SSoP Podcast Episode 47 — Jamaica: Let's Get Together and Feel All Right

SSoP Podcast Episode 47 — Jamaica: Let's Get Together and Feel All Right

Monday, 6 March, 2023

This is a transcription of Episode 47 — Jamaica: Let’s Get Together and Feel All Right.

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Jamaica. Today in two twists on a lie. I’m going to tell you about a magical writing desk.

Melissa: A magical writing desk?

David: Yeah. And then we’re going to talk about five books. Six,really. Because I’m talking about two.

Melissa: You’re cheating.

David: I am.

Melissa: I’m not cheating. I’m sharing an audiobook that cast an enchanting spell on me.

David: Oh, that’s nice. I’m going to share a couple of cookbooks that came out last year that were very well received, and I’m looking forward to getting to those.

Melissa: Suddenly I’m hungry for plantains.

David: Yeah, you should be. But first, Mel is going to bring us up to speed with the Jamaica 101.

Melissa: Jamaica is a tropical island in the Caribbean Sea near Haiti and Cuba. Its lush green mountains rise up out of the turquoise blue water and from the mountain peaks there are rolling hills that taper down into soft sand beaches along the coast.

David: That sounds lovely.

Melissa: It’s pretty fantastic. The first inhabitants of Jamaica were the Taíno people, and the name they gave to the island means ‘land of wood and water.’ The weather there is mostly hot and humid, which is great for growing sugarcane, which eventually means rum.

David: Sure. Yeah. Sugar and rum.

Melissa: Delicious, delicious Jamaican rum. And in the mountains, it’s much more temperate, which makes it perfect for growing coffee. The official language is English, but about 90% of Jamaicans also speak Jamaican patois. That’s a Creole language. It combines African influence, English, and Spanish. The thing that makes it so distinctive is the rhythmic lilt when it’s spoken.

David: Yeah, it sounds beautiful.

Melissa: Generally, English is used in formal situations, but patois is the language of day to day and family. The capital of Jamaica is Kingston. You might also be familiar with Montego Bay. It’s in that song.

David: Montego, baby why don’t we go?

Melissa: Exactly.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: There’s also a Spanish town and Ocho Rio. Naming is kind of a thing in Jamaica.

David: Yeah. When we were doing the research, I heard that if you know a Jamaican person, you have a nickname.

Melissa: Oh, that’s so fun.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Some of the towns also have fascinating names. I don’t think they’re nicknames. They seem to be their real names.

David: But they sound like nicknames.

Melissa: They do. So, for example, Putogether Corner.

David: I mean, come on. That started as a nickname.

Melissa: It must have. Yeah. That’s the spot where market women would stop to kind of get their clothes and their goods in order before they went into town. You just walk through the jungle, you’re a little hot and sweaty. Got to get fixed up before you go among the people. There’s one called Time and Patience.

David: The village called Time and Patience?

Melissa: There is indeed. It was one of Jamaica’s free villages after the abolition of slavery. And they chose that name because time and patience work wonders.

David: Oh.

Melissa: And finally, this is my favorite.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come. Meaning if I don’t invite you, you don’t come around. It was founded by 12 men and a few women who escaped from sugar plantations. Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come. I just kind of want to put that on the outside of our door.

David: Yeah. I need a welcome mat that says that.

Melissa: Which brings us to history. As I mentioned, the original Jamaicans were the Latino people. They arrived from South America in the six hundreds, and they had a thriving culture across the Caribbean. They grew crops, they made pottery, they died and wove cotton. They developed a written language, and they also built canoes that could hold more than 100 paddlers.

David: Wow.

Melissa: That is a big canoe. But then in 1491, Christopher Columbus showed up. In just about 50 years, most of the Taíno people were gone. They were wiped out by smallpox and measles, by violent clashes with the Spanish conquistadors, and intermarriage. The Spanish also brought sugar to Jamaica and enslaved people from Africa to work the plantations. And to the Spanish, sugar was fine, but what they really wanted was gold. Yeah, that was the whole reason they were out there poking around. And they didn’t find any in Jamaica. So when the British invaded in 1655, the Spanish were like, Yeah, okay, take it.

David: You can have it.

Melissa: You can have it.

David: We’re gone.

Melissa: The new British overlords also used enslaved people to work their plantations, but they lived back in merry old England spending their Jamaican profits. This is all over classic British literature like Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Those stories exist because this practice was going on in a lot of ways.

David: The woman in the attic is from Jamaica.

Melissa: She is.

David: Spoiler.

Melissa: Bertha in Jane Eyre. And her story gets told in the Wide Sargasso Sea. This is also when we get pirates. The British were at war with France and Spain, like all the time.

David: Right.

Melissa: So privateers and buccaneers helped keep order in Jamaica.

David: Hmm. Sure.

Melissa: Yeah. Port Royal was the place to be if you liked women, rum, and marauding. It was known as the wickedest city on earth.

David: I like two of those things.

Melissa: Rum and marauding? [laughter] At one point, the pirate Henry Morgan was the lieutenant governor of Port Royal.

David: Right. Henry Morgan, who would later go on to be known as a Jamaican rum.

Melissa: But all of that swashbuckling came to a dramatic end. On June 7, 1692, Port Royal was struck by an earthquake and most of the town sank into the sea. A lot of the old city is just a few meters under the water, and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We’re going to fast forward a little bit now. Slavery was finally abolished in Jamaica in 1838, and the island became an independent nation in 1962.

David: That was a long time between the end of slavery and the beginning of independence.

Melissa: It was. Jamaica is now considered a cultural superpower.

