sometimes dreaded going to collect rent.  When I was younger, it was fun; I got to write out the receipt and hand it to people.  I felt important.  I learned that lessees had higher status than renters; they had built their own homes, and saw the tenants as little more than squatters and riffraff.  I was careful never to conflate the two groups.   But as I got older, we – or more frequently, I – would return home with less and less money each time.   I hated hearing the stories, most of which were true, about child payments not received, jobs lost or never gotten, wages not received, monies owed, stolen, needing to buy gas, take a child to the doctor etc.  I did not like the feeling of having to pretend that I didn’t see how people would try to hide their shame and tell me “tell Miss Mida mi wi come check her later.” ; “tell yuh granny seh mi wi pass her later.”

I also became increasingly uncomfortable with going to my friends’ homes.  I started to realize that Jackie and Annette saw me as above them, even as I was searching for friends who I could genuinely say were very much like me: studious, introverted, not at all athletic, and who didn’t mind staying home and sitting on the verandah talking until all hours of the night, instead of roaming the streets or going to dances.   The social distance between them and myself grew more visible to me and I did not know what to do about it.  Yes, their families were always courteous, loving, treating me like their own child, but also taking special attention to remind me and others that, in fact, I wasn’t like them.   I remember sitting on a rock outside of Miss Alma’s gate and watching the boys run after each other and fling stones after the lizards and birds.  It was only a matter of time before Miss Alma would yell: “Clive! Peter! Oonu nuh fling nothing over yah so – tik’yah you nuh lik Miss Mida grampickney – a w’at a woud’a problems inna dis ya yard tidday! A fi har property, so try yuh best nuh mek nutt’n happen to har when she come yah!”   I decided to move, but she insisted that I sit there.  To me, I was in their way and it was nothing to move.  To her, it was my property, and thus, their play was to be organized around me.   It didn’t take long for me to actively try to avoid situations like this.

I started to see how my friendships with these persons were increasingly compromised by my being seen as “propertied”, and in a real sense, living off the hard work of these and other families who were barely getting by.  In truth, the rent money was not steady, and could not be counted on in a pinch. My grandmother did depend on the rent, but couldn’t really live off it.  By the time I was in third form, my grandmother gave up trying to collect rent monies when I needed new books or supplies for school, and increasingly relied on my mother sending money, or on the savings we had squirreled away since my mother didn’t send money very often.   Whatever monies came in was important for my grandmother since she had no income to speak of: a pension that was collected from the post office biweekly and which never seemed to increase over time, supplemented by occasional monies from my aunt, uncle and extended family, as well as sales from produce from our yard.   Her sense of autonomy was severely compromised by this lack of income.  But, she remained very lenient and giving towards people in the community.  When the umpteenth person came by on a Friday evening to tell her that they didn’t have the money to pay, depending on the story they offered, she often offered them a meal from whatever we had.  She would direct them to go to the side door while she called out to Fine, or Erika later, to tell her to “kindly share out likkle bikkle inna one plate fi dis genkelman!”

I learned very quickly, mostly through the body language, the silences, that sometimes it is hard enough for adults to say that they don’t have what they need and can’t meet their obligations.  They don’t need a large audience, and certainly not a child, to fuel the loss of dignity they are experiencing.   Besides, anything with money is “big people bizniz” and so children were not always welcome to witness the discussion.   I would often excuse myself as they came through the gate, and then take up my position on the settee in the living room next to the window, eavesdropping.  Sometimes I found myself in the position of knowing additional information that either supported or might undermine the tale being told on the verandah.  I never shared this information with my grandmother.   In my mind, that would be serious betrayal of people’s privacy and I really wanted people to trust me.  I was very invested in being seen as an ally, and not as how they expected me to be: disrespectful and condescending, thinking little of them because they didn’t have the means to do more for themselves and their families.  Plus, Grandma would surely know that I was always paying attention, even when I claimed not to be.

As her eyes followed the person walking out the front gate and closing the gate behind them, I would quietly move and stand by the doorway, my own eyes following them out to the street.

Grandma would often turn to me wid a sad face and say, “them life really hard, fi true; them just nuh have it – as she turned both palms over in a gesture of helplessness –  wha me gwen do?  You just haffi wait and pray and hope dem can dig demself outta di hole.  Go fi mi Bible and come read a psalms fi me.

And she would sing a song softly under her breath – Blessed assurance, jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine. Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior, all the day long. This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long.

