Consider the camel

By Anu Lakhan

Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture, by B.W. Higman
University of the West Indies Press, ISBN 9789766402051, 580 pp

Turtle (1770), by John Lindsay

Turtle (1770), by the Rev. John Lindsay. Image courtesy University of the West Indies Press

Page 24: Choice and necessity
Page 61: Cassava
Page 241: Figure 6.7 / Hard-dough, coco bread, and bulla
Page 393: Camel

Difficult to say if such range portends good or ill; it certainly portends a very long book. Difficult too, to decide what to say about a work that says so much. This is why, in a desperate act of bibliomancy, I asked Jamaican Food for guidance. I asked four times; it replied with the pages listed above. They are not necessarily the pages I would have chosen myself. (I was, naturally, greatly tempted to begin by considering the author’s interest in the development of a trade in human milk.) Still, these randomly selected pages offer a reasonable overview of the breadth of research and Barry Higman’s attention to everything that was, is, and may yet be considered food.

In addition to his work exploring the evolution of the Jamaican patty, Higman is a history professor at the Australian National University and professor emeritus of the University of the West Indies. His other publications include Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 1807–1834; Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834; Montpelier, Jamaica: A Plantation Community in Slavery and Freedom; and Plantation Jamaica, 1750–1850: Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy. In short, here is a historian much concerned with slavery in the British West Indian colonies, and with money matters relating to such societies, especially if they fall somewhere between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.

History, Biology, Culture. With this subtitle, Higman distinguishes his work from the recent spate of glammed-up cookbooks issuing from the Caribbean. The prevalence of — and preference for — shiny, highly stylised books and magazines reminds us that picture books aren’t for kids anymore. Many of these are as low on imagination as on calories, but they look so good beside the pastel pink retro toaster and the brush-finished stainless steel mixer. Still, some of them are quite good, and not all that glamorous. I’m not against pretty things: books or appliances. In fact, I have a great longing for both. I do, however, take issue with the idea that two wedges of pineapple, a splash of rum, and some grated coconut transforms creole food into haute-creole cuisine. Nor is this particular to the Caribbean. Food has been high fashion for a while now. No such thing as too many decadent photographs, nothing too eccentric, and keep those celebrities coming.

Higman’s is precisely not that kind of book.

It won’t take the reader long to discover what else it’s not. “This is not a cookbook,” is the opening line. In what I have come to think of as a Higmanian tone, I ask the question, “What kind of book is it, then?” To greater and lesser extents, the answer is already there in the subtitle: it is about history, biology, and culture. In his preface, Higman makes quick work of his intentions: he wants to know what Jamaicans eat and why, as well as how certain foods came to be thought of as Jamaican and how this has changed over time:

These are important questions that provide insight into the social, cultural, agricultural, economic, and political history of Jamaica. In everyday life, these choices are at least as important as decisions about whom to vote for and what to have faith in.

Since no prime minister or deity has ever given me a recipe for a very good pepperpot, I’m inclined to think the food question is the most important.

Jamaican Food has two major sections: plants and animals. A third, smaller, and more original section looks at inorganic matter (salt, earth, and water). The subsections seem orthodox enough. Groups of food items are based on shared characteristics. Ginger and sweet potato are roots; marlin and herring are fish. Corn falls within the “seed” category, but then so too does the Excelsior Water Cracker, as well as varieties of patty, dumpling, and bread. At first glance, in this stark light, such taxonomy suggests a want of academic rigour (and sanity) on the part of the author. So don’t scan or skim. At least not until you’ve given the preface and introduction a fair chance. This book is about food, and not just flora and fauna. Baked goods, one-pot concoctions, beverages, and traditional meals must also find homes within the designated categories. The categories only look funny; they are actually very sensible. Higman takes his food from source to ultimate destination. Seed begets wheat; wheat begets flour; flour begets dumplings. Considering the significant amount of ground Higman covers, this linear approach is far more readable than an alternative, such as treating the raw produce in one place, the ingredient derivatives in another, and actual prepared items in yet another.