David: What’s a cultural superpower?

Melissa: That’s a country whose culture — arts, entertainment — has a worldwide appeal and influence China, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, France, United States, etc.

David: Yeah. So Jamaica is hitting way over its weight class in terms of its cultural influence.

Melissa: Exactly.

David: That makes sense.

Melissa: Which brings us to music, food and other reasons to love Jamaica. When you think about Jamaican music, you probably start singing a reggae song by Bob Marley and the Wailers, like jammin. Or Is This love or One Love? Or Get Up, Stand Up or No Woman No Cry.

David: Those are all those are all great tunes.

Melissa: I can sing them all as a medley right now if you want me to.

David: Yeah, I think we’ll do that electronically in post, though.

Melissa: Okay. Just saying. Bob Marley was not the first reggae artist. But his charisma made reggae famous around the world. I would also be neglectful if I didn’t mention people like Jimmy, Cliff, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and many, many other amazing reggae artists.

David: Yeah, there’s a whole genre and subgenres and it goes on for quite a while.

Melissa: And it’s a good time.

David: It is a good time.

Melissa: Or an angry time.

David: And sometimes both.

Melissa: Reggae originated in the 1960s and grew out of Jamaican folk music called mento. In my research, I learned that mento and calypso are often confused. Do not do that. They are not the same thing. Calypso is from Trinidad and Tobago. Mento is from Jamaica. It was also influenced by ska and American soul and R&B. But what makes it distinctly Jamaican is that the lyrics are often in patois and the songs tend to either be protest songs about politics and peace, or songs about love and sexy good times.

Melissa: Now, my favorite part: food. The most popular Jamaican food has got to be jerk chicken or jerk pork. You probably know jerk is a spice blend. For people who aren’t familiar, it’s made from hot Scotch bonnet, peppers, allspice, ginger, garlic, and thyme. So it’s really got a kick to it.

David: Hot Scotch bonnet peppers comes up a lot in Jamaican cooking.

Melissa: And they’re hot.

David: If you think of jalapenos and you take those a lot further, you get to a Scotch bonnet pepper. So named because it looks like a little hat. Little Scotch hat.

Melissa: I know they’re very cute. And then they bite you.

David: Yeah. [laughter]

Melissa: We know jerk is a spice blend. It’s also a method of cooking. This was new to me In the 1600s. Enslaved people who escaped from Jamaica’s plantations hid in the mountains. And when they wanted to cook, they didn’t want to have a fire that was making smoke because that would give away their location.

David: Sure.

Melissa: So they learned how to slow cook the meat underground over coals and green pimento wood. And that’s what gives authentic jerk chicken and jerk pork its distinctive smoky flavor.

David: That is both very clever and very sad.

Melissa: Yes. Agreed. Let’s lighten it up a little.

David: Okay.

Melissa: Alongside your jerk chicken, you’ll probably want fried sweet plantains. Yeah. And rice. Yes. And callaloo.

David: Callaloo.

Melissa: Callaloo. That’s a side dish made from sauteed, leafy greens. Got to get your vegetables even when you’re eating plantains. Another thing that you almost have to try when you’re in Jamaica is ackee. That is Jamaica’s national fruit. I’ve never seen anything like it before. I’m going to try to describe it. It has the shape of a red bell pepper, same size, roughly, and the lobes that you see in a red bell pepper. But the skin itself looks more like an apple. It grows on trees, and when it’s ripe, the pod splits open to expose cream colored sections of fruit inside. And the inside flesh kind of looks like a banana.

David: Okay.

Melissa: And then there are four big seeds that look like glossy black marbles. Obviously, we’re going to put a photo of this in show notes. One of the things I loved about doing this food research is that there are so many fruits and vegetables in Jamaica that we don’t have in the United States or Europe.

David: Yes.

Melissa: So back to the ackee. The taste is described as sort of nutty and starchy. Maybe like a bean. And even though it’s a fruit, it’s used like a vegetable. The most common way to eat it is in ackee and salt fish. That’s a saute made with tomato, onion, peppers, the ackee, and salted cod. Salted cod is fish that’s so salty. You have to soak it in water and rinse it and change the water over and over to get it to where you can eat it.

David: Yeah, it’s an interesting sort of look into Jamaican character that their national dish is ackee and salt fish. Neither ackee or salt fish are from Jamaica, ackee comes from West Africa, and salted fish used to come from Europe and now it comes from Canada.

Melissa: We’re going to see that again when we talk about one of my books, too. It is really interesting culinary heritage.

David: Yeah. They’ve got a beautiful blend of cultures happening in Jamaica.

Melissa: I appreciate that it was forced on them and they found a way to make it work.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: There are also fabulous Jamaican sweets made with the heavy hitters of tropical islands. Coconut, brown sugar, tamarind, bananas, mangos.

David: Pineapple.

Melissa: Pineapple. Things like grater cake, sweet potato pudding, banana fritters, tamarind balls. And all of those would be perfect with a cup of Blue Mountain coffee, which you can only get in Jamaica. The coffee is very rare and expensive, and it’s known for tasting bright and smooth and not at all bitter.

Melissa: Now to work up an appetite to enjoy all of that food, there are obviously amazing beaches for swimming and waterfalls for splashing. If hiking is your thing, you can climb in the mountains for epic views of the rainforest or trek through the jungle. You might also take a dip in the Luminous Lagoon. That’s a bioluminescent bay with water that glows at night. And for more fun on the water, you could take a ride on a bamboo raft on the Martha Brae River. This looks so good to me. The trees kind of grow over the river and form an arch. So it’s like a green canopy.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: And you can see the ackee fruit growing on the riverbank trees. It’s just beautiful. You can find more about all of this in our show notes for this episode. I want to mention that there’s a really great cooking channel on YouTube called Morris Time Cooking. The host, Adrian Morris, has a gorgeous Jamaican lilt, and his recipes are legit.

