Best Cook: Hazel's Food
My cousin George Odell moved to Jamaica in 1973 to teach math and came home four years later with his bride, Hazel, a tiny girl with a big smile, skin the color of coffee beans, and a melodic laugh. Her Jamaican accent was hard to decode–but her food wasn’t.
Since Hazel’s arrival, our family has been treated to many Jamaican specialties without names. They’re just “Hazel’s food,” always delicious, always healthful. On this day in July, Hazel comes home from the market, her string bag full of coconut milk, ginger, limes, and cassava. She’s preparing to cook some of her favorite dishes.
George and Hazel live in Newburyport, Massachusetts, near the sea, which feels right to both of them. George grew up by the water in Manchester, Massachusetts, and Hazel grew up in the Jamaican mountain town of Richmond, in St. Mary Parish. Hazel’s father, a contractor and carpenter, kept a large garden and a few chickens, and the family netted fish right from the sea. “Everything was always fresh,” she recalls. “We’d butcher the chicken just before we cooked it; we’d bring the fish right in from the ocean and cook it. The vegetables came out of the garden all year round. We’d just get it and eat it. Never refrigerate.”
Hazel talks about the many fruits of Jamaica the way someone might talk about the stars in the sky: “Banana, papaya, naseberry, guava, guinep, star apple, mango …” She recites them all, on and on, and in the garden, or “cultivation,” as it was called there, were tomatoes, peas, beans, and everything else under the sun–even cacao and coffee. “Like paradise,” George says in fond recollection.
Inside their small house in Newburyport, they’ve re-created the kitchen of Hazel’s youth, where her mother cooked constantly for her six brothers and sisters. Hazel learned to cook from her mother; George learned to cook from Hazel. Hazel and George have been vegetarians most of their married life. Over the years they’ve learned where they can get things like cassava and yams and callaloo, the staples of Hazel’s early life. On our July visit, they’re cooking chicken for us, so we can see how it’s done, but for themselves, they use tofu or a soy-based meat substitute in recipes calling for chicken or fish. The flavor is much the same. When the burners are on, the spicy air of Jamaica drifts down Neptune Street, even in the dead of winter.
But it’s summer now. Working at one counter, George is juicing limes and grating ginger to make his signature ginger beer, a recipe he’s perfected over the years. Hazel doesn’t like ginger beer. “That’s his,” she says. “But, mon, this guy can cook!” At another counter, Hazel is cutting up chicken legs with a huge knife. She hasn’t forgotten the knack of cutting through the bone: one blow and it’s done. She flashes her radiant smile. “This is how we did it,” she says. And then she laughs, that happy sound of Jamaica.
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