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A Christmas Vittles
An ode to ackee. Words by Leah Cowan; Illustration by Reena Makwana
Thank you so much for reading Vittles this year. This will be the last regular newsletter of the 2020 and the last newsletter of Season 2. For those who have a paid subscription, either via Patreon or Substack, like Ebenezer Scrooge you will be visited two more times before the year is out, with details on what Season 3 has in store. To subscribe, or to gift a subscription, please click below.
The food world is rife with scams. Pyramid teabags are a scam. Charlie Bigham’s pies are a scam. Kettle chips are a scam. In fact, all “posh crisps” are scams. Southern barbecue restaurants in London? You better believe they’re a scam. But the biggest scam of all is the ‘alternative Christmas recipe’. Every year, every recipe columnist in the land is forced to participate in this racket, conjuring up recipes for non-festive birds, pies, alt-trimmings, all with a big turkey shaped hole at the centre. This year Rowley Leigh has suggested a gurnard ceviche while Yotam says chiles rellenos. Yet you know when it comes down to it, every single one of these cooks are going to sit down on Christmas Day with a big fuck off turkey or goose, with roast potatoes, gravy, way too many sides and a gaviscon. Scam.
You don’t really get this with any other sacred meal. Do you see Claudia Roden putting out alternative Seder recipes every year? Does Thomasina Miers do ‘ten iftar meals to break your fast with’? Part of the Christmas scam is to do with the suspicion that very few people enjoy the traditional Christmas meal (more on this later) and therefore it must be altered, tinkered with. But this misses the point of Christmas dinner, which is the consistency. In truth, it doesn’t matter what you or your family eat on Christmas as long as what you eat makes you feel like it is Christmas. And it’s only here that the “alternative” Christmas meal has any legitimacy because it’s not alternative at all: it’s all those granular family traditions that we do each year, whether it’s one particular Brussels sprouts dish, or my friend who takes his Lebanese family every year to Antepliler in Green Lanes to have lahmacun, because they’re the only restaurants open.
So today’s newsletter by Leah Cowan is not about an ‘alternative’ Christmas, it’s just one of many meals that make up what we collectively call the Christmas meal, a rich mixture of broad cultural patterns and the traditions which barely ripple beyond ourselves and those we love. This year many of us are not eating the Christmas meal we normally would and we will have to gain comfort another way. For some this may mean faithfully recreating the food of our childhood, for others, perhaps this is the year to start new traditions. I hope you all have a peaceful Christmas and New Year, whatever you choose to eat.
An ode to ackee, by Leah Cowan
As I make my way down London’s Ridley Road market, the large single tin I’m carrying causes my flimsy tote bag to become pendulous. My treasured purchase swings cheerfully as I dodge the drooping awning of a butcher’s stall, catching a flurry of shouted greetings between market traders as I pass. Around me, other shoppers are scrutinising cow’s foot and bartering for a good deal on plantain, blackened and ready for frying. Most people are shopping for everyday items, but I’m thinking about my family’s Christmas lunch – not just Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes, but rice and peas too. At the centre of it all: my tin of ackee, cooked up with mushrooms and peppers, the trimmings splattered, Pollock-like, with splashes of Encona hot sauce.
I grew up hearing cautionary tales about ackee. My grandmother wouldn’t let us eat it as children because, if picked too early, it is incredibly toxic and can induce severe vomiting. Its protein-rich yellow savoury flesh, soft and creamy with a melting scrambled-egg mouthfeel when cooked, can often confuse first-timers to what it actually is: a much-loved fruit. On the tree, the multi-chambered sunset-red pod is the size of a small apple; as it ripens, the thick skin begins to ‘smile’ (split open), exposing large, black, olive-sized seeds and edible flesh – the ‘aril’. This is an indicator that it is ready and safe to eat.
For the past few years, ackee has become a part of my family’s Christmas repertoire – once we hit on a dish that catered for the matrix of vegans, vegetarians and people with food allergies in our family, we didn’t look back. While my family usually eats ackee for lunch or dinner, and sometimes when we’re celebrating, in Jamaica it is a staple food, eaten round the clock. It is commonly served as a breakfast dish, usually as one half of the nation’s most iconic duo, ackee and saltfish. However, as Bee Quammie, writing for Saveur in 2017, reminds us, neither item in this combo is native to Jamaica.
Ackee was stolen from Ghana by slave traders in the 18th century, and was taken across the sea to feed the enslaved population who toiled under the Caribbean sun while Britain got richer. Meanwhile cod scraps in the form of saltfish were also sold to plantation owners by traders from Nova Scotia as a cheap protein source for the people they enslaved. These foodstuffs were designed to provide cheap sustenance; both ackee and saltfish kept enslaved people just alive enough to plant and pick cotton, tobacco and then sugar, racking up profits for investors who sat in their regency townhouses 4,600 miles away, sipping tea sweetened with the products of slave labour.
There is a Jamaican saying which goes: ‘Wi likkle but wi tallawah’, meaning that we may be small, but we are mighty. That the nation reclaimed and reframed a dish designed to keep it on the brink of survival for white profit is a fitting representation of tallawah.
Britain’s Caribbean community grew in the late 1940s, when the government invited ‘willing hands’ to help bolster the flailing post-war labour market. In reality, ministers were less than enthusiastic about this wave of migration, with one politician reportedly assuring colleagues that ‘These people are just adventurers. They will not last longer than one British winter’. Contrary to the quiet hopes of those in government, the decades that followed saw Caribbean people put down roots in the UK, the US and Canada. This means that most of the 2.2 million Jamaicans living in the diaspora seeking a taste of the island, don’t have easy access to ackee picked fresh from the tree, and buy tinned ackee.