David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I’m going to do my best.

David: I’m going to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here they are. First, there’s a missing beach in Jamaica.

Melissa: A missing beach?

David: Two: There’s a magical writing desk in a beautiful villa in Jamaica. Three, Bob Marley survived an assassination attempt.

Melissa: Who would want to kill Bob Marley?

David: Yeah. Good question. So in order. One: There’s a missing beach in Jamaica.

Melissa: That’s the lie.

David: That is true. According to the Guardian, back in 2008, a resort was being built on the north shore of Jamaica. There was a lovely white sand beach there about a quarter of a mile long or 400 meters. One day, somebody noticed that the beach had walked away.

Melissa: What?

David: The sand was gone. That is hundreds of tons of white sand. An estimated 500 truckloads picked up and carried off.

Melissa: Wait. So it’s not just that the water covered the sand. The sand itself was gone.

David: Somebody lifted the sand? Yeah.

Melissa: What was there?

David: The white sand was gone and there were sort of a brownish dirt under it.

Melissa: That’s not a beach you want to go lie on.

David: No, no, no, it wasn’t. Some people think the sand was lifted and then bought by rival resorts. Other people think the sand was used in unregulated homes. Still, other people think that the cops were in on it somehow.

Melissa: 500 truckloads of sand just disappeared, and they don’t know what happened to it.

David: That’s correct.

Melissa: Come on.

David: They investigated it for years. No one was ever brought to justice, and the case was eventually dropped.

Melissa: Sand thieves.

David: Yeah. And it turns out that this is like a global problem. Theft of sand is is a thing.

Melissa: This is another thing I have to worry about now?

David: Anyway, that’s true. 500 truckloads of sand, missing. Incoming Dad Joke. That’s a lot of hot sand.

Melissa: [laughter] That’s terrible.

David: Isn’t it? The second statement: There’s a magical writing desk and a beautiful villa.

Melissa: I’m going to say I want that to exist. Just tell me the story.

David: So it’s probably not magic, but it feels right. It’s emotionally true if it’s not factually accurate. The story starts with Ian Fleming. At one time, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was a commander in the British intelligence office. He was, in short, a spy. He was running a mission in Jamaica called Operation Goldeneye when he fell in love with the place. Later, I found out he named that operation.

Melissa: Oh, so he had the name first?

David: Mm hmm. After the war, he bought a piece of land, and then he turned that into a tropical paradise. And he built a villa there. And he called the villa Goldeneye. Presumably, at some point, he bought a writing desk from a woman who everybody called Auntie. He sat at it, and over the next 12 years, he wrote all 13 James Bond novels, starting with Casino Royale in 1953. He owned Goldeneye until he died in 1964. Bob Marley owned it for a year, and then Marley sold it to Chris Blackwell. Blackwell was the founder of Island Records. He’s credited with making Marley famous and introducing the world to U2.

Melissa: Wow. That is a powerful villa.

David: Blackwell wrote a well-regarded autobiography that came out last year. If you’re interested in his story. Blackwell used the villa to entertain a bunch of people, including Bono and Harrison Ford. And in 1982, Sting. During his stay there, Sting sat down at Fleming’s writing desk, took out a guitar and a pen, and he wrote ‘Every Breath You Take.’

Melissa: Wow. I feel like I need to go there if I’m going to reach my full creative potential.

David: That’s clearly the message, yeah. That tune did okay for itself. It won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1984. It’s estimated to have generated a quarter to a third of Sting’s music publishing income. And in May of 2018, BMI recognized it as the most played song in radio history. Jumping over every other song you’ve heard way too many times.[laughter] Goldeneye has become a complex of villas and cottages where you can stay. It’s a little spendy. One of the huts might run you around $700 a night and the villas are around $2200 a night. There’s a bar, a pool, a spa, there’s a beach. The site makes it all look really lovely. And who knows? You could do the best work of your life at a magical writing desk in Jamaica.

Melissa: Right by the beach.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: That sounds really nice. When are we going?

David: I know it sounds great, doesn’t it? And that brings us to the third statement, which is Bob Marley survived an assassination attempt, which is true. In 1976, political tensions in Jamaica were really high. There’s a long standing feud between the right wing and the left wing elements in that country, and it frequently gets violent. In 1975, things were dark. Bob Marley was famous in Jamaica, and each side hoped to get his endorsement. A concert was held to try to bring everybody together. Marley was scheduled to play that show, in part because he thought the concert would be apolitical. Just a nice chill, ‘let’s bring everybody together’ moment.

Melissa: One love.

David: One love. That is not what everybody else thought. One party thought that by playing this concert, Marley was choosing sides. Two days before the show, Marley was practicing with the band at his house. Seven men broke into his house. They were armed. They shot Marley’s wife, Rita, in the head. They shot Marley in the chest, and they shot his manager seven times. And they left. It was horrible. Miraculously, nobody died.

Melissa: What?

David: Yep. Later. All of them make a full recovery.

Melissa: I mean, that’s good news.

David: Yeah. But now what? Marley still wants to play the show. He is told by his family and his band and the police that he should not play that show. There is not enough security in the world to protect him. Two days later, Marley walks on stage. He plays in front of 80,000 people. Later, when he was asked about it, Marley said, ‘The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?’ If you want to know more about all of that, there’s a novel. It’s called A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. It is not brief, and there are a lot more than seven killings. But when the Man Booker Prize and was one of Entertainment Weekly’s top ten books of the decade, that’s Two Truths and a Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?

