A Southern Hoppin’ Irie Charm – A Black History Month Perspective

Well I’ll be darned. If it isn’t the month of February again. And that means Black History Month. So, what does that mean to you?  Well for me, it means a deeper connection to being a black man from another place living in this country. Always understanding that for me, I can’t take anything for granted, including the right to vote. Understanding all the things that was fought for so that I could be here to pursue dreams and ambitions. It’s an understanding that I should also be an ambassador of cross culture unification. As an emigrant here to the States I’ve had to adopt and adapt to a culture that is different from mine. learning what it means to be black in this country before, during and after slavery. It’s a pity a lot of that knowledge gets lost on most that live here. But there’s one thing that hasn’t gotten lost on me. The food culture of this country. Cooking has a way of reuniting food cultures and especially for those that have traveled many oceans wide, many beaten paths, many underground traditions. The journeys of slaves that passed before us. As a former architecture student and professional, I found many things intriguing, fascinating and often times perplexing because of all it’s complexities and discoverable layers. and comparably so, I find food to be the same.  As a chef it’s imperative that I explore cuisines of the world and the Southern traditions found here in United States is a joy to represent on a plate. Even the simplest dishes at times can render one speechless. As I continue to navigate the high and byways of southern dishes and cuisines – still trying to perfect that biscuit dough – I hope to expand my mind and keep my waistline small. I’ve experienced southern bites in a lot of different places, some of which have reintroduced me to dishes I had written off. I tried grits for the first time in 1990 and I thought it was utterly disgusting. Fast forward a decade and a half to a wedding in South Carolina and I met Miss Shrimp n’ Grits. Oh good lord, yes sir.  I done slapped my mammy you hear me. Chicken George couldn’t hold me back I tell ya. Her taste was seductive and devine. She lingered on my lips, languishing the roof of my mouth, titillated my palette and all the while I was begging for more like some whipped sucker in heat. Feed me Seymour. Ooops, I digressed. Should I not have said that?  Oh well, too late now. Don’t let me get started talking about some  country fried steak with sausage gravy, country ham with red eye gravy, Fried green tomatoes, Gumbo, smothered pork chops, Mac N cheese, seafood rice, dirty rice, Sweet potato souffle, fried okra, spoon breads, Collard Greens, Ham hocks, Chitterlings, crackling corn bread, flaky buttery biscuits, Pecan pie and of course you can’t forget the pig as Barbecue ribs drop on this plate and certainly the ubiquitous Fried Yard bird to name a few southern style dishes.

Hoppin' John

Hoppin’ John

As I continue to delve more between the delicious layers of Southern cuisine I’m more cognizant of the connection to my Caribbean roots and rice does that for me.  Rice with peas I say.  Pellau from Trinidad, Coconut rice & Peas from Jamaica, Congri from Cuba, are a few of the rice with peas dishes found in the The Caribbean. There are many types of rice varieties and the south surely has had their beauties that were planted on many a plantations by slaves in places such as Charleston, Georgetown, Savannah. “Long gone” are those Plantations with Black history burned and emblazoned on our hearts and minds hopefully never to be forgotten. Now, the majority of rice production is now done in Louisiana, Texas, California, Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri. You can find a rice dish that exemplifies the essence of the cuisine of a culture in most places around the globe reflecting over 100 different varieties with long, medium and short grains. But I shall go to the south and place center plate Hoppin’ John. A rice dish made with Black eyed peas, Ham hocks or bacon, sausage, tomatoes, Collard Greens, onions, peppers, garlic and spices. This dish combines so many parts of what I believe reflects the heritage. The subtle nuances handed down from the slave ancestors through use of what was handed down all cooked in one pot. A dish filled with deep flavor, spicy if need be and one that can stretch the plates for hungry bellies. There are many variations as to the origin and the name but if southern traditions are followed, come the stroke of midnight on New Years, plates of

