On the north coast of the island of Jamaica, 1.5 hours from the hustle and bustle of Kingston, 3 hours east from the resort relaxation of Ochorios, and just a few miles up the road from Robins Bay town and into "the bush", sits Yerba Buena Farm. And on Yerba Buena Farm, bananas, mangoes, and sugar cane thrives. Chickens, goats, kittens wander. And a family lives.
I had the privilege of staying with Kwao (kuh-wow) and Agape (ah-gah-pay) at their small farm where they keep bees and raise their six boys (and do plenty of other things). All of the boys resemble their father, whose long, lean, dark frame is topped by his wild dreads--with the exception that 4 of the boys' dreads are blonde and none of them can grow a beard. Agape, looks similar, but has longer, thicker dreadlocks that graze her lower back.
Atop a hill sits the kitchen, a mostly wooden structure, relatively open to the elements, where racks of bananas and plantains hang from the ceiling. Buckets of fresh Jamaican all spice (a key ingredient of 'jerk') rest along the wall. Kittens and lizards come and go as they please. And in the middle of the day, the entire family gathers to escape the Jamaican heat, during which time you can hear any of the boys (Kwao included), pining for a refreshment: "Agapeeeee, watahmelonnnnn."
When you exit the kitchen and follow the stone path downhill towards the ocean, the farm surrounds you. The compost pile and sugar cane on your left. A massive mango tree and a built-by-hand brick oven on your right. You pass two bungalow-type structures that serve as bedrooms, until you reach the largest one at the end that the whole family stays in.
We stayed in one of these rooms, towards the bottom of the hill, right on the coast. Days were slow, salty and sweaty. Spent wrestling with 7-year-old Enoch. Learning to make sea salt from 13-year-old Melchizedek. Trying to understand 4-year-old Kofi's mix of English and Jamaican Patois. Visiting the market with Kwao and 15-year-old Emmanuel.
But often, days were spent talking with Agape. About her life, and Kwao's, and theirs. About Jamaican culture, about their farm, and of course food. They are Rastafarians, which--contrary to popular stereotypes--is not very common in Jamaica. It's why their whole family has dreadlocks--also not very common in Jamaica--and why they eat entirely vegan.
Agape cooks exclusively over fire--either on a metal stove made of rebar, or the brick oven Kwao built. They eat what grows on their farm, what they can get from the market in Kingston, and a lot of oil. Upon finishing the last of a bowl of sautéed green bananas, in which I admittedly left more than a tablespoon of oil at the bottom, Agape said:
You know, Kelsey, the real Jamaican way to eat that would be to mash up your bananas so you could sop up all this oil--for the calories.
Though she smiled as she said it, my mind filled with the talk of low-calorie foods and calorie-counting diets, and I couldn't help but feel a bit silly wondering how we in the United States (as well as other developed nations) had gotten ourselves into such a strange predicament.
At Yerba Buena, when we weren't passing around guinep from the market or sucking on sugarcane pulled straight from the ground, we were eating a variety of vegetables, fruits and grains. We ate starches like plantains, breadfruit, or cassava, and rounded out meals with grains like rice, lentils, or Agape's insanely delicious homemade sourdough.
In the style of traditional sourdough, she mixes flour and water and let's it sit out in the heat, kickstarting a fermentation process that results in a unique, thriving colony of bacteria and yeast--essentially, an active sourdough starter. After she prepares her dough and lets it rise, she places it into her cast iron skillet, and puts the whole thing right into the fire of her brick oven.
Agape actually was raised in San Fransisco. Her and Kwao have both lived in the United States and Jamaica, and have gained a valuable and unique perspective because of it. Alongside her nourishing sourdough, Agape often served a sauce made by blending garlic and oil, which somehow results in a creamy, white and extremely potent garlic sauce. This, she learned from her Greek grandmother.
This is the world we live in today--so connected to each other that two Americans, one of Lebanese descent and the other Norwegian descent, can sit in a kitchen in the Caribbean and share a meal with Jamaicans that includes tropical fruits and vegetables, a bread preparation that likely originated in the Middle East thousands of years ago, and a dish from Greece.
Cuisine fusions are not so much a category of restaurant as they are the natural and unavoidable result of our interconnectedness and our ability to travel places--and get ingredients--that were historically inaccessible.
Last week, I found myself longing for Jamaica, and Yerba Buena, and the boys, and Kwao and Agape, and really Agape's meals. And so we decided to recreate this one dish to get a taste of our Jamaica--which ironically, is actually a taste from Greece. We made a dense loaf of sourdough that included sprouted lentils, rice, and wheat in our cast iron skillet, and paired it with a blended sauce of yogurt, olive oil, and plenty of garlic. We opted for yogurt instead of using just oil because we're lucky enough to not have to eat strictly for calories.
Despite the apparent differences in lifestyle between Yerba Buena and my hometown in Illinois, there are unavoidable similarities as well. As I watched and interacted with the boys, I was reminded of my own little cousins, and I was struck by how similar they really were to each other. How they are motivated and entertained by the same things. How they try to play with and engage me in the same ways. How I could use the same exact tactics to dodge getting dragged into something if need be.
And even beyond the kids--when it's dinner time and Agape calls out to everyone, and they trickle in one by one to gather in the cozy kitchen and eagerly fill their bowls... how different is it really than my own home, my own mother, calling out to my own family when dinner is ready and waiting to be served? Though I am not the first to notice it, there is comfort in that fact. That maybe the one thing that is really shared across most cultural divides is the creation, anticipation and nourishment of a meal--and perhaps most of all, the enjoyment that comes from sharing it with others.
CREAMY GARLIC SAUCE
For dipping, spreading, or drizzling.
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic
pinch of sea salt
1. Add ingredients to blender.
2. Blend until creamy and garlic is totally incorporated.
3. Enjoy however you please - I recommend as a dip with hearty sourdough.
Note: This will have a strong raw garlic flavor! If this is off putting to you--or you're worried about your breath--try using less garlic, or roasting it first.