Melissa: I’m very excited about my books today.

David: Me too.

Melissa: My first recommendation is Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.

David: Oh, you’ve talked about this book.

Melissa: I have this on my TBR for ages. I think the reason we’re doing Jamaica right now is because I didn’t want to wait anymore to read this book. This is a family story with themes about identity and forgiveness. It’s set in modern-day California and a 1960s Caribbean island that’s not named but is assumed to be Jamaica.

David: Okay.

Melissa: The main characters are an estranged brother and his sister, their recently deceased mother, and Jamaican black cake. It’s basically one of the characters. How could I possibly resist a story with cake in an important role?

David: Does does the cake have a voice?

Melissa: It does not.

David: Okay.

Melissa: It’s an important element in the story.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: When the novel opens, Byron and his sister Benny are meeting with an attorney to settle their mom’s estate. This is the first time they’ve been in the same room together for years. And in lieu of paperwork, their mother has left them an audiotape ahe spent days recording for them. Her final wish was that they listen to it together and listen to it now. They both are making requests. Can’t we just take the tape with us? Why do we have to stay here? And the attorney is very clear.

David: Together. Now.

Melissa: They’re also given a note and it says, B and B, there’s a small black cake in the freezer for you. I want you to sit down and share the cake. When the time is right, you’ll know when.

Melissa: So they begrudgingly listened to the tape while they’re wrestling with all of their own complicated feelings. And they soon learn that just about everything they knew about their parents and their family history is a lie.

David: Dun dun dun.

Melissa: Before I say more about the book, let’s talk about the cake.

David: Okay. Okay.

Melissa: Black cake is a tradition in the Caribbean. It’s usually baked for holidays, like Easter and Christmas and weddings. The first step to making the cake has to start way in advance. You gather a bunch of dried fruit, like candied citrus peel and candied cherries, raisins, prunes, maybe some dried cranberries. And then you soak that in rum and wine. For at least a few days. But in the book, the mom always has a jar of fruit soaking. It’s always there just in case you need it, which means it’s soaking in the rum and wine for months.

David: Okay.

Melissa: When it’s time to actually make the cake, you blend the fruit and the booze into a paste. It’s not like a traditional, say, English fruitcake where there’s chunks of fruit.

David: Right. It’s all —

Melissa: A melange.

David: A small crumb cake with the flavor in it.

Melissa: Yes. The cake itself is spiced with lime zest, vanilla, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. There’s also molasses. And another ingredient that’s unique to Jamaica. It’s called browning sauce. And that’s made from melted and scorched brown sugar.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: So you take the dry brown sugar and turn it into a liquid. The resulting cake is dense and strongly flavored, and for many Jamaicans, it’s the taste of family and home, especially if they don’t live in Jamaica anymore. So we know that food connects us to a feeling of home and heritage. In the New Orleans episode, I talked about Turkey and the Wolf, and he had these strong attachments to the terrible cheese that he could get at the gas station.

David: Right.

Melissa: It doesn’t have to be something homemade to hit that spot in your brain. The taste, the smell, the ritual of that food is a time machine that takes us to specific moments in our memory. And those are closely linked to our identity. But sometimes those recipes can have a complex history.

Melissa: I want to read a little bit from the book. This is Byron talking:

His mother used to say she would make a black cake for Byron and Benny when each of them got married, but neither of them had. Ma’s cake was a work of art, Byron had to admit. That moist, loamy mouthful, the tang of spirits behind the nose. But Byron had never shared his parents’ emotional attachment to the recipe. Tradition, his ma used to say. But whose tradition, exactly? Black cake was essentially a plum pudding handed down to the Caribbeans by colonizers from a cold country. Why claim the recipes of the exploiters as your own? Tradition? How about coconut gizzada? How about mango ice cream? How about jerk pork, rice and peas, Scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, yellow plantains, and all those flavors that Byron had come to enjoy, thanks to his mother’s cooking? Now, that was what he called island food. But no, these had never been enough for his ma. More than any other recipe, it was the black cake that brought that creamy tone to his mother’s voice. That shine to her eye.

Melissa: So despite Byron’s ambivalence about this recipe throughout the book, there are multiple instances of the cake bringing mothers and children together, connecting them to each other and to Jamaica. I felt like I could smell it while I was reading the book.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: The story moves pretty quickly because it unfolds in vignettes that are labeled Then and Now, and they change point of view among Byron and Bennie and their mom. So we learn about who Byron and Bennie are in 2018 in Southern California. And we also see the convoluted path that their parents took from Jamaica to London to the US. And what prompted each step along the way.

David: Right.

Melissa: This is a sweeping story and it weaves in threads of racism, climate change, and good old messed up family dynamics.

David: Hmm. Hmm. What a sweet chord, huh?

Melissa: It presents a vivid picture of what it might have been like to be a teenager in Jamaica in the 1960s. And what kind of adults that would lead to in the present.

David: Right.

Melissa: There are also some acts of coincidence or fate that bring people together at just the right time. I love those moments. If you like, family stories that weave food into a narrative, this would be an excellent pairing with Butter Honey Pig Bread from our Nigeria episode or Crescent from our restaurants episode. I’ll links to those in show notes. This fantastic reading experience is Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.

David: Two Jamaican cookbooks came out last year just a couple of months apart. I’m guessing that was a bummer for everybody involved.

