“Then we would cook cornmeal porridge,
Of which I’ll share with you…”
-“No Woman No Cry” – Bob Marley
“Porridge is such a subjective thing.”
Subjective, certainly. This article, in “The Salt,” NPR’s Foodways blog suggests porridge is a traditional Scottish food eaten during cold winters. Multiple truths exist. For me, porridge is Jamaican breakfast. It has cousins as Brazilian São João street food (mingu,curau, canjica, and mungunzá) and Haitian late night snack (laboyi). I’m sure it is connected to Akamu, Ogi and Pap in Nigeria. It is grits in North Carolina. Perhaps it is polenta.
It has many names.
It is eaten in the constant year round heat that radiates from the equator.
But I don’t see these words in this article. So I will write them.
We must make the colonies visible.
Those far away islands that are at the heart of the identity, economy, and politics of those metropolitan British isles. Those places that seem to be easily ignored when talking about the roots of British and Scottishness. When talking about “changing the course of history.” When writing about how we came to be.
This article reminds me that I have a lot to learn about my history, personal and collective. About my ancestors before they came to Jamaica, Cuba and the United States, by will and by force. About Jamaican colonial and plantation society. About my African ancestry. About my Scottish and British ancestry. About Vikings. About the knots, contradictions and tensions that are my family tree. How love and violence, evil and good, power and oppression, wealth-building and poverty-making bumped up against each other to make us.
There is so much I do not know.
Porridge is tied up in slavery, growth, expansion, and capitalism. The British Isles and the Caribbean Sea are intimately related, in economy, identity, and genetics. For those on and descended from the Jamaican side of the relationship, it is impossible to make invisible the Scottish-ness, the Britishness, the Irish-ness of what we are. It’s in the skin, the food, the talk, the names. Sometimes, we choose to celebrate it. To simplify it. We do not have the choice of forgetting. We also don’t always have the choice of knowing.
When I think about Porridge I think about my Grandma, daughter of Lena Hall, from whom I get my middle name. I know that surnames in my Jamaican family – Hall, Robertson – have Scottish origins. I do not know how we got them, except for in vague terms that describe the violent and coercive ways that power, race, and gender collided in the colonies. I do not know the names that we lost, that we had before we were forced onto boats and crossed oceans.
I ask about my name. I learn that Hall is a name with origins to lands that border England and Scotland, and prior to that Norman Vikings. I ponder connections between my mother and my father’s family. My father’s family – Kibbe – is also potentially descended from Vikings that landed in England.
It’s in the porridge. It’s hot, and mushy, and mixed up.
Porridge references the class and identity divides amongst those in in both the metropolitan isles and the colonial islands. The type, consistency, and level of sweetness is code for wealth, status, prosperity and struggle – past and present.
I learn about identity constructed in contrast. About blurred lines of slave, free, white, black, ownership and immigration.
I ask about whiteness in Jamaica. I learn about the trade of Irish people as slaves.
I learn that a large number of Scotsmen (literally, male bodied people) voluntarily went to Jamaica, many as a way to increase their lot in life, and via their lives in the colony shed their marginal “Scottish” identity, replacing it with the more powerful “British”. By going “away” and into the contact zone of the colony plantations they built wealth and a new identity. Once color was constructed as the ultimate differential, these ancestors national difference from the British became relatively less important compared to my ancestors who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean island from Africa. Scotsmen were then able to re-enter metropolitan society as “British.”
I learn about spiritual forces that support us. About Brigid, the triple deity of fire, poetry, and inspiration. About Yemanja, the goddess of and mother of the ocean. About the meaning of corn, celebration of harvest, and how to celebrate and honor the earth.
I learn I have a lot more to learn. I learn to have more questions.
Porridge is sweet and creamy
So sweet and hot
It fills me up
I am overheating from the inside out
It is too much
I can’t finish it Grandma
Porridge is cornmeal, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is oats, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green bananas, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is wheatena, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is cream of wheat, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is green plantain, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is hominy, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Porridge is peanuts, water, milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla.
Each ingredients holds so much
Tells stories of trade of people, spices, sugar, rum
Lives and labor stolen, resources pillaged, people pushed to periphery
To create a metro center
Cream of wheat needs to have lumps
The strawberry jam was never in a spiral in my bowl, like in the commercial
My mother was not entertaining that kind of whimsy on weekday mornings
How do you eat porridge in the Caribbean?
It is so hot!
I’m overheating from the inside out
Sprinkle sugar on top
Stir in milk to cool it down
It forms a glossy film on top.
I don’t stir it in
I like how it forms lakes and rivers
I can’t finish it,
I just can’t
It is the only thing I can’t finish
I am a dumpling child
Round and soft
I love food
I even love porridge
But a whole bowl!?
I can’t take it all in
It’s too much
It contains the story of sugar
Of cheap grains to feed forced laborers
Of food stretched too far
Eat the outside edges first
It cools faster on the edges
You won’t get burned that way
The richness of my porridge – the fresh milk, the butter – is a privilege
My grandma cannot comprehend my inability to finish
Like she cannot understand my identity crisis and anxiety about my light-white skin and how I fit into the world I live in
of North Carolina,
It is a privilege
“Eat your porridge”
“Enjoy your lightness”
“You are who you are,
why ask questions?”
The sugar is not a privilege
Paid for in blood and burns and bodies
To spend/to invest in expansion
Of capitalist economies
Built on colonial foreign lands and metropolitan factories
Small islands fueling those slightly larger ones across the Atlantic
I do have questions about my ancestors
About their names.
Who came from Africa? From where?
Who came from Scotland? Why?
How did we get our names?
What names did we lose?
Porridge is creole
porridge is that-thing-we-do-now-that-we-don’t-remember-when-we-didn’t-do-so-perhaps-we’ve-done-it-forever
porridge is pap
is sweetness is the face of bitter
Porridge is grandma visiting
I find her in the kitchen
Stirring a hot pot
– – –
Ways with Food is a place to stir up, marinate and serve up our questions, reflections and stories about food.