Whether he chooses to write about slavery, food, or hats, Higman is, first of all, a historian; he will use the story of what came before to situate the present in its proper place. Of all the inexact disciplines (that is to say, all disciplines), history is one of the most suspect. Memory is fallible; writing is subjective; as a word, “interpretation” condemns itself straight off.

The peculiar thing about the history of Jamaican food is that it doesn’t seem to be very Jamaican. Almost none of the island’s indigenous beasts are found on menus today. Some, like the turtle, can claim protected status as endangered species. The alligator and the coney delight none. In spite of their proliferation, the island’s lizards “remain comfortable and unthreatened in people’s homes.” In the days of plantation slavery, almost any animal might find its way to the great house table, where its taste was almost inevitably likened to chicken; still the fate of many an unfamiliar meat. Unreasonably, the modern Jamaican has greater enthusiasm for such easily farmed creatures as chickens and cows.

Contemporary Jamaica’s signature foods came from elsewhere, and with no pretensions to nation-building. The ackee — as Jamaican as you can get, but African in origin — was just another thing Captain Bligh managed to transplant. However, Blighia sapida is the only one to carry his name. At different stages in its life, the ackee is by turns poisonous then edible:

Why the honour of receiving Bligh’s name was singled out for the ackee is unclear, though appropriate enough given his temperament and the ackee’s duplicity.

Ackee is famously paired with salted fish. Neither the fish, nor the salt with which it is preserved, come from Jamaica. At least the iconic jerk preparation has Taíno ancestry. And the domestic pig, brought in by the Spanish at the end of the fifteenth century, soon became feral.

What most clearly establishes this book as Jamaican is Higman’s consistent use of literary evidence. The most famous names in pre-emancipation Caribbean writing are those of planters: Thomas Thistlewood, Lady Nugent, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Edward Long. They and others all wrote about the food they found in Jamaica. Around 1770, a Reverend John Lindsay devoted a lot of time to painting (in somewhat surreal style) the plants and animals of Jamaica. The originals are at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; colour reproductions grace these pages.

Iguana (1770), by John Lindsay

Iguana (1770), by the Rev. John Lindsay. Image courtesy University of the West Indies Press

Next, biology. Even though the existence of scientific matter is advertised clearly in the book’s subtitle, it still comes as something of a shock to have so many biological minutiae recounted in a book about food. One hardly thinks to find such information anywhere but in a textbook. The level of detail and the nature of the accompanying drawings conjure the unpleasant sensation of being in a high school lab. Scientific sketches include everything from bovine anatomy to the cassava plant and its processing technologies to the evolution of the patty (the patty of 1800 was a small, round pie; today, a Tastee patty might be distinguished from a Mother’s patty by an examination of the shape of the pastry at the lower right corner).

Higman spares no effort in his accounts of the origin, domestication, cultivation, experimental introduction, and rejection of all things possibly (if improbably) edible. All. The section on mammals is arguably the best example of Higman’s authorial skill. Intentionally or not, his observations (valid) and suggestions (validity uncertain) manage a slippery brand of humour: the soberly ridiculous. “Human” is the first item under “Mammals”. Though largely concerned with breast milk, it spares a thought for other options:

In modern “civilised” societies, eating people has long been taboo, and battlefield carnage is not seen as a source of meat . . . Although the [plantation] masters claimed to understand enslaved African people as inferior beings — even distinct species — and counted them among the plantation livestock, slaves were not potential meat.

With a world food crisis more likely now than ever, and wars being plentiful, it seems a shame not to reconsider our position on this matter.