Melissa: [laughter] Except for people who want to read Jamaican cookbooks.

David: They are both written by authors who grew up in the U.K. To Jamaican immigrants. They both wound up on a few best of lists and they will both offer you a table full of delicious Jamaican foods from jerk chicken and goat curry to an assortment of rich stews, and what I will always think of as Hot Pockets and all kinds of yum dishes.

Melissa: I know those Jamaican Hot Pockets. Yeah. Did you know that they sometimes make sandwiches out of them?

David: The pocket goes in a sandwich.

Melissa: Yes.

David: Whoa.

Melissa: There’s a spread called milk bread. That’s kind of sweet and squishy and soft. And then they take one of those little hot pockets. I don’t know what they’re actually called. And then they put it into the squishy bread. Carbs on carbs. Got a love it. Why not?

David: Yeah. So if you want to throw an island feast, where should you start? Let’s get into it.

Melissa: I’m literally sitting on the edge of my chair.

David: The first book is Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook by Melissa Thompson. Thompson is a journalist who writes about Food for The Guardian and Conde Nast and the BBC. She is also a recipe developer, and I think she’s more of a populist. She wants her recipes to be practical. It feels like she’s thinking, How can people make these dishes in their home? Her instructions are clear. The ingredients are usually available unless it’s something like the ackee in a recipe for ackee and salt fish. In addition to having approachable recipes, Thompson wants to introduce you to the culture of Jamaica through its history. So there are pages about history and how it relates to the food. It’s all well written and interesting. She also tells you about how the food got to Jamaica and she can. A bunch of recipes are common to both cookbooks, but each has its unique recipes. One of the recipes that’s unique to hers is ginger beer prawns.

Melissa: Oh, that sounds really good.

David: Yeah. Those are prawns coated in a batter of ginger beer, cornflour, and ginger and then deep fried like tempura. She also has a recipe for a chicken dish called sticky rum and tamarind wings. It seems like that would pair well with a bottle of Red Stripe. And she’s got Guinness punch pie, which is a cream pie with about a cup and a half of that dark Irish beer in it.

David: The other book I want to tell you about is West Winds: Recipes, History and Tales from Jamaica by Riaz Phillips. Phillips has a background as an author as well. His first book was Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK. Phillips is also a photographer, and that was the first thing that caught my attention about this book. The photos do a lot of good work in making you feel like you’re on the way to Jamaica. Phillips seems more interested in describing Jamaican culture now. His book and his recipes feel more like he’s walking through Jamaica and talking about the people he meets and the flavors he’s tasting. His recipes seem a little hotter, a little spicier, and more onion and garlic and Scotch bonnet pepper. They are a little less practical. He describes early on in the book that part of the Jamaican way of cooking is to spend a good amount of time in prep, which you mentioned peeling, chopping, slicing, seasoning. And only a little time cooking and sometimes none at all. The headnotes for his recipes are almost always a few paragraphs. I like that. Some people don’t.

Melissa: I love that. No surprise.

David: A recipe that was unique to West winds is Dr. Bird Cake.

Melissa: What’s in Dr. Bird Cake?

David: It’s a cake with pineapple juice and chunks and allspice and nutmeg and pecans with a cream cheese frosting.

Melissa: That sounds amazing.

David: Yeah. Philips tells us that Dr. Bird is what Jamaicans call the hummingbird, but not why they call it that or what the hummingbird has to do with this cake.

Melissa: There’s no hummingbirds in the cake?

David: No, there is not. Still, I’m very curious about the cake and happy to call it Dr. Bird Cake. Both of these books have recipes for macaroni cheese.

Melissa: Oh, interesting.

David: Not macaroni and cheese. Macaroni cheese.

Melissa: Macaroni cheese.

David: The differences are significant and possibly illuminating. So let’s start with the first book Motherland. Thompson uses three kinds of cheese: Swiss, cheddar, and parmesan. Then she spices it up with onion, mustard, garlic, and white pepper. And then Thompson cooks all that up in a pretty straightforward manner. Make the noodles, make the roux, put everything together. Bake it. The other book, West Winds, Riaz just uses cheddar. He’s a one cheese man. Although he also suggests Pecorino as a treat, but not whether you should replace all of the cheddar with Pecorino.

Melissa: Oh, you would never.

David: Yeah. But you have to know your way around the kitchen to know that. That seems significant, right? For spices, he uses his all purpose seasoning, which is handy if you have it made. But if you don’t, it’s a little side project. It’s got ten ingredients in it. Garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, brown sugar, allspice, so on.

Melissa: Okay, I’m making that as soon as we’re done recording. That sounds so good. That spice blend. Are you kidding me?

David: Yeah, it’s intriguing, particularly for macaroni cheese, right? This.

Melissa: Yeah. If you like your mac and cheese, like us Midwestern bland —

David: This is not going to get there. Riaz also, as a topping to his macaroni cheese.

Melissa: What is it?

David: His topping has more cheese, breadcrumbs, butter and just a little desiccated coconut.

Melissa: Magic.

David: That was fascinating to me. But also that is a very opinionated macaroni cheese move there.

Melissa: It really is.

David: That might not be for everyone. And his instructions are just a little bit more finicky. There’s a lot of gradually add where as Thompson is —

Melissa: If you say fold in the cheese one more time… [laughter]

David: He’s doing a lot of gradual adding. Thompson is a lot more. Dump everything together. It’s fine. I think that if you’re trying to put more Jamaican in your life on the regular Motherland is probably the better book. It is also the better book if you’re concerned about your success rate in the kitchen. See our conversation re: cheddar versus Pecorino. Thompson’s recipes are easier to get to the table and more mainstream. I also think Motherland is an excellent way to pick up some Jamaican history. And Motherland has an index.

