“What the heck happened in my kitchen,” were the last set of words I wanted to hear after trying to impress my mom with what was supposed to be an amazing dish. Instead, she was greeted by piles of dirty pans and bowls. The kitchen was filled with the knockout smell of burnt disappointment, only a bum could appreciate, and that was far from edible. Being able to successfully cook any dish is a skill that most people aspire to have. Accepting that mistakes will happen, and everything can totally go sideways on the first attempt, will dramatically help your thought process, if you’re not proud of the outcome. My late grandmother would always say, “Cooking is like making love, you do it well, or you do not do it at all.” Thank God it went over my head as a child, I had no idea what she meant by making love. My interpretation of that was, ‘Cooking + Love = Soul Food’.
Growing up in my household was a very humbling experience, where persistence and perseverance was taught. Being lazy or giving up was never an option. I had to help around the house with just about everything. If my home fell short of anything, it’ll never be chores. I only thought of running away maybe one hundred times. However, of all the chores and activities in that extremely overcrowded house of six, my most favorite was cooking! Oh, how I loved the savory smells of deliciously fresh foods, that inundated our miniature kitchen. I always thought our kitchen was the only part of our house that smelt good, every other room smelt like my stepfathers’ socks, or Pearl’s pet cat Patches.
Pearl and I had the typical ‘I hate you but I love you’ sister relationship. She’d always get into my stuff and was like that nosey neighbor you hope would move out of the neighborhood and never return. Unfortunately, she is my sister and my mom loves to say, “Sisters are like fat thighs, they stick together!” We did everything together, except on Sundays when we had our little cook-off. It didn’t seem like a fair match up since I was 11 and she was 2years younger, but I didn’t care. My main goal was just to learn how to cook, and hopefully in the future become a chef. Every Sunday we’d have our cook-off, so every day prior to that involved tons of practice and preparations. My mom woke up at 5:00am every morning and made sure Pearl and I were awake to help prepare the breakfast. “Get your asses up,!” “The breakfast won’t help to make itself,!” she’d scream when we took too long to get in the kitchen. Most mornings we made cornmeal porridge. She always said it’d make us learn more in school, and I believed her. Because of the English influence on our culture, Jamaicans have been enjoying cornmeal porridge for over two hundred years. We eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I still remember the first time I perfected this dish after a few miserable failed attempts.
I started out by gathering all the materials and ingredients I needed, while Pearl stood around yawning, and rubbing her eyes with traces of drool on the sides of her face. She was just not a morning person. I gathered my cornmeal, flour, salt, milk, butter, sugar, vanilla extract and nutmeg/cinnamon.
This time my mom stood by our little rusted over stove, only to watch, since she was more hands on during my first two attempts, and she wanted to see how I would do on my own. I measured out the quantities of all the ingredients I needed. I sifted my cornmeal and flour, then I combined them both in a large green plastic bowl. I added water to the mixture, and stirred it till it was smooth and lump free. Having timed everything perfectly, my water was already boiling. I added my mixture to the boiling water and continued stirring till it was nice and thick and smooth. I looked over to my mom, and without saying a word I could tell she was proud.
My mom has been my literacy sponsor throughout every aspect of my life, She has not only taught me to be an incredible cook, but she is the most honest and forth coming teacher I could not be any more grateful to have. The way she taught and demonstrated is so raw and unedited, anyone would learn and outdo themselves, because she’s a perfectionist and required nothing less than maximum effort. Cooking is amongst the many things she taught me and I have always tried to exceed her expectations. In doing so, I didn’t realize that she only wanted me to do my best and not settle for mediocrity. Whenever I made a mistake she’d tell me to do it multiple times till I was satisfied with the result. She helped me to set expectations for myself and was always very honest with her critiques. Having someone like her with that type of attitude and passion has helped me tremendously with accepting responsibility,
turning a negative outcome into a positive, and developing a backbone for criticism. She had a mesomorphic body that any woman would die for, one where you could literally see all her muscles forcing their way against her skin. She worked constantly, but never seemed to get tired. She had to be the strongest, most dedicated woman I’ve ever known, and I’m extremely blessed to have her. She is the backbone to our family.
I looked up at our ‘home sweet home’ clock and 10 minutes had already passed, so it was already time to add all the finishing touches to my porridge. After checking my guideline from my second attempt, I realized I had done everything exactly as I was supposed to. I finally tasted my porridge with a feeling of pride and satisfaction, it was perfect! Thoroughly cooked, the flavor was on point and there were no unfortunate disasters during the preparation. My mom helped me to serve it into little bowls as I set the table. My porridge turned out great, better than I had thought it would. We all ate, cleaned up, and it was time for school.
