If you hang around Caymanians long enough, you’ll likely hear the phrase, “Love ya like cook food.”
Across the globe, I’d like to think that cooked food sustains each person not only physically, but emotionally as well. It’s a comfort that is familiar to us and transports us to a place where we feel safe and warm and nurtured.
Here in the Cayman Islands, the notion of cooked food has a deep cultural meaning that stems from earlier days, when the kitchen and dining table were the centres of family life. Just the idea of cooked food fills me with memories:
It’s 7 a.m. on a Sunday. The house is quiet except for the faint snores from surrounding bedrooms. Dimmed beams of the morning’s rising sun stream through the tiny openings of my curtains as I lie in bed flipping through my favourite Archie comic book. I pause.
“It’s way too quiet in this house — is it even Sunday?” I think to myself as I hop off the bed to check the calendar. I proceed to investigate downstairs, and as I take the first few steps, I catch a whiff of what I’ve fallen in love with these many Sundays of my life. It is the smell of seasoning peppers married with fresh barley and thyme.
While the rest of the family sleeps in before church, there is a masterpiece being prepared downstairs. I excitedly rush towards the ending of the stairway; my ears perk as I begin to hear the sweet sounds of my Grandma’s faithful Dutch pot clinking and clanking. One more step and I peek around the corner to find my grandmother in the kitchen hovering over the stove as if she is conducting the greatest of symphonies.
“Mm, I wonder what Grannie’s cookin’?” I think as I walk towards her. I purposefully make my little steps louder than usual and clear my throat to announce my arrival, fearful to frighten her while she is “in her zone.” She sings the loveliest while she cooks, but she spots me from the corner of her eye, stops mid-chorus, and turns — “Ahh, mornin’ baby — I knew you’d be up soon. Come help Grannie make this stew’ conch, nah?”
Of course I will; it’s my favourite and it is a sure promise that I will get first tastes of everything.
Here in the Cayman Islands, cooked food has a deep cultural meaning that stems from earlier days, when the kitchen and dining table were the centres of family life.
During the lengthy church service, my family takes up an entire row and we all cannot help but keep thinking of the large pots filled with the home-cooked goodness. Every word of the sermon feels like it takes hours to leave the pastor’s mouth — this is what the thought of good food does to you. With the closing prayer, we prepare ourselves to wait on one last thing and perhaps it will be longer than the actual service: Grandma’s conversations with the mingling congregation.
Finally arriving home, I feel triumphant as I race toward the front door. A quick change of clothes and I am ready to take on a feast. I sit anxiously on the living room couch as my family trickles in with huge grins on their faces knowing what awaits in the kitchen. My cousins and I help set the table for our clan and we all begin to take our seats. It is always great to see my family, so while awaiting the main attraction, the chatter and laughter (and growling of stomachs) grow louder as we engage each other after days of little to no interaction.
The conversations cut abruptly as the swinging doors of the kitchen burst open and my Grandma announces, “Food’s ready!” There seem to be no words in the world that can quite compare to those two. We say grace before digging in to the mountains of fresh Cayman-style beef marinating in its own juices, and her famous stewed conch. With the first bite, all the waiting and anticipation we faced seem worth it. Coming up for air, my uncles and aunts share stories about life in the “olden” days and experiences of their past — stories that help us younger folk look at life from a different perspective.
This was my paradise: my family, good food and sweet breezes off the ocean flowing through the house.
The food brought us together on Sundays, but the memories, they have lasted forever. To say I love someone like “cook food” is about more than the cuisine I indulge in on any given day of the week; to me, it’s saying you bring me peace, you bring me comfort and you bring me joy. As an adult, I now realise that every slice of vegetable and roll of dumpling were more than just the makings of a delicious meal; they were the ingredients of priceless memories borne of family, love and ritual.