As the years moved on, we collected less and less rent from the people who lived in Bottom Yard.  I wrote fewer and fewer receipts, even from the relative security of the verandah.

“Yuh nuh have no one room you a rent Miss Mida?  Me a look fi a likkle one room fi kotch?”  The frequency of this question coming from passersby and directed to my grandmother while she was seated in her usual spot on the verandah, began to bother me after a while.  It seemed that more and more people were transient; looking for a place to “kotch”, the sense of desperation was evident on their faces and especially when she responded with a shake of her head.  But what could I do? I couldn’t think of anything at the time.

The number of tenants in Bottom Yard dwindled after a while. Some of the buildings became uninhabitable and had to be torn down.  Sanitation increasingly became a problem as the property was not well-maintained (lack of money).  Pit toilets that needed cleaning; water from the public bathhouses that would run into lessees’ yards resulting in complaints and endless arguments.

More and more people were squeezing into the remaining one- and two-room buildings; my grandmother protested this situation, albeit half-heartedly.  She would always end with, “but wha’ di use a run dem out? dem nuh have no’ whe’h else fi go”  and kiss her teeth in disgust at the situation.

I noticed that , more and more new people seemed to be coming into the community from places I had never heard of.   After a while, I recognized few of the tenants.  For the first time, I realized that I didn’t know who lived in Bottom Yard, and who didn’t.  Walking through there to get to the shortcut became less exciting and felt more like I was trespassing.  I walked the long way a lot more.   My friends moved out.  Miss Pearl and Michelle moved up the street to live next door to us.   Miss May and Annette moved down the road to lease a piece of land and to build a house near Bottom Road.  Miss Alma moved with her husband and daughter to live on a piece of land owned by her mother-in-law (much drama around that).  She left the house in Bottom Yard to the sons.

I stopped visiting the house at that point.   Mostly young men had begun to congregate there, and I was deathly afraid of being sexually assaulted.  This was a common experience for girls and one that I was determined to avoid.  If I feared anything in those days, it was being raped.  A couple boys who lived in the immediate area had already hinted to me  that they couldn’t wait “fi ketch mi an’ hol’ mi dung” if they ever had the opportunity, and I wasn’t about to give them a chance to follow through.   If I ever needed anything – some ackee or coconut to be picked, the eldest son was a tailor and made or mended my clothes etc. – I would stand by the gate and call, and one of the sons would come out.   Indeed, it got to be that when they saw me approaching the gate, they would come to find out what I wanted.   The same thing had begun to happen when I visited Annette’s house.   Her brothers would not let me in if she was not there.   If she was at home with her brothers and their friends, she would come out to the gate to get me and lead me into the house.   On some occasions, she would come out and indicate to me that it was better that we went for a walk, or that she came to my house rather than stay at hers.   I would hear the laughter and noise coming behind her and I understood.  Apart from the common understanding that no “decent” girl was found in the company of random boys, the boys also knew there were multiple risks and implications for themselves as well, and tried to protect me in their own way.  Two were banned from the house when they were overheard making sexual remarks about me.  Miss Alma and the youngest son, who was a playmate, disclosed this me soon after.   Even if there was also the regular caution “nuh trouble Miss Mida grampickney! – as if there would be worse consequences than if they had “interfered” with other girls – it was clear that these man-boys were more willing to push the boundaries that determined who they could play with – sexually and otherwise.

The caution was also very effective in the sense that it reminded me that someone was looking out for me.   But it also made me very aware of what could happen when I was not in sight of adults who knew my family.  And as the community changed, I started to pay more attention to who was around me at all times, altering my routes and limiting where I would go, and with whom.   This sense of encroaching danger against my person prevented me from taking chances that might have been fun, but could also cost me my life.

March 17, 2005


“Harvest”

I am 10 years old or so…

One Sunday afternoon on the verandah

A’right, Sistah Webb.  My grandmother responds and waves from her seat on the verandah.  She engages in conversation with the churchwoman who has now stopped and is standing outside the gate.

Gone back to church?

A tidday a Harvest Sunday?

But how Fine never tell me? All that pickney do when she go a’ church is sleep! Sleep and kya-kya a de back a de pew wid dem res’ a gal pickney… A wonder when Calvary having their harvest…Natalie! Natalie!  Is when Calvary have de’ harvest again?

I slowly walk out of bedroom and stand by hallway door.

