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Easter Tradition

From Jamaica, Feast and Family

By Matt McMillen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page F01

On Sunday, the Easter feast at David Brown's house will begin when he peels back the foil around his stuffed red snapper and the aroma blends with the scent of his rice and peas simmering in coconut milk and his lightly browned slices of just-past-ripe plantains.

On his fish platter will be steamed string beans, long slices of carrot, and shredded green cabbage, flavored with just a touch of butter. He will slice thin, glistening rounds of orange, lemon and pineapple for garnish.

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Caribbean Snapper
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Glossary

Here are some of the terms common to Caribbean cooking:

ACKEE A bright red fruit with black seeds and white, delicately flavored flesh. Poisonous when unripe, the fruit is typically not eaten until it bursts open on its own. Ackee figures largely in Jamaica's national dish, salt fish and ackee. It is available frozen and canned at West Indian stores.

CALLALOO Large, leafy greens that are sometimes referred to as "Jamaican spinach." Bitter when raw, callaloo can be steamed or sauteed in the same fashion as turnip and collard greens.

ESCOVITCH (Jamaican word for escabeche): A tart and spicy dish of pan-fried whole fish, usually red snapper, that has been smothered with hot vinegar, onions and Scotch bonnet chili peppers.

GOAT Often cooked in a hot curry sauce and served with roti, an Indian bread. "The Indian influence on our food," says Jamaican emigre and home cook David Brown of Greenbelt, reflects the Jamaican motto: "Out of many people we are one." Lamb is a substitute.

JERK SEASONING A hot blend of chili peppers, garlic, onion and spices including cinnamon, ginger and allspice. Commonly used to flavor chicken, pork and fish, jerk takes the form of either a dry rub or a sauce.

PEAS Jamaicans refer to most beans as peas. In the popular dish rice and peas, for example, the peas take the form of red kidney beans.

SALT FISH Salted, dried fish -- typically cod -- that is rehydrated, sauteed with ackee, onions and Scotch bonnet chili peppers, and served at breakfast as salt fish and ackee, Jamaica's national dish.

SCOTCH BONNET CHILI PEPPERS Among the hottest chilis in the world, Scotch bonnets range in color from yellow to orange to red. They are used in escovitch, jerk chicken and many other Jamaican dishes. Handle with caution, preferably with gloves, and wash your hands afterward.

-- Matt McMillen

Filling out Brown's table in Greenbelt will be baskets of fruit and jerk chicken and escovitch, crispy pan-fried fish topped with vegetables pickled in vinegar and fiery Scotch bonnet peppers. Currant-and raisin-filled bread and buns will be ready for eating with thin slices of mild yellow cheddar cheese. Everything will be washed down with a carrot shake -- his older brother Calbert Richards's secret blend of juiced carrots, sweetened condensed milk and rum from their native Jamaica.

"Easter Sunday dinner is one of the most prominent dinners you can cook in a Jamaican family," says Brown. "It's the one time that our whole family gets to pray together." Laughing, he adds, "All the heathen become reverent."

As many as 10 relatives from as far as Connecticut will join Brown, his wife, Sonya, and their two young children at their apartment. "We want it to get crowded," he says.

An avid, well-practiced home cook who rarely strays from the foods of his homeland ("Jamaicans: We are notorious for sticking to our diet"), Brown came to the United States on an academic scholarship to Oral Roberts University in 2000. There he met his wife, whose parents are also from Jamaica. They moved to the Washington area in 2003, when Brown was hired as circulation manager of the Prince George's Gazette.

"My wife will be a partner" in making the Easter meal, he said, "though she'll tell you I go ballistic [when I'm cooking]."

Brown, 34, who grew up in St. Andrew Parish, nestled between the Blue Mountains and Kingston, recalls the picnic brunches at the Anglican church where his family worshipped. "There were flowers and birds singing in the garden, which are a huge thing in Jamaica.

"You could spend the whole day there pretty much. The key thing was the freshness of the food. Every table had a different dish. Ackee, fried fish, callaloo, codfish, jerk chicken and pork, rice and peas, curried goat. You have to take your hat off and bow down to all the grandmothers, who prepare almost everything. They get ecstatic to see you digging into their food."

Brown shares the feeling. "There's a joy I get out of feeding other people."

The Easter meal at the Browns' is festive and casual, he says. "No ties. If you show up in a tie, you'll be the talk of the town." There is lots of talking and laughing and playing of dominoes. ("Jamaicans are the best dominoes players in the world. Bring on the challengers!") But it is also the culmination of the season of Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter, which is a time of reflection for the family. "It reminds us of our imperfections, that we are not beyond God's help."

Brown likes to begin prepping the big dinner the day before. He'll soak the kidney beans (called "peas" in Jamaica, hence the dish called rice and peas) in water and a little sodium bicarbonate. "It's a trick my mother taught me to lessen the impact of the beans. Everyone is so afraid of what they'll do to you." He'll rub a whole chicken or two with jerk marinade, a hot blend of chilis and spices, and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. The stuffed red snapper will get a rubbing of jerk shortly before going into the oven. "We do a lot of marinating," he says. "If you salt and pepper only before cooking, you flavor the skin but not what's inside."

No celebration would be complete without Easter buns and cheese. The buns -- which come singly or in loaf form, are soft and flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and other aromatic spices.

Selvyn Wright, owner of Brown's Caribbean Bakery on Georgia Avenue in Northwest Washington, says he bakes and sells about 1,000 of them a day during the season. With the Washington area's Jamaican immigrant population -- after Salvadorans, Jamaicans make up the District's second-biggest group from a single country, according to the 2000 Census, although they are a small fraction of immigrants in the larger area -- he can count on a lot of customers. The buns he doesn't sell here are mailed to Jamaican expatriates in the Carolinas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere.

"Bun and cheese was the thing to look forward to," recalls Claire Nelson, founder of the Institute of Caribbean Studies in the District. No food has a stronger pull on her memory. She emigrated to the States nearly 30 years ago but still vividly recalls sneaking the buns into church for the three-hour Good Friday service. Sitting on the kids' bench at the back of the church, "we were supposed to be praying, not eating illegally," she says, laughing. "We'd be chomping on buns and pinching each other."

Nowadays, she tries to avoid the buns because they are so addictive. "There's something about them, a comfort I can't resist. They bring that heavenly feeling of being drawn back to childhood."

Easter buns are one thing Brown won't be making himself this year. He says he doesn't have the time. But he'll load up on them during his shopping because, as he puts it, "it would practically be an insult to invite someone over and not be able to offer them a bun."

Buns and cheese are a staple snack in Jamaica, but spices and dried fruit are added to the daily version at Easter. Brown says that the buns are an adaptation of the hot cross buns the English colonizers brought to the island.

The dining room table will be decorated with an assortment of spring flowers and baskets of fruit. Red Stripe beer and rum punch will be passed along with his brother's carrot shakes. The shakes are "potentially addictive," Brown jokes. "When you drink that, people complain that you are getting your glass refilled too frequently."

For Brown, Easter is a time of laughter and reconnecting with family. "For me and my brother, it's a done deal. We do this over and over. We're in a foreign country, so we're going to be together. Then, perhaps, we become strangers until the next holiday."

Matt McMillen last wrote for Food about Hemp's Meats, a Jefferson, Md., butcher shop dating to 1849.


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