Food: Medicine OR Weapon? *it’s complicated*

The subject of food and food choices is one that continues to fascinate.  There are whole TV channels dedicated to food. Culture and food are so closely intertwined and explorations into both have been the basis of some of the most interesting documentaries ever made; think Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown. We need food to fuel our bodies and keep us alive. But food is more than a means to an end. What we eat, why we eat it and the traditions around these choices bring people together, help us to get to know each other, differentiate us and define us.

I have been on the keto diet for over 14 months now. I wanted to lose weight, and I knew that from past experience, the best way for me to lose weight was to drop carbs from my diet. Whenever I went low-carb, the pounds came off AND I felt more “aligned” within myself. I wasn’t sure why or how, but I knew that I was in a better place overall when I eschewed carbs. I started chronicling my own journey on Instagram. I decided to commit to this low-carb way of eating, but in order to make it sustainable, I knew it had to satisfy two conditions:

  1. I must never be hungry
  2. My food had to be delicious and satisfying.

I also figured that going public would be a great way to hold myself accountable. Continue reading Food: Medicine OR Weapon? *it’s complicated*

In search of Poinsettias…or so I thought….

“There’s a lady on Church St with the loveliest poinsettias at good prices” she offered.

I was looking for fluffy, good looking poinsettias that wouldn’t  break the bank and a colleague at work tried to help. She too wanted some and we agreed to pay this downtown Kingston vendor a visit. She reassured me that I would get parking (in the JPS parking lot…she had business to do at JPS so we wouldn’t be lying) and that she would direct me.

So at the appointed time, we removed our jewellery (Downtown Kingston, DUH!), grabbed our tiny purses (no need to advertise) and headed out in my car. Traffic was heavy going up Duke St. The commercial district that is Downtown Kingston was a bustle with pedestrian and vehicular traffic. On a regular day, Downtown is a bargain hunter’s paradise. So everyone and their mother trying to maximize their Christmas spend was out in the brilliant December sunshine in the middle of the day in the middle of the week.

The traffic was sluggish and I decided to make conversation as we slowly made our way up the road. You see, my passenger/guide is my co-worker but we’re not close friends, if you understand what I mean.

“So what are your plans for Christmas dinner?” I enquired. Food is always a great place to start as far as I am concerned.

“Well…” she hesitated…“We would normally go to my in-laws, but for the past two years we’ve done nothing.”

There was an awkward pause. But not for long. I sensed a story.

“How come?” I pushed.

She sighed. “Two years ago my sister-in-law was rude to me at dinner, Kelly. I was hurt but I held it in. And I decided that I didn’t need to put up with that ever again.”

As I listened, I sensed that she was conflicted, that she responded the only way she thought she could have, but that she wasn’t comfortable with her own decision.

“So how do your hubby and your kids feel about your decision? Don’t they miss the jollification and family togetherness?” I asked gently.

Another sigh. “I’ve encouraged, I’ve begged them to go without me, Kelly, but they don’t.”

I explained to her that as mothers WE are the nucleus of the family, that everything revolves around us, and that if we aren’t happy, no one else is really happy. Then I felt led to share a story with her.

I told her about my friend Rachel Cunning. I met Rachel on Twitter. She was a thirty something professional who was suffering from Lupus when we met. She was a lively and engaging tweeter, posting links to interesting topics and offering witty comebacks up and down my timeline. She tweeted in passing that she was spending Christmas alone. Immediately I perked up. No one should be alone at Christmas unless they choose to, is my belief, handed down to me by my own mother. Now let me confess, I am not the most sociable person. I am no social butterfly who loves to entertain. Not me, no Siree. But Christmas has always been a time for family and food and fellowship and so I reached out to her. She immediately accepted my invitation to dinner. It was a bit of a logistical challenge for me as she was not mobile and she lived all the way in Portmore, miles and miles away from my Coopers Hill home. But I planned around it, picked her up early, and warned her that she would have to watch me cook and prepare and just spend the day with me. I got a bedroom ready for her in case she needed to rest and took out blankets and socks since Coopers Hill is delightfully cool at this time of the year. I fussed for nothing. Rachel fit right in with the family and we all embraced her immediately. Our other guests came later in the day and December 25 2016 was another warm, enjoyable, fun time.