In equal earnest, Higman discusses our insensitivity to good biodiversity practice. In our narrow-mindedness (and perhaps terror) we domesticate the few to the peril of others. We prefer to eat things of which we are unafraid: “Thus leopard, antelope, and rhinoceros, for example, were not good candidates for domestication.” And a fine state they’re in now. And yet, in survival’s most counterintuitive move, humans have put great energy into the cultivation of highly dangerous, unco-operative plant foods. Many root crops, including the beloved cassava, can be poisonous if mishandled. Plus, all that digging is hard work.

Much as they might, these delightful quotations are not here solely to divert the reader. When describing any food or food source, Higman’s research is not limited to the Jamaican context. An excellent chart at the back of the book gives useful biological and migratory information on the different species. Each subject is treated as a concise but well-rounded study; relevance to Jamaica is nested within the overall discourse. While this thoroughness is commendable in a researcher, it is perhaps too wide a berth for the writer. It makes the work ungainly at times, and at other times of unconvincing Jamaican-ness.

Finally, a few words on culture. There aren’t too many words in this volume on the call-and-response between food and culture, even if you include the curious slave-song full of desire and longing for Guinea corn. While this is disappointing, given the centrality of food in family and community life in most societies, the research does not make the absence surprising. Many of Higman’s entries note the persnicketiness of the Jamaican diner. As mentioned earlier, European planters were more likely to try the unfamiliar pleasures of the snake or crocodile. The enslaved had had enough of this New World adventure without adding fricassee of mongoose to the list of injustices.

In 1753 there was an attempt to introduce the camel to Jamaica. Transport was the main reason, but food was a secondary benefit not to be ignored. Alas, it was. Higman reports that by 1774 the writer Edward Long could remark that:

The great expectations were not fulfilled, because the camels could not handle the steep rocky tracks of the island. The remaining animals roamed the roads, frightening the horses.

Pigs, cows, goats, chicken, and fish: Higman’s work suggests that, even today, the average Jamaican wants no further traffic with animal flesh.

Since the 1930s, there has been debate as to whether ackee and salt-fish, rice and peas, or curried goat should be the national dish. This speaks more to the unchecked fervour of newly independent countries to nationalise everything than to any substantial analysis of the role of food. It is also worth recalling that Jamaica has not been burdened by too many cultural instances. Unlike, for example, Trinidad. Jamaica got a small legacy from the Taíno and some pigs from the Spanish. Then the British came, and with them, African slaves. “The British imperial route that curry followed” accounts for the only Indian influence.

In the early nineteenth century, many writers declared the mountain mullet, ringtail pigeon, and black crab the darlings of Jamaican cuisine. These creatures could even be found embroidered on handkerchiefs. Later that century, tourist-keen entrepreneurs were offering Jamaican delicacies as souvenirs. Solidified turtle soup in tablet form, fruit, jellies, and the already-famous Blue Mountain coffee were sent out into the world.

Precisely when desire turned to disgust is uncertain. The tame Jamaican palate doesn’t quite square with a people for whom survival wasn’t always easy. The Taínos hunted. The Maroons had to hunt whether they liked it or not, and in the rough terrain of the Cockpit Country at that. Slave rations were not known for their abundance or high standards. As recently as the 1980s, the Manley administration’s socialist policies regarding trade and the economic difficulties of the time could not have made feeding a nation easy.

Many of Higman’s entries cite the more broad-minded tastes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a reptile or rodent might be consumed by an appreciative diner. Now: “Modern Jamaicans generally find reptiles of all sorts repulsive and sometimes threatening.” Horses, once plentiful, were too beloved by owners to enter the Jamaican gastronomy, even during the First World War, when the edible equine was extolled. Higman wonders why the mongoose was never cultivated. Religious beliefs intrude upon diet.

The evolution of taste has some historic precedence. Of land mammals, before European imports, Jamaicans had only the coney, the rice rat, and lots of bats. Perhaps these were off-putting. Still, the explanation of why Jamaicans refuse to eat what is abundant in the landscape — apart from thinking that snakes are gross — remains inconclusive.

I’d give the camel another go.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Anu Lakhan writes about books and food. She lives in Trinidad.