“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” ~ Emily Dickinson.
I realized some time ago, that the secret to living in a land not of your birth, is to be able to eat the food. One way I would test the ability of my visiting teenage nieces and nephews to be world travelers was to set them free in the food court of any local mall, and see if they could successfully order a meal. That double challenge of navigating the accents along with the strange names of food items determined whether they would eat or starve! Survivor in the wilds of an American city.
I had faced such challenges when my first nursing job in this country was in a hospital founded by Jewish physicians. The cafeteria was full of strange choices. Who was Reuben, and why did they name a sandwich after him? What on earth is lox? I ate salad and yoghurt for quite a while. As a child, Jamaica had offered similar challenges. My brother and I found these small, cone-shaped fruits in an array of colors: red, yellow, green. It wasn’t until I accidentally touched my lips and rubbed my eyes that I discovered why pepper lights are called pepper lights, much to the amusement of the kids around us.
But there were mystery dishes also, that I grew to love over time. Curried goat; ackee and saltfish; even callaloo (similar to spinach) were interesting and tasty meals. On certain occasions there would be mannish water (a soup involving various unmentionable parts of a goat) or even (don’t ask!) cow cod soup. They usually went down easier if you just relished the taste, the aromas, the spiciness and didn’t think too hard about the main ingredient. Fish tea (actually a soup) is another tasty, hot (in both senses of the world) way of using every part of the fish as the base of an appetizing soup. Jamaicans are famous for eating the entire fish (often red snapper, but could also be goat fish, or parrot fish) from head to tail, fried and crisp; or roasted (stuffed and steamed); or cooked down in a brown stew. Cooking and eating are part art, part science in this land. Out of many, one people, is the motto, and the dishes have similarly blended flavors and styles from many places.
The ability to make something of nothing is often born of necessity. People without the means to purchase the best cuts of meat must use ingenuity, herbs, and ancient arts to turn cheap choices or cast-offs into a nourishing, satisfying meal. Somehow the enslaved Africans had that ability, whether it was brought with them or passed on in their DNA. The art lives on in ‘Soul Food’ today, a name that elevates and disguises the origins.
The sin and legacy of slavery continues to stain this country. In the UK it is hard to look at some of their ‘great homes’ without wondering how many people suffered to generate the wealth that provided for the lavish life-styles and fabulous mansions. The other day I was thinking about the city of Manchester in England (the city where I was born). It flourished in the industrial revolution as the center of the cotton industry. Cotton mills and factories filled the air with pollution, smoke that darkened the bricks of the city to black. And as I was thinking about the cotton, the slave trade that provided the labor, the brutal life of the slave, I realized that the life of the factory workers was probably only a step or two above the life of the slave. Horrendous conditions, short life, little (or no) renumeration.
In the mid nineteenth century, the worker bee was chosen as a symbol for the city of Manchester, denoting the strong work ethic of the workers. Ironically, the county flower of Manchester is the cottongrass flower, a plant that is certainly not native to the area! But people are a product of the time they are born into, and with very few choices they have to make the best of what they are given.
It is easy to become downhearted when we hear stories that seem rooted in hate and distrust. And yet there are also stories of hope. I heard one told of a lady of middle Eastern origin who was stranded at an airport and distraught as she spoke no English. It turned out that a traveler who was scheduled to go on the same flight as her was able to link her with his father, who spoke her language. Before long the travelers waiting at the gate were sharing stories and food, comforting the stranger with kindness.
Another story I heard was of a woman, recently relocated to South Florida, who volunteered to help refugees who needed to learn English. The first time she visited their home she spent hours sorting through their mail, helping them know what was junk versus what was significant, and sharing their meal. And even more recently I saw a photo of a man stranded in a deep pool of water in the jungles of Africa somewhere, and an orangutan (that he had been there to photograph) has his hand outstretched, helping the man out of the water. Sometimes it takes the animals to remind us how to be human.
On this Friday morning, I hope you can remember that we are not the worst of us, we are the best of us, and that is something to be proud of. There are people everywhere who are making the best of a bad situation, striving to make the world a better place. Let us make sure to be included in the hopeful, and see if we can use our ingenuity and tenacity to improve the world in which we live. And if you can, be sure to enjoy some Jamaican home cooking, an everyday treat for the soul and stomach!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!