Ham Hocks with Black Eyed Peas

Ham Hocks with Black Eyed Peas

Cajun Sausage

Cajun Sausage

Celery, thyme, onions and garlic

Celery, thyme, onions and garlic

cut Collard Greens

cut Collard Greens

diced tomatoes

diced tomatoes

uncooked rice

uncooked rice

 

 

 

 

Hoppin’ John will be consumed. and if there’s left overs the next day well, then you’ll be having Skippin’ Jenny. not lost in anyway is the folklore that comes with making this dish. A minimum of three peas on a fork would guarantee good luck. The more peas the more luck. A penny would be placed in the dish and if you found that penny your year would be filled with good luck. The addition of the greens signified money and additional good fortune could be had if the dish was eaten with freshly made cornbread. I made this dish recently for a program instituted by the Miami-Dade Library system, Swap and Chat to discuss southern food. The conversations between the guests has been intriguing. Nothing like having a conversation with someone born in Belgium from Martinique parents that lived in various southern states and now resides here in South Florida. Now how rich is that?  Very reminiscent of the travels done by many slaves bringing and taking with them culinary traditions and recipes of cuisines. a lot of those recipes are now the backbone of a lot Southern cuisines and dishes. This island boy has certainly been grateful and appreciative because the education has certainly broadened my palette, horizons and reportoire.  Yep, for certain it has made for a memorable Food on Fiyah!!! experience.

Hoppin’ John Recipe

Serves: 20

Prep and Cook time: 2  hours

Ingredients

1/2 cp                                   Cooking oil
1 ea.                                       large onion, chopped
1 ea.                                       medium green bell pepper, chopped
6 -8                                        garlic cloves, minced
4 ea                                        stalks celery, diced

2 – 16 oz. bag                      dried black-eyed peas

6 ea                                       medium to large smoked ham hocks

4 qts                                     cups water or chicken stock

2 – 14 oz.                             can diced tomato

4 cups                                   Andouille or other Cajun style sausage, 1/2″ diced

1/2 bch                                 fresh thyme

2 Tb.                                     dried oregano

4 ea.                                      bay leaves
1/2 cp                                   hot sauce (Tabasco works or favorite)
2 Tb                                      smoked paprika

2 Tb                                      Cajun Seasoning

2 Tb                                      Garlic Powder

2 Tb                                      salt

3 lbs                                     uncooked white rice

3 bch                                   green onions, chopped

Method:

  1. Add oil in large Dutch oven or soup pot over medium low heat.  When hot add the onion, bell peppers, celery and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally for 3 to 4 minutes.
  2. Add ham hocks and cook for another 3 -4 minutes then add water and peas and bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook 45 minutes to 1 hour or until peas are cooked. Meat on ham hocks should be cooked as well
  3. Remove Ham hocks from pot, let cool. Cut meat from bones and dice. return meat and bones to the pot
  4. Add sausage tomatoes, herbs, hot sauce, bay leaf, spices, salt. Cook for 15 minutes.
  5. Add the rice to the pot. Stir well and cover. let come to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until liquid has been absorbed.
  6. Serve in bowls, sprinkle with chopped green onions

 

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Jerk Festival in the big apple – rigors of sweat to glory

Do you ever wonder about the people cooking your food and what they go through to make it all happen for you? When you have gone to fairs and festivals, do you ever wonder what every vendor at each booth do to sell their wares? Even as a food professional I wonder too because it is HARD work damn it!!! I was in New York recently for the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival held at Roy Wilkins Park in Queens.  There I did some cooking demos, I interviewed restaurant owners, judged jerk entries, I was just having a ball being Chef Irie. Yep, I was an even happier camper because some of my New York family members were there. Man, did I hug and love on them. Family is cool.

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It is hot as hell back here..Locks protection – The rasta grill chef tied his locks down by the apron string around the waist.

