EAT UP: And sweat it out.
A sculpture on display at Filament Gallery this summer memorialized one of Jamaica’s great cooks. Her likeness is carved out of wood, sanded and polished with butcher’s wax. Her lips are closed in the understated smile of sublime satisfaction, as if saying to her numerous children and grandchildren, Mmm. Look what you’ve become.
One of those grandchildren is the sculptor, Alva Lowe. He grew up “hanging onto her skirt” in her restaurant kitchen in St. Catherine, Jamaica, in the 1960s. “The best part of cooking with my grandmother was pounding the cocoa beans,” he remembers. He’d do it in a big mortal and pestle that he plunged down with his whole body. His least favorite part was preparing for goat head soup: holding the animal’s hind legs steady while his grandfather expertly slit its throat. Still, that time in Jamaica’s history he describes as paradise. “You could walk from one village to the next. There were star apples, guava, jackfruit, guniep, unbelievable fruit.”
By his early teens, however, Jamaica had changed. “If you were in the wrong group, you could be standing next to your house and they could shoot you down.” In 1969, Lowe left for New York City and since has been a personal chef for a fashion designer in Connecticut, a wood sculptor, house renovator, and chef and co-owner of the Kitchen Garden restaurant in Steuben, Maine, where he served his grandmother’s Jamaican jerk chicken, toned down a notch for the American audience. In Jamaica if you’re not sweating while you eat, people say, “What’s wrong, man?”
Alva has since been back to Jamaica only a few times and likely won’t return. His grandparents have both died, and because people there assume that anyone who has moved to America finds wealth, he would likely be a target for kidnapping and ransom demands. The sculpture of his grandmother, now between shows, sits on display in his living room, exuding Jamaican history (she is a descendant of the native Arawak people, known for their peaceful nature) and to this viewer, universal grandmotherly love. Alva says the traditional dish she cooked, rice ’n’ peas, has “everything in it to make you feel good.” The same is true about this sculpture. It’s a source of goodness, to be cherished, gazed upon, and wondered at in a challenging world.
Lindsay Sterling can be reached at email@example.com.
INSPIRATION: The chef’s grandmother,
memorialized in sculpture.
Jamaican jerk chicken rub
3 whole scotch bonnet peppers, stems removed
2-inch thick piece of ginger (or a quarter-cup chopped)
2 teaspoons Jamaican allspice
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole coriander
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
quarter-cup peanut oil (vegetable and olive oil are okay, but they burn more)
1 teaspoon salt
5 cloves garlic
Blend all the ingredients in a Cuisinart for four minutes into an even paste. (Don’t get any paste on your hands. The raw oil from the scotch bonnet can be really painful.) Fill small jam jars with the rub. Keep one in the fridge and the rest in the freezer. To make the chicken, mix together in a very large bowl: 2 tablespoons rub, 3 sliced yellow onions, a quarter-cup ketchup, and a quarter-cup soy sauce. Use tongs to coat the pieces of two chickens (bones in). Cover and refrigerate overnight. Arrange chicken skin side up on a broiler pan. Broil on low, turning every 9 minutes, four times. Serve with slices of fresh mango, avocado, planks of plantain sautéed in butter, and “rice ’n’ peas.”
Rice ’n’ Peas
1 cup dry kidney beans, soaked over night
1 can coconut milk
2 cups brown rice
quarter-cup chicken stock or water with bouillon cube
small bunch fresh thyme, tied with butcher’s twine
3 whole scallions, cleaned and halved
3 small cloves garlic, halved
one-quarter scotch bonnet pepper (in Jamaica, you’d use a whole one)
Cover beans in chicken stock or water and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour on medium heat until soft but still holding their shape and skins. Strain, saving the cooking liquid. In a medium pot bring to boil 2 c. bean cooking liquid, coconut milk, quarter-cup chicken stock or water with bouillon cube, brown rice, beans, thyme, scallions, scotch bonnet, and garlic. Cover and heat on low for 45 minutes. Discard scallions, thyme, and scotch bonnet before serving.
Choose a bright yellow to black plantain. Peel and cut flesh into quarter-inch thick planks. Sauté in butter on medium heat until golden.