This Caribbean Cookbook Spotlights Vegetarian Food and the Generations of Women Who’ve Cooked It | Healthyish

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“The story of Caribbean food cannot be told without telling the story of Caribbean women,” opens Provisions, the new cookbook from Jamaican sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau. The sisters have a long history of collaborating in food together: They have run restaurants and a catering and events business, and they co-authored another book, Caribbean Potluck, in 2014. With Provisions, they further cement their legacy not only as ambassadors of Caribbean foodways but also as preservers of its history. We sat down recently, me on my couch in the Hudson Valley and them on theirs in Jamaica (thanks, technology!) to talk about their thoughtful and emotional journey putting together this collection of contemporary vegetarian recipes. Inspired by the literal roots of Caribbean cooking, Provisions is as much a beautiful meditation on what the sisters cook today and as it is an homage to all the women who have stood in kitchens stirring pots to feed their communities before them. – Julia Turshen

Your book begins: ‘This book is dedicated both to the women of our past whose stories have disappeared from the family tree because they were deemed unimportant, irrelevant, or unnecessary, and to the women of our future who will carry on this beautiful lineage and create new stories and recipes to share with their daughters.’ When you started this book, did you know that this is what it would be about?

Michelle: To be honest, no. The book originally came out of the name Provisions. The focus was for us at first was slavery and the inheritances of slavery and looking at the Afro-Caribbean influence of the food during slavery…the tradition of eating these ingredients in this particular way and peppered by the influences of either the colonizers or other influences. It started from there, but a natural female perspective came. And we couldn’t tell the story without telling the story of women.

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Photo courtesy of Provisions

The authors, Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau.

What feeling do you hope readers, especially young women, will take with them from this book?

Suzanne: An understanding of legacy of those who came before and how important it is to recognize that aspect of our history. How we do everything and how we eat— it’s all a function of everything that came before. We run the risk in the Caribbean of thinking that how it’s done in a different, wealthier environment is “better.” They emulate women who aren’t from here and we have to hold strong to our own.

Michelle: A sense of belonging. If you take the time to listen and hear stories about people who came before you, not only does it help to root you and ground you and inform who you are and where you want to go, it helps inform this heritage that we’re losing. Recipes and documentation are being created outside of us and if we don’t sit and speak to these women, their stories will disappear. You don’t have to document it, but if you don’t start to understand it, you also lose an aspect of yourself. We don’t want to lose the past. We don’t have to dwell there—that’s why the recipes are modern. They give you a point of reference so you can better understand yourself.

There are recipes in the book that some people might not immediately associate with Caribbean food.

Michelle: Like the falafel with tahini. People don’t know that there’s a massive Arab population here, so that dish to us is as much Caribbean as anything else. It’s been in the region for a very long time. Asian-Caribbean food has a long legacy and it’s equally as authentic as anything else. The book is a way to present the food with the plethora of food with all of these ingredients to show how diverse our food is and what is available to us.

What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about Caribbean cooking?

Michelle: There’s a perception that everything that comes out of the region is rustic. Even in the photography they wanted everything to be rustic and dark and we were like no we want color, we want antiques, crystal, silver, and to use the things that have been handed down. There’s a massive heritage of artisanship, of basket weaving and crafts, just as in the Gullah culture. That heritage is very present.

This book is all vegetarian— was that intentional from the beginning or something that evolved?

Michelle: I think the focus came from the publisher because when we first sent out versions of manuscript, slaves were given salted meat (fish and meat, liked salted fish, pigtails, and son on). That was there allotment of protein. Fresh meat wasn’t given to them and they substituted with [what we call] provisions of every kind (breadfruit, plantains, etc). [We were] looking at what they were eating and we sent that to the publisher and they liked how there was such a focus on healthy, vegetarian cooking and asked if we would consider taking out the meat and making it just that.

If someone is unfamiliar with provisions [cooked, starchy vegetables common in Caribbean cuisine], which recipe do you recommend they start with?

Suzanne: The roast breadfruit. Most people don’t eat provisions in that way, but doing breadfruit with honey and Maldon salt is incredible, and you can incorporate it in a really simple way into any kind of meal.

Which recipes from the book do you find yourself making again and again?

Suzanne: There are so many in there that we love. The pepper sauces and pickles are really fantastic. We use those all of the time. Our grandmother always had a jar of pickled cucumbers and peppers she always had with every meal. The pak choi salad. The curried chickpeas.

Michelle: The eggplant with roasted tomatoes and a little feta—that is amazing. The romaine salad, the black bean plantain burger…the plantain gratin—we make that when we entertain.

Did working on the book make you feel closer to the women in your own life?