Melissa: West Wind doesn’t have an index?

David: No.

Melissa: Shocking.

David: If you want to be hit in the face with some new flavors, West Winds might be your book. And the photography in West Winds is really charming. Personally, I lean a little bit towards West Winds.

Melissa: It sounds like if you wanted to have a weekend of playing in the kitchen that culminates in a big Caribbean feast blow out.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: West Winds would be the way to go.

David: Yeah but I think there’s a good argument for both. Do a macaroni cheese challenge, see where you come down.

Melissa: I mean, when you said that the author of Motherland was a recipe developer, I was like, Yes, those recipes are going to work.

David: Yeah. Yes, they are both solid books worth having, and they will both make you hungry for the taste of Jamaica. Those are Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook by Melissa Thompson and West Winds: Recipe, History and Tales from Jamaica by Riaz Phillips.

Melissa: My next recommendation is Blackheart of Jamaica by Julia Goulding. This is a swashbuckling YA adventure about a young English girl named Cat Royal. It’s the fifth book in a series, but the books are written to work as standalones. Kat is four feet tall, with long red hair, green eyes, and a habit of getting into very close scrapes. In previous installments, she’s been a spy and a ballerina. She’s gone undercover as a boy. She’s been kidnapped and forced to sail from England to the New World.

David: Are these all set around the same time?

Melissa: Yeah, the late 1700s. This book is set in 1792. It begins in Philadelphia and ends with her accidentally joining a pirate crew and getting caught up in an uprising of enslaved people in the Caribbean.

David: Wow.

Melissa: This is what I meant when I said she gets into close scrapes. If you enjoy the Veronica Speedwell mysteries by Deanna Raybourn or the Phryne Fisher series by Carrie Greenwood, I think you will love this book. The tone is really similar. There’s dangerous adventure and a heroine with moxie, who’s also very liberal for her time. Cat is a lot like Veronica and Phryne, but without the cocktails and the adult sexy time.

David: Right. YA.

Melissa: YA. Cat’s best friend is Pedro. He’s an African violin virtuoso. Oh. He was formerly enslaved, and Cat was instrumental in getting him freed and is wildly protective of him. She has zero tolerance for racism, and in this book, it gets her into hot water over and over and over. It also makes her very easy to love. The two of them join the Peabody Theatrical Ensemble, and they sail from London to various ports of the Caribbean to perform the works of Shakespeare, including as You Like it in Kingston. Just imagine: the audience in Kingston is like half pirates, and you’ll be thinking the right thing. After a stunning debut of their show, Cat brings the house down — their dramatic careers are cut short when Pedro gets caught up in a revolt and Cat gets tricked into a sticky situation that gives her a really good idea of what it’s like to be an enslaved person. This book is much lighter than the other ones I’m recommending, but it does have some teeth, which I really enjoyed, especially regarding racism and sexism. This would be a great book to put in the hands of a young person that you know. At the time the story is set, the late 1700s, slavery was legal and socially accepted in Jamaica. That comes up over and over, how everyone’s like, What are you making such a big deal about? This is how things get done.

David: Boy, that’s hard to think about, isn’t it?

Melissa: Mm hmm. At this time in real life, there were uprisings and rebellion across the Caribbean against the French and the British. Pedro at one point says,’The mulattos are fighting for their rights, the slaves are demanding their freedom. It’s revolution… and the French masters can hardly complain because the people are only following the example set in Paris.’ In case you’re not up on your history, the French Revolution was in 1789, four years before this book takes place.

David: So everybody everywhere is getting tired of having the boot on their neck.

Melissa: Yes. And in real life, this is also in pirates where in positions of authority in Jamaica, which we talked about earlier. The pirates in this book lead to all manner of perilous encounters and questionable activities. And that stuff I mentioned earlier about the plantation owners living in England? That plays out in this book to. But there’s also a sense of fun. There’s a really cute scene. I mean, Cat is charming and outrageous and you root for her and she has nice relationships with the people around her. There’s a really cute scene where Cat tries what she describes as a strange, curved fruit that’s bright yellow.

David: A banana.

Melissa: It is a banana, but she’s never seen one before, so she just takes it and takes a bite of it.

David: Oh, skin and all.

Melissa: She doesn’t realize it’s meant to be peeled first. And that made me really curious, so I looked it up. According to historians, bananas may have been known as curiosities in England in the 15th century. So 1400s, three hundred years before this book takes place. They were probably brought to Europe by Portuguese sailors from West Africa, but they were not readily available until the 20th century in England. That is when Sir Alfred Lewis Jones and his enormous Victorian moustache started running refrigerated ships between West Africa and Liverpool. And that’s when bananas became more common.

David: Yeah, that makes sense.

Melissa: Anyway, back to the book. The story is told in the first person. So we’re hearing from Cat directly. And one of my favorite tropes is when first person narrators break that fourth wall and talk to me. Early in the book, she addresses the reader. And I want to read you a little bit.

David: Okay.

Melissa: In polite company, it is expected that a guide introduce themselves. Allow me to do so now. My name is Cat Royal, daughter of parents unknown, formerly a ward of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. Imagine we have bobbed curtseys, bowed, shaken hands – now, Reader, we can be friends and I can take you into my confidence… This is the story of how I became a pirate. Reader, before you throw up your hands in horror at this scandalous confession or call the constable, I rush to assure you that my piracy was entirely accidental… I had absolutely no intention of pursuing this path; unfortunately events conspired against me, resulting in this most unexpected twist of fate.