One Wednesday in early October I spoke to Rachel. She was in hospital but was upbeat that she would be discharged on the weekend. I was supposed to call her that weekend to make arrangements to get something to her later that week or so. I didn’t call her. The weekend passed and on the Monday morning heading out I remarked to Nick that I had to call Rachel “today today today.” Imagine my horror when I saw “RIP Rachel” on my twitter timeline later that Monday morning. Two phone calls later confirmed the worst: Rachel had passed away in hospital the previous evening. 

“Life is short” I told my colleague. “At the end of the day, is whatever you’re holding on to really worth it?

By this time, we had parked and exited the car. All the nice poinsettias were sold off. But I wasn’t disappointed. I had the distinct feeling, almost certain knowledge, if you will, that the drive out for poinsettias was not really about poinsettias, but more about the delivery of a well needed, perfectly timed message to my colleague that could potentially impact her life and her family’s life for the better: something infinitely better than potted plants for my home.

This morning she came in late and came straight to my desk. She was beaming and bubbling as she pulled up a chair.

“I know you were disappointed about the poinsettias, Kelly. But I have to tell you, I think the reason for our little outing was bigger than poinsettias.”

She shared how late into the night she wrestled with the challenge I offered her. She felt compelled to reach out to her sister-in-law to resurrect family dinner on Christmas day. She had discussed it with her husband and children and they all eagerly encouraged her to reach out. They were in full support. She eventually Whatsapped her sister at 7:30 this morning and almost immediately her phone rang. Sister-in-Law was on the other end, happy and eager to pick up where they had left off two years ago. My colleague told me that she felt a great weight off her shoulders and lightness in her heart. She was excitedly working out menu plans and best of all, the family was going to be together for Christmas. She knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she had done the right thing. I have a feeling that this Christmas will be a very special Christmas for that family.

Is there a fractured relationship that you need to address? Christmas is as good a time as any to deal with it. 

Is there a lonely person in your circle that you can include in your plans? Christmas is a great excuse to intrude. 

Are you the lonely one? Are you the hurt one? I am sorry for your pain and hurt. I encourage you to reach out. You’d be surprised at the welcome waiting for you at the end of that call or text message. 

Here’s to an abundance of love and happiness this Christmas. 

Courtesy Marion Ann


 

Jamaica Exotic Mushrooms

I love mushrooms. I can eat them raw, sauteed in butter by themselves, cooked up with bacon, perched atop a thin crust veggie pizza (yum!), paired with tender chicken in a creamy sauce…you get the picture. Typically, mushrooms in Jamaica are premium offerings, imported and resold at high prices in the more upscale supermarkets. But in the early ’90s, there was a local project that saw oyster mushrooms produced by small farmers in rural Jamaica available on supermarket shelves. They were different from the typical button and portabella mushrooms that I was familiar with, but they were half the price and they were fresh and I lived for the times when they made their appearance. I can’t recall the details on the project that brought this exotic food local. It could have been RADA or JADF (Think inland shrimp farming, ornamental fish rearing, bee keeping,small farmer orchid production in Yallahs, cassava and tobacco farming, greenhouse agriculture…some of the more well known agriculture based projects that were initiated with the aim of transforming lives & communities. Too bad scaling up seems to elude us. I stand to be corrected). They soon ceased to be available, much to my dismay. There’s that scaling up issue again.

Over the years I have mourned their absence until a few weeks ago when I stumbled across an article in the local papers signalling a new project and the availability of locally produced oyster mushrooms again! Oh happy day! I immediately went to the Facebook page indicated in the article and enquired. Production was happening in Manchester. Were they available in Kingston? Where? How much? I eventually got a response stating that deliveries were going to be made in Kingston on Nov 16, please place orders at a specific email address. So I did. The minimum order would be a half pound at J$2500.00. More later on the pricing.

 On Thursday I got an email indicating the approximate time of delivery and in the afternoon, the front desk at my office called me advising me of a delivery for me. I rushed out and was greeted by an elegant woman, with a slightly foreign accent, with 2 boxes and 2 jars for me. She introduced herself as Pauline Smith with a firm handshake, instructed me to immediately place the still warm and oh so beautiful mushrooms in cool storage, uncovered!, she was careful to admonish. She also said that as a first time customer I was getting two new products to try on one condition, that I give her feedback. The jars were labelled as mushrooms in bamboo vinegar. I was intrigued.

Look at that! Fresh and beautiful. One half pound of pale creamy and delicate salmon coloured mushrooms
Same label, but two different products I think. One had smaller bits with a firmer texture, and one had larger softer pieces.

