Given there is no canteen Christmas lunch on offer this year, I thought I would ‘cook up’ a Caribbean Christmas meal out of the collections.
“Koo-Koo, Koo-Koo” an attendant chorus repeated, imitating the ‘rumbling sound of the bowels, when in a hungry state.’1 This was the origin of the ‘Koo-Koo’ chant according to Isaac Medes Belisario, the Jamaican Jewish painter, engraver and lithographer. The calling of Koo-Koos would sound the streets of Kingston during Junkanoo – the carnivalesque celebration that occurs around Christmas time in parts of the English-Speaking Caribbean. Rooted in the era of slavery, Junkanoo festivities were performed during the planter-sanctioned Christmas holiday, which overlapped with the main annual break in the plantation cycle. While the concept of Christmas was a colonial imposition in the Caribbean, the short break that this Christian holiday instigated became an opportunity for the creation of independent, creolized, defiant and delicious traditions. From the rumbling stomach of Junkanoo to the ceremonial soaking of fruit in rum, Christmas through the mouth of the Caribbean collections is a varied and delectable affair.
The Main Event
Deviating from the oft-dry Turkey, the centrepiece of a Caribbean Christmas meal might be a ‘Christmas Goat’ or a pig. As contributors to the community-published cookbook, Captain Blackbeard’s Beef Creole explain, Christmas in St. Lucia is a big celebration, where pigs are fattened up to be eaten on Christmas day and there are lots of dances and parties that ‘carry on through Christmas and New Year’.
Much more efficient to rear than cows and easier to farm on smallholdings, the goat has consistently been one of the most consumed meats in Jamaica since the nineteenth century. Goat was ‘also the most commonly eaten mammal in India, after the sheep,’ which made it appealing to Jamaica’s East Indian community.2 The curry goat, a classic of Jamaican cuisine, is a product of East Indian and African creolization in Jamaica.
As Carly Lewis-Oduntan writes in her article, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas,’ a British and Caribbean Christmas food fusion might encompass roast turkey accompanied with rice and peas. Derived from Akan cuisine, variations of rice and bean dishes have been a staple of Caribbean diets for centuries. During the era of slavery, enslaved peoples in the English-Speaking Caribbean subsisted on their provision ground harvests (small plots of land where anything from yams to beans were grown), which have profoundly shaped the ingredients, processes and tastes that remain central to Caribbean cuisine. Ripening just in time for Christmas, the perennial Gungo pea is an ‘essential part of the Christmas Day menu’, replacing the often-used kidney bean in rice and peas.
The Proof is in the Pudding
The Caribbean Christmas cake or pudding is the product of months (or even years) of rum soaking. Atop of kitchen cupboards you might spot dried fruit soaking in deep amber jars of rum, in preparation for baking the spiced, boozy and dense Christmas cake. From the sugar grown and harvested on plantations, to the by-product of sugar (rum is made from molasses which is produced when sugarcane is refined) and regionally grown spices like nutmeg, Christmas pudding is an example of the region’s history melding together.
A drink with that?
How about a deep red glass of tart, sweet and cool sorrel drink, made from an infusion of fresh or dried sorrel. The Jamaican name for hibiscus, B. W. Higman cites sorrel as arriving during in the eighteenth century, from Africa. Planted in August, the sorrel plant is harvested in December and January, hence, its Christmas association. The refreshing drink is made by steeping sorrel in water for two days with ginger, cloves, orange peel, rum or wine. These classic Christmas flavours encompass Britain’s colonial history and the far-reaching impact of the Spice Trade.
I hope this has whet your appetite for a Merry Christmas and has maybe even inspired you to test out one of these recipes – please get in touch if you do!
In 2021, we will be launching an exciting project that seeks to re-interpret, locate and co-create more sources on the history of Caribbean food, spanning from colonial materials, to post-independence and contemporary sources. We will need your input and participation … so watch this space and have a relaxing winter break.
Naomi Oppenheim, community engagement and Caribbean Collections intern at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and CDP student researching Caribbean publishing and activism. @naomioppenheim
1. Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008), p.250.
2. B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), p.387-9.
* B. W. Higman, Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2008), BL Shelfmark YC.2009.b.918
* Carly Lewis-Oduntan, ‘When Christmas Dinner Comes with a Side of Rice and Peas’, VICE, 14 December 2018
* Floella Benjamin, Exploring Caribbean Food in Britain (London: Mantra Publishing, 1988) BL Shelfmark YK.1989.b.1722
* Jackie Ranston, Belisario: Sketches of Character: A historical biography of a Jamaican artist (Kingston: The Mill Press, 2008). BL Shelfmark LD.31.b.1989
* Marjorie Humphreys, Cerasee & Other Jamacian Flowering Plants (Kingston: The Mill Press, 1999)
* P. De Brissiere, Caribbean Cooking: A Selection of West-Indian Recipes, BL shelfmark YD.2005.a.5048
* Teresa E. Cleary, Jamaica run-dung: over 100 recipes (Kingston: Brainbuster Publications, 1973) BL Shelfmark YA.1989.a.11640
* ‘14th Day of Christmas – Gungo Peas & Christmas’, Jamaica Information Service
* B. W. Higman, ‘Cookbooks and Caribbean Cultural Identity: An English-Language Hors D’Oeurve’, New West Indian Guide, 72 (1998).
* Catherine Hall, ‘Whose Memories? Edward Long and the Work of Re-Remembering’ in K. Donington, R. Hanley, & J. Moody (Eds.), Britain's History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery: Local Nuances of a 'National Sin'’ (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016), pp. 129-149.
* Chanté Joseph, ‘Confronting the Colonial Past of Jamaica’s Hard Dough Bread’, VICE, 25 April 2019
* Colleen Taylor Sen, Curry: A Global History (London: Reaktion, 2009) BL Shelmark YK.2010.a.31951
* Edward Long, A History of Jamaica (London: T. Lowndes, 1774), 981.f.19-21. [Version available online]
* Malini Roy, ‘Reopening and reinterpretation – our Front Hall Busts’, Living Knowledge Blog, 28 August 2020
* Naomi Oppenheim, ‘A Belated Happy Junkanoo: the Caribbean Christmas’, American Collections blog, 7 January 2019
* Riaz Phillips, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK (London: Tezeta Press, 2017) YKL.2017.b.4909