Yes, Grandma?

Harvest…Is when Calvary having their harvest, again?

Is next week. Remember I tell you last week, when Bro. Henry pass by after church?

Lawd pickney, me head a gather water in this old age.  Me n’aa member ‘bout it, sa…so you not going? What you gwen bring?

Silence.  My face resembles storm clouds gathering.   Bottom lip on its way out.

(soft voice) Last year I told you I wanted to get a long bread –the one in the red and yellow plastic paper…

The alligator bread? Then it nuh too late fi order dat now? It too late now. You ha’ fi order dat well in advance, or else you can’t get it in time.  Cause is dis ya Saturday morning you woulda ha’ fi go collect it – for the lady probably lock up shop 12 o’clock, fi go buy her market.  We can’t get that now at all.

Dark clouds are organizing themselves just so.  Top lip ready to join the bottom one.  Silence.

Gra’ama…

Gra’ama? Nuh Gra’ama me!  My name is Grand-ma.

A couple deep breaths to stem the cloudburst that will cause a tidal wave.

Grand-ma, is the same thing you tell me last year, and the year before that.  And this year I make sure I remind you way ahead of time. [pause] But you would remember if it was Tricia who did want it though!

But wait…you figetting yuhself?  Is who you talking to so? You must want you teeth end up down yuh t’roat?  A couldn’t mi you a talk to so!  You stand up deh a mek up you face. You mus’se wa’an see everybody a go a harvest and you can’t reach!

Silence.  Even the air is unsure whether to remain still in the battle zone.

A tell yuh that is figet I figet!  You can’t expect me to remember everything! Is see I see Sis. Webb mek harvest just run cross me mind.  Pickney, if mi fi memba everything whe yuh tell me seh, me nuh know how me woulda memba fi go a toilet!

Silence. Guilt seeping in and forcing cracks in the anger.  Pieces fall. More silence.

So wha you tan’ up deh fa? Come siddung and relax yuh self this Sunday evening yah.  Yuh go a church this morning.  Mek the likkle blessings take hold, nuh?

I sit down on the long chair.

She starts to sing “Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves. We shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheaves..”

But yuh miserable, eh? How you miserable so?  Look how you mek up you nice nice face. One a’ dem day yah yuh mouth nuh gwine go back een. Laughs.  You want you mouth stay suh? Imitates me.  Member bout the hog?  Hog ask her mumma, mumma wha mek yuh mouth so long? She say, aah mi pickney, grow come see, grow come see.  Laughs.  A so your mouth gwen stay? Like hog?

I try not to smile.  She reaches over and strokes my face.

You naa  gi’ mi a little smile. Smile nuh.  Aaayyhh. The Bennett in you strong, doh…Grandma Cora woulda love fi see you now.  A fi har mouth you have.  But you is the dead stamp of Hya in truth.  Born badlucky, that’s you.

Strokes my face some more.

Nuh mind, Miss World, nuh mind.  Tell me wha’ you want fi carry fi harvest.  Tell me nuh?

Hesitantly – I want to carry drops.

Drops?  You waan Icy make it fi you? Wid nuff ginger, don’t it? I know you like ginger.  We have some whe’ Gran’ma Cora did send come fi you.  Or you want try make it?

I want to make it.

Aaright.  If you see Piggy pass yah so tell him me wa’an see him.  Mek I beg him cut down two dry coc’nut tomorrow, so Fine can huks them and cut dem up.  She probably tell me she too busy. Chuups.

No, I wi’ cut dem up when I come home from school.

No sah, Mek Fine cut up de coc’nut. After she nah do nuthing else whey me tell har fi do! She might as well.

No, I want to do the whole thing myself.

Yes child, I know you wi do it.  You tek after mi own heart. Laughs. Just try nu fi  bu’n up yuh finger again. ‘Member last year? Mi nuh wa’an ha fi run wid you go a Cornwall Regional, you hear me? Me just wa’an mek sure sey w’en yuh modder sen’ fi you, I deliver you to har in good condition…

Yes, Grandma.  But…I don’t know what to wear….

Yuh see h’much clothes you have siddung in dey nah wear? See yah, pickney – nuh chat fa’at a mi ears, y’h!  You nuh have not a ting fi bother fi yuh head – Go fi’ n sinting wear – And bring a glass a water when you coming.

Sigh. Yes, Grandma.  I walk away.

Created on 06/10/99 11:41 PM