I asked her to tell me more about this project. She explained that she was part of a cooperative aimed at empowering women and attacking rural poverty. She explained how they had worked to demystify mushroom cultivation and evolve a system where it become a plug and play endeavor. They had developed starter kits, very little land space was required, and that value added products was seen as the real value added side of this industry. Oh wow! I was intrigued. I love food. I love food innovation. And woman empowerment was simply the icing on the cake. Absolutely.

Pauline gave me more strict instructions on how to use the jarred products. “The mushrooms are a great meat substitute” she advised. “Simple use a little virgin coconut oil or sesame oil, sautee the product straight from the jar and then add a little of the vinegar it’s preserved in at the end.” “Oooh” I rejoined. “So it’s like an escoveitch then” I asked excitedly? “Not really…” she replied. “It’s more like a…like a…” she searched. “Like Thai food!” I jumped in as a light bulb went off. “That’s it exactly!” she agreed. I knew that I was in the presence of real foodie. Hey, Sis 🙂

I put my treasures in my igloo that I keep under my desk (don’t ask…I do, and it has come in handy on multiple occasions) and on cloud nine, I went home that evening my head swimming with all the ways I was going to enjoy my mushrooms.

On Friday evening I decided to have a light supper of lettuce roll ups. I put slices of ham and chicken processed slices in lettuce leaves, added cream cheese, olives, onions, pepper sauce and some of the mushroom pieces pickled in the bamboo vinegar and rolled them up. Delicious! These mushroom pieces were crisp and slightly sweet and went well with the other ingredients in my roll ups.

On Saturday morning I tried the preserved mushrooms in exactly the way she advised. I used sesame oil. The end result was a meaty, slightly sweet perfect side accompaniment to my bacon and hard-boiled egg breakfast. I imagined that it would also be perfect in a 100% veggie stir-fry creation that included baby corn, onions, sweet peppers and broccoli. Yum! My family concurred. Definitely a winner.

Oyster mushrooms picked in bamboo vinegar, sauteed in sesame oil, a little of the bamboo vinegar added at the end.

Don’t mind the shape of my eggs. It’s magic! The mushrooms were a delicious part of my breakfast.

For dinner, I decided to make chicken and mushroom in a cream sauce. Perfection! These oyster mushrooms have a meaty texture and they were so fresh and unblemished and unbruised (is that even a word?) unlike the imported options we have that have been cold storage for sooooo long and are soooooo far away from their origins. The end result was a delicious, easy to make meal that we all enjoyed.

I sauteed the cut up mushrooms with onions in my wok.

After stir-frying boneless, skinless chicken thighs, I added the sauteed mushrooms and onions. Fresh ginger, loads of fresh garlic, heavy cream, a dash of freshly grated nutmeg and fresh parsley brought it all together.

I served the chicken and mushrooms with a garden salad, and stir fried chayote and zucchini. All locally grown.

I did a little digging of my own. I visited Pauline’s Facebook page (she accepted my friend request), I visited her cooperative’s website and I read two Gleaner articles on her movement here and here. What I came away with is this: Pauline and her team have a vision. A great vision, that, if realised in full, will see women with an option for economic independence, a new healthy addition to our food options locally, an opportunity for exciting new food innovations with mushrooms as the base, and hopefully an abundance of fresh mushrooms at a reasonable price in supermarkets, so I can enjoy one of my favourite foods with ease. Like so many similar projects, this one seems to have had its problems: in-fighting, funding, support, etc. But they’re still going. Pauline has had her own health challenges, but she’s still going. And they’re working hard to spread the message. At a recent event at Devon House, they were fully present, selling “grow-kits” to allow people to grow their own mushrooms in their kitchen! I’d love to try that.  

Now, I work in the food industry…commercial manufacturing and distribution. So I always think commercial viability of any food innovation. Was the J$2,500.00 value for money? Perhaps…these are organic, fresh offerings delivered to my door. I haven’t done the gram for gram comparison with the imported  options. And maybe I shouldn’t. But premium-offerings consumers are a niche market, and there is still a mass market out there who think out-of-pocket-spend instead of premium-and-healthy and may be put off by such a huge outlay. The mushroom project will ultimately choose their target demographic and proceed accordingly. I wish them every single success. 

I have another tray of fresh mushrooms left and I am conspiring to sautee them with garlic and veggies and enjoy. By myself. No easy feat in house of foodies. Selfish? Yes. Without apology 🙂 #causeImworthit.

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