Outside of my grandmother’s protective anxiety for my digestive tract, it's fair to say that a reasonable slice of the mythology around the ‘dangers’ of tinned ackee can be attributed to racism and neocolonialism. For almost three decades, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the import of tinned and frozen ackee into the US due to alleged food safety concerns. The loss of this sizeable market struck a significant economic blow for Jamaican ackee exporters, as well as an emotional blow for its consumers. This sparked tales of an underground market of illegal ackee being imported in cans labelled as callaloo and even ginger beer.
The import ban, which was only lifted in July 2000, ran concurrently with the implementation of a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of loans imposed on Jamaica by the IMF in the 1980s. The SAP, in essence a neocolonialist project, fits into a continuing history of economic oppression of the island, which stems from plantation slavery in the 16th century. It joins hands with the mining of bauxite by US and Canadian companies from the 1950s, which pushed swathes of rural Jamaican farmers off their land. In both eras, North American and European land-grabbers extracted resources and exploited people with one hand in order to channel wealth into their own pockets; with the other hand, they maintained a slow-simmering landscape of infrastructural underdevelopment. As a result of being strong-armed into the SAP, Jamaica racked up huge debt bills, had its currency devalued, and was forced to enact austerity measures. This programme of cuts pushed many Jamaicans into poverty – as health, education and housing initiatives were chipped away – as well as causing a continued steady emigration from the island as the diaspora swelled globally.
This to say, ackee is a dish wrapped up in an intricate web of history; its buttermilk-hued jelloid exterior belies a complex tale of resistance and survival in the face of social and economic oppression on a global scale.
My grandmother’s reluctance to feed us ackee as children is connected to her experiences with the fresh version of the fruit – living, thriving and life-threatening flora, and a million miles away from the canned version kept under lock and key in my local chain supermarket. There is rigorous debate about whether fresh and tinned ackee taste the same; my inclination that fresh ackee tastes better is probably based on environmental factors of eating it while on holiday, at the beginning of a languorous day of basking in the sun. I’ll defer to self-proclaimed ackee expert Debbie who, in her side-by-side comparison on YouTube, reports: ‘It tastes just the same [...] proven, tried and tested’. She notes only a subtle flavour difference, possibly attributable to the brine used in tinned ackee to prolong its shelf-life.
There are a few different brands to choose from, including these three, as taste-tested by Jonathan Escoffery for The Paris Review. I’m personally partial to Dunn’s River; as I gently sauté my ackee, I can reminisce about climbing the dappled waterfalls of the eponymous natural beauty spot in Ocho Rios. Bucolic dreaming aside, it’s also one of the most widely available options in the UK. Those who are wary of appropriative profiteering from Caribbean goods might steer clear of Tropical Sun (Escoffery’s review: ‘dead-ass last’).
Tinned ackee can be found in your local Caribbean market, such as Dalston’s Ridley Road – for as long as it can fight to stay open. The historic market in the East London borough of Hackney is currently under threat from a planning application made by a developer who is trying to convert the adjacent shopping village into flats and who, in 2018, reportedly tried to intimidate local traders into agreeing new (more costly) terms and conditions, or else face eviction. This attempt to erase a key cornerstone of Caribbean history – an asset to the local community which provides cheap fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as other key ingredients for African and Caribbean dishes – is gentrification writ large.
It’s no coincidence that the battle for Ridley Road emerges at the same time as the Windrush scandal, which in 2018 exposed that the Home Office had been targeting Caribbean elders for deportation. Caribbean communities have experienced the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies which work in tandem with the gentrifying ‘urban entrepreneurialism’; these spring out of cuts to local government budgets, and serve to make life untenable for Caribbean communities in the UK. However, we will continue to meet this sustained attack on our community with fierce resistance. Our elders were described by immigration enforcement staff as ‘low-hanging fruit’ primed for a swift deportation, but, after a long history of struggle, we are ripe and ready for the fight: wi likkle but wi tallawah.
Ackee with peppers and mushrooms – serves 4
As London has pinballed between different lockdowns and tiers over the past nine months due to an utterly incompetent government prioritising profit over people, I have found solace in cooking ackee, served up with rice and peas. These dishes have filled my kitchen with the earthy, grounding fragrance of thyme and coconut, cut through with the eye-watering zing of scotch bonnet. My recipe below calls for tinned ackee; my family don’t eat meat, so the saltfish is replaced by a trio of bell peppers for a colourful and nourishing jumble. You can also add scotch bonnet, but I personally prefer to adjust the heat levels with hot sauce.
2 tbsp oil (I use olive oil, but vegetable oil works just as well)
half an onion, finely sliced
half a red, yellow and green pepper, deseeded and cut into thin strips
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
250g mushrooms, chopped
347g tin of ackee, drained
1 spring onion, finely chopped
sprig of fresh thyme
salt and pepper
hot sauce, to taste
Heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the onion and peppers until soft. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 1–2 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms and cook for a while longer until softened and the juices have evaporated. Add the drained ackee and warm through for 2–3 minutes. (Ackee is soft and breaks apart easily, so stir gently!) Add a little hot water if it gets dry. Season with salt and pepper, and serve garnished with spring onion and fresh thyme. Add hot sauce to taste.
This pairs well with rice and peas.
Editor’s note: this is not to be confused with rice and peas
Leah Cowan is a writer on race, gender, migration and state violence, and the former Politics editor of gal-dem. Her forthcoming book Border Nation: A Story of Migration will be published by Pluto Press in March 2021. She currently works at Project 17, an advice centre which supports destitute migrant families with No Recourse to Public Funds.
To keep up to date with the Save Ridley Road campaign, please see here.