Melissa: This book has everything you could want in a pirate/theater/sassy heroine adventure. There’s a pious theater impresario with secrets, a bloodthirsty bosun, pirates with gentlemanly manners and a handful of actors, sailors and ne’er do wells with questionable motives. That’s Black Hart of Jamaica by Julia Golding.

David: My next book is If I Survive You by Jonathan Jonathan Escoffery. This is a series of connected stories that surrounds one family of Jamaican immigrants in the US. It starts with what I thought was a really brilliant one-two punch. The first story is told by Trelawny, the son of a Jamaican immigrant in the US. He spends a lot of time talking about how he doesn’t belong anywhere. And to a large extent he doesn’t. He’s too American to be Jamaican, too Jamaica to be accepted by the Americans, too Brown for the white kids, not brown enough for the Mexican kids or the Black kids. He feels that when people ask why his mother talks so funny. He feels that when his teachers ask him how he learned to speak so well. But he feels that most when people ask, What are you? And he goes through ages of saying Black and he goes through ages of saying Jamaican and he tries to connect, but he just can’t find his way. And Trelawny grows up on the sort of unsure footing of somebody who thinks they don’t belong. And that’s all told just shockingly well. I feel like I know this guy. Like, I could go to Miami and call him up. And it’s a heartbreaking story. And I left that story with a lot of empathy for Trelawny. And then we get to the second story. The narrator of the second story is Trelawny’s Dad, Topper. It’s written in Jamaican English. Both stories are written in the second person. So at first it felt like a storytelling technique that the son had inherited.

Melissa: Oh, neat.

David: And then you get the dad’s story about how he grows up in Jamaica, how he puts his dreams aside early, and how he and his young wife flee Jamaica and they move to the US. But you also get Topper’s take on Trelawny, and I won’t spoil that story for you, but the effect for me was exceptional. It was a very complete drawing of a broken father-son relationship. I don’t remember reading anything quite like it. There was a full picture of how these two men resent each other. How each of them wishes the other was different and better, and how neither of them are willing to soften even a little bit to help with that. At the end of the story, Topper calls Trelawney defective.

Melissa: Ouch.

David: And Trelawney does not react well to that. The overall effect, for me at least, was brilliant and illuminating and tragic. And together, these two pieces were a piece of art for me. Like, I had never seen this done before. I had never experienced anything quite like this. I’ll also say that this relationship, the father-son relationship, might not even be the most crucial relationship in this book. Trelawny has a brother that I haven’t even mentioned yet, and their relationship is deep and dark and complicated. The writing in this book is so good. It walks the line between just telling the story and getting in some sort of great wisdom or description of some kind.

David: There’s a bit where one of Trelawny’s friends, she’s Chinese-American, he’s in college, and she says that she feels white. And the text says, ‘What does whiteness feel like? I imagine it’s like walking barefoot on a shag rug.’

Melissa: So good.

David: I need to let you know that the story goes to some dark places. Some kinks are described. There’s guilt and there’s shame. And there’s privilege. Trelawny’s life. Goes lo the title If I Survive You rings pretty loud in some of the stories. There’s also some dark humor in the book that lightens up the place a little bit. If I Survive You came out last year. It’s the first book from Jonathan Escoffrey. He had already won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The book was very well received. The New Yorker called it a ravishing debut. The New York Times used the word bravura.

Melissa: Wow.

David: Yeah. If you’re looking for a book that combines literary character development with great storytelling about what it’s like to be a Jamaican immigrant from an up and coming author, pick this up. It’s If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffrey.

Melissa: My final recommendation is the last Warner woman by Kei Miller.

David: Which you loved.

Melissa: Oh, so much. And I’m just going to get this out of the way right off the bat. The setup of this book is probably not going to sell it. But here we go.

David: Okay.

Melissa: This is a beautifully written story about a woman born in a Jamaican leper colony who later gets committed to a mental hospital in England.

David: Wow. You’re right about that, though.

Melissa: Right?

David: Not high on my reach-to pile based on that.

Melissa: Right. So how did I — I in particular — end up reading this book when that’s the flap copy?

David: Yeah.

Melissa: I’m going to tell you. I saw a quote from a poem called The Law Concerning Mermaids by Kei Miller. So I went Googling and I found a video of him reciting the poem in its entirety, and I fell for Kei Miller like a ton of bricks.

David: Yeah. You’re not alone.

Melissa: Yes.

David: I started reading about Kei.A lot of people are there.

Melissa: So I googled somewhere.

David: Yep.

Melissa: And I learned that not only had he written a bunch of novels, essays, short stories, poems, he narrated the audiobook for one of his novels. This one, The Last Warner Woman.

David: So the promise here is that you’re going to get a well-told, well-written story from a beloved author told in his own distinct voice, which is a lovely voice with a nice Jamaican lilt to it.

Melissa: Yes, I just pretended that I was sitting somewhere with Kei and he was telling me a story. We’re very close friends now.

David: I could see how you would get into this. Yeah.

Melissa: So there are two things you need to know to understand what happens in the book before I tell you more about the book.

David: Okay.

Melissa: Jamaican Revivalism and the warner woman. Jamaican revivalism is a religion that blends Christian and African beliefs. It’s celebrated with drumming and singing and dancing. There’s music and colorful clothing, and there’s less of a divide between this world and the next.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: A warner woman is someone who communicates with spirits and warns people of what’s coming. Did not know that when I saw the title.

David: Right. Not a member of the Warner family.

Melissa: Exactly.