Learning to cook not only helped me to prepare special dishes, it was a bonding experience for me and my mom. I learnt about the different food groups, and nutritional facts, but most importantly safety in the kitchen, cleanliness and independence. I remember specifically the first day I tried to make the same porridge dish, oh my god what a disaster that was. Everything that could’ve possibly went wrong, went wrong. I remembered my mom walked in the kitchen and blurted, “HOLY SHIT! What have you guys done?” I didn’t think it was necessary to do so much stirring, which resulted in a bunch of huge lumps of raw cornmeal. I had asked my sister Pearl to help with measuring the ingredients, but she had also put way too much butter, too much salt, and not enough sugar. Halfway through cooking the flames were so high I remember the porridge boiling over, which resulted in the entire stove top covered in lumpy uncooked porridge. By this time the flames were put out and all the tiny holes in the burner were completely clogged, the smell of burnt porridge on the burners and a salty, buttery uncooked disaster was not exactly what I had in mind.
“What in the world is going on in here?”, “Are you two trying to burn down the damn house?” she looked around with her eyes popping in horror and disbelief, her jaw dropped for a second then she took a deep gasp of air before she screamed, “WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED IN MY KITCHEN!” She looked at us in despair, but Pearl and I knew better than to look at her and say a word. What could we possibly say? “Sorry mom, we screwed up your stove, tarnished your kitchen, and wasted your food?” That sounded terrible in my head. Pearl and I stood in a corner picking at our fingernails with our necks leaning on one shoulder and our toes digging into the kitchen floor. We had absolutely no eye contact with anything that spoke. I could hear, smell and feel Pearl’s morning breath on my arm, she was that close to me. Her breath smelled like rotten cabbage and garlic. I peeked at her through the side of my eye, and she had that innocent look in her big brown eyes, like a dog awaiting its punishment after chewing its master’s favorite shoes. Luckily, I took one for the team and we both got off scot free with only a warning to never attempt cooking without an adult present.
On my second attempt, my mother worked closely with Pearl and I to ensure no more disasters would occur in the kitchen. As a guideline, my mom had me write down all the things that went wrong on my first unsuccessful attempt, and all the precautions I had to take to make the end results at least edible. She helped to measure out all my ingredients, monitored the heat, and made sure I thoroughly stirred my mixture. My favorite part of the preparation was measuring the flour and scraping off the excess with a straight edged spatula. Pearl and I enjoyed dabbing our hands into the excess flour and gently smacking it onto each others faces. After twenty minutes of being silly but extremely cautious and patient, my porridge was finally done and turned out better than when I had first tried.
Upon the successful completion of my third and final attempt to perfect this dish, I finally realized that almost all good achievements begin with terrible first efforts, and required a lot of dedication. Whenever a mistake is made, giving up should never be considered as an option, but finding solutions and solving the problem. I’m very grateful to have my mom as my literacy sponsor. Throughout this entire experience, cooking cornmeal porridge was not the only thing that I learnt. There were many other literacies attained in the process. My ability to accept responsibilities, being independent, working with other people, even when their will power is not in line with mine, and never giving up are just a few. I believe everyone can achieve anything they put their minds, and heart into. I go by the saying, “winners never quit, and quitters never win.” Everyone can cook, but they’ll never know, unless they put that pot on the stove. First, second, and third attempt may not turn out as planned, but that’s the time they may want to put on that chef hat and bib, put there game face on, and show that kitchen who’s boss! My sister Pearl might have helped created more messes than good, but I’m still very happy to have her by my side, even if it is just to keep me company. You know what they say, “Sisters are like a great bra, supportive, makes me look good, never leaves me hanging and is close to my heart”.
CORNMEAL PORRIDGE RECIPE.
2 1/2 cups cold Milk
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 Cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. ground Nutmeg
2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
2 Tbsp. Evaporated Milk
1 Tbsp. Sugar
1. Pour milk into a saucepan over Medium-high heat 2. Stir in cornmeal, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and pimento 3. Continue stirring until mixture starts to thicken 4. Stir in vanilla, evaporated milk and sugar 5. Lower heat and stir until porridge is thick and creamy 6. Remove cinnamon sticks and pour into bowls
Makes 2 servings