I suppose you are thinking right now I’m going to be giving you a dissertation about the noble and emblematic preparation of Jerk. I could but I won’t. I’ll give you this though: thyme, scallions, oil, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, salt, browning, vinegar, etc. etc. etc. – some of the basic ingredients needed for a killer jerk seasoning. What I really want to highlight are the vendors and their teams that come to the jerk festival. The folks that are working their asses off. A trip backstage is in order, I need to be right next to a grill, I need to smell the sweat of the grill man. I need to be with my peoples. My profession affords me the previlege of wearing cool chef coats and I was wearing a snazzy one that day. Now couple that with a nice looking camera around the neck and an all access event production wrist band and you’ve just made a celebrity chef reporter.

Roast yellow yam and escoveitched snapper. Lick off finga bizniz dis.

You see all access pass to get info, I see all access to belly full. Shhhh!!! Tell no one you heard this from me. Hell and powda house fi you…

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Heavy equipment on site – corn rotissierie

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Jerk Pork on the ready on customized mesh grills

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Dual tasks station – fried breadfruit in the fry basket, festival getting happy in the hot oil, escoveitched vegetables going over the fried snapper, festival dough getting kneaded and stretched ready to get dropped in the hot oil.

Friends are always asking me when am I setting up a booth at an event???? Crickets… __________blank stare I tell ya. Being a vendor and setting up for a Jerk featival or any festival for that matter takes a lot of work and planning for the pieces to come together just so you can have that 1lb of jerk pork or chicken with a couple slices of Jamaican hard dough bread or freshly fried festival.

I went back there in working man’s hell to see varying sizes of jerk pits, huge galvanized domed grills, 6’ x 20’ meshed grills, all custom made no doubt. My first thought is damn, this for most is an expensive venture. The sheer weight of some of the equipment here lends me to ask the question, is all of this worth it in the end? An outfit, Boston Jerk, loaded up and made the trip all the way from Ft. Lauderdale to participate in the festivaI. I was told by one vendor that it is sometimes worth coming out to do the festivals and sometimes you can outright lose your shirt. Looking at the faces though, you don’t get the sense of dread that this is somehow too much to handle, for as fast as (or casually slow) the meat is laid down and cooked it was flying off the grills and onto chopping boards, portion scales and into Styrofoam containers and into your hands, providing that you’ve forked over the dollar$.

Jerk getting chopped up for an order.

There is corn being roasted in a commercial corn rotisserie – I had never seen one of them before – yellow yams roasting on hot coals; fresh parrot and snapper getting fried in “seasoned” rolling hot oil; festivals being kneaded, pulled, stretched and rolled into cylinders and fried till golden brown; a new pot of rice and peas just went on – should be ready in about 45 minutes – propane tanks getting switched out; fresh coal being added to dwindling embers, generators rattling and humming, echoes of conversations blending into each other. Sounds like sheer madness but it is quite controlled I must say. Nope, there is no smell of the calming aroma of the “Sensemelia” in the air. If you believe that then you do need some jerk in your life. After all, they are island people and find every way to enjoy themselves. Island folks whistle while they work, some sing, some grab a smoke, guzzle a juice or warm beer, sweat like cloud burst, vibe to sweet Reggae or Soca and some will just talk your ears off and regail you with “laugh til yuh belly hot’ stories.

The Yellow Yams getting roasted on the custom made grill.

Ummm, Taurus Riley is on stage right now…”She’s royal, so royal, I need her in my life..”. I’m vibing as I find room to fit this escovietched snapper with roasted Yellow Yam. Yep, Sclaaaatttttt!!!!!!

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When the jerk is all gone, yuh jus lock up shop. Time to go home.

After the whirlwind of long lines and hungry belly wanggaguts screaming orders at booth helpers, the clank of cleavers on cutting boards, come tomorrow this will all be a blur. Jacuzzi and backrubs later should anyone there be so lucky. For today though, they are all participating in an orchestrated performance sometimes improvising to make that hustle happen. Today, after all is said when done, the sheer look of exhaustion on the faces is enough said for the brave will be back next year. Hopefully so will I. Food on Fiyah!!! Baby.

Di tings sell off… Time to clean up and go home now. See you next year.