David: Somebody who’s concerned about your future and is trying to warn you.

Melissa: Yes. So this novel is the life story of Adamine, a warner woman. She was born in one of Jamaica’s last leper colonies. When she grew up, she discovered Revivalism and her gift as a warner. And the narrative goes from the 1940s until the 2000s, so we meet Adamine’s sweet mother. And the people who lived in the leper colony. We experience Adamine’s awakening as a warner woman and the tragedies of her life that followed. And we meet a mysterious character that out of mine calls Mr. Writer Man.

David: Wow.

Melissa: He’s convinced out of mind to tell him her life story so he can write a book.

David: Okay.

Melissa: Before I go any further, I feel like we should play a clip of the audiobook so everyone knows why I was so taken with it. This is a description of the scent of a water woman when she’s using her gift. [clip of audiobook]

Melissa: So there you go. I feel like my work here is done. And that’s Kei Miller reading his gorgeous writing.

David: There it is.

Melissa: The narrative of the story alternates between Adamine’s first person account and sections told by Mr. Writer Man. Her voice is a very musical patois, as you heard in that clip. It’s so lively and raw. I just loved her so much. She tells her own story, and she comments on what Mr. Writer Man has written about her, challenging and embellishing his account. And although she’s the star, this is really a story about storytelling and who gets to write the final version of a story?

David: Who lives. Who dies. Who tells your story?

Melissa: Yes. The Writer Man says at one point, and I think you’re going to like this, Dave,’To write down a story from the past. You must be loose with the facts. You must only be true to the truth.’ And Adamine says, ‘So if don’t go so, it nearly goes so.’ [laughter]

Melissa: There are difficult things in this story. There’s the banishment and othering of people who are different, like the people with leprosy who are just hidden away and everyone wants to forget about them.

David: Sure.

Melissa: And then there’s Adamine’s gift of warning and how she is marginalized and demonized for that. There’s repeated violence against women. There’s heartbreak and betrayal. There is a lot of tragedy in these pages. But it also has a vise grip on life and on the will to live and to love. And love is the thing that shined through for me. Despite all of these terrible things that Adamine has been through.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: This is a story that is begging to be read aloud. It has the urgency of when you’re talking to somebody and you can feel in them that the emotional dam is about to break, and they’re going to tell you something that really means something to them. That is this whole story. And now, sadly. I have to explain a small problem.

David: What’s that?

Melissa: The book is divided into four parts, and the audiobook — this glorious audio book that made me laugh out loud and made me cry hot tears — the audiobook only includes the first two parts of the book, or about 60%.

David: What?

Melissa: I know. I don’t know why it’s labeled as unabridged. My attempts to find out more information or to find a complete audiobook failed. There are comments on the Audible website saying, Where is the rest of this book? I am not the only one who had this experience.

David: This sounds like a huge fail. Yes.

Melissa: Having said all of that, I’m still recommending the audiobook because Kei Miller tells his story so vibrantly. Here’s what I did, and I recommend you do the same. Double down on this book. Listen to the audiobook until there is no more then switch to the print version. When I moved to reading on the page, I could still hear Adamine’s voice in my mind.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: What I want to say now is really corny, and I’m cringing knowing that I’m going to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway. This book made my heart sing. It’s The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller.

David: Before we leave Jamaica. I also read a couple of things by Kei Miller and eventually had to back off because I realized that you were reading a Miller book.

Melissa: I just wanted to have a whole Kei Miller project. Give me all of it.

David: One of the one of the things that I read was a book of poetry of his. The book is called The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Which is a lovely book. I think I’ve looked through three or four things by Kei Miller, and they all seemed very nice.

Melissa: Lots of people also recommended the novel Augustown. If you’re looking for more Kei Miller in your life.

David: In the Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to zion, there was this short poem which I thought was really nice. I will read you the poem now. It’s called Distance.

  • Distance is always reduced at night
  • The drive from Kingston to Montego Bay is not so far
  • Nor the distance between ourselves and the stars
  • And at night there is almost nothing between
  • The things we say, and the things we mean.

Melissa: Okay. I got a tear in my eye. Not even pretending. I got a tear in my eye. I sent Kei Miller a little fan letter, and I haven’t heard back from him yet. But while it’s out there, it’s just all possibility that we could be friends.

David: We need to go down to Jamaica, make friends with Kei, have some ackee and salt fish. Try a little Dr. Bird Cake. It’s all happening. Oh, and write the best work of our lives.

Melissa: Right at the magic desk. Yeah. Plans are afoot.

David: Plans are afoot. Those are six books we love set in Jamaica.

Melissa: Please do treat yourself and visit our show notes for this episode. We have multiple videos of Kei Miller reading his own poetry. We’ve got some cooking videos, links to recipes. Beautiful photos. You know you want to see the ackee fruit. Our show notes are at

David: Mel, where are we headed for our next episode?

Melissa: ou know, this next episode doesn’t need any kind of sales pitch at all. It’s about bookshops.

David: Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Rock Staar/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

There's so much to recommend a trip to Jamaica. Where else to eat some callaloo, sip smooth Blue Mountain coffee, walk in the footsteps of pirates, sing with the rebels of reggae, and splash in the warm Caribbean?
By conjuring images of a mermaid — a beautiful, graceful, free mermaid — this prose poem by Jamaican writer Kei Miller speaks eloquently of the damage caused by imperial rule to colonized people, lands, and seas.
Take a virtual trip to Jamaica with a YA adventure, delicious cookbooks, a sweet family saga, a short story collection that'll punch you in the feelings, and a novel about an (extra)ordinary woman named Adamine.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.