Suzanne: We both dreamt about our grandmothers. There was definitely a calling that there was a story to be told and an acknowledgement to me made for women who hadn’t been seen and acknowledged. One day I had an overwhelming sense of my paternal grandmother’s presence and a sense of the hardship of her life, the loneliness of her life. I think our understanding of their lives, not of them just as grandmothers and aunts, became so much more real.

How has creating this book changed you?

Michelle: I feel a sense of relief because I felt like I had these voices telling me to record this before it was too late. This group of women came together to help us create it and it has made it more complete and more complete in a way we could’ve ever made on our own. It feels no longer mine. I feel like we can let go.

Suzanne: I look at it and I’m like, who wrote this? Where did it come from? We had to let go at some point and give it to the universe and hope it will be received well. It was very emotional for us. When we wrote, we wept. It felt like it was so much bigger than ourselves. Every time we would sit and read, it felt like there was a panel of women around us. We have to have a dinner for the ancestors and set a place for everyone.

Buy Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking, $20

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These 13 winning photos by people who’ve experienced homelessness will make up the next MYTORONTO calendar

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Hardship and periods of homelessness have left a positive mark on the heart of Maria Santos.

“It stayed with me. You just don’t forget that. You become more humble,” said Santos, 54, explaining that she once relied on emergency shelters, sometimes with her very young children. “I just love to give back, because of the lived experience. For me it just puts a smile on my heart.”

Lived experience is what drew Santos to the MYTORONTO project, a photography contest for people who at one point in their lives did not have a place to call home. All the participants are given disposable cameras and instructed to fan out across the city to capture what Toronto is to them. The top 13 photographs were made into a calendar and gift cards.

Santos won this year’s reader’s choice award, through an online vote, for an image of man who called himself Dragon pushing a shopping cart near Bloor St. W. and Dufferin St. Her photo will be on the page for September.

“For some reason I just felt something. I saw this guy walking with his shopping cart covered with bottles,” Santos said. Dragon was friendly and willing to pose, she said. “That right there inspired me even more. I felt good in my heart. Just talking to him and taking the photo. I could tell the way he was posing that he felt good.”

MYTORONTO was modelled after MyLondon, launched by Café Art in England in 2013, and made possible by humanitarian organization Ve’ahavta, working with community partners. This is the second year in Toronto. The Star tracked the winners during the inaugural contest, from camera distribution day through to a public photo exhibition and street sales.

For this second round, 111 disposable cameras were handed out, 93 cameras came back and judges went through 2,600 photos. The calendar and gift cards will be sold online and across Toronto. The top 40 images will also be on display at Artscape Youngplace, starting Thursday and running through to Oct. 19.

Chosen for this year’s cover is a portrait of a white-bearded man, sitting with his back resting against a wall of graffiti in Kensington Market. The photographer, who goes by CJB OCD, told organizers he learned about the contest by reading about it on a bulletin board and credited God for coming across the scene that would become the winning shot.

“People usually personalize what they see when they’re the audience. So, they can see it any way they want; that’s for them to interpret. This might remind them of their beard, their father, their relative, their brother,” he told organizers, who sent his quote to the Star.

The calendars and gift cards both cost $20 and are sold by the winning photographers. They keep half the money and the rest goes back into the program. This year both items will be sold at select locations of Aroma Espresso Bar, at a different location each day during the week of Nov. 19.

Cari Kozierok, Ve’ahavta’s executive director, said one image that really spoke to her and to the giving spirit of the contest was taken by Morsi Luc and shows a man walking by a person lying on a rain-soaked patch of Bay St.

“We are surrounded by a very serious problem that we as human beings feel a call to do something about and we don’t know what to do,” said Kozierok. “We can notice, we can listen to stories, we can meet people affected by poverty and give them a name and a space and a path.”

Maria Santos, winner of the MYTORONTO reader's choice award, spent time in the city's emergency shelter system. "You have to be able to get along with people, because people are on top of each other," she says.
Maria Santos, winner of the MYTORONTO reader’s choice award, spent time in the city’s emergency shelter system. « You have to be able to get along with people, because people are on top of each other, » she says.  (ROMINDER SAINI)

Santos, a single mother of three who came to Toronto from Portugal at the age of four, described the challenges of surviving with her children while using the city’s emergency shelter system. “With children it is no joke. It is quite stressful when you are in a cramped small room and there are other moms with small babies. You have to be able to get along with people, because people are on top of each other.”

Santos now lives with one of her daughters. Ongoing challenges with anxiety made her too nervous to enter the contest last year, but this time she pushed her fears aside and jumped in. Santos was not trained in photography, although having three children meant she was always taking photographs. “I just like to reflect and look back. There is nothing like great memories.”

The contest was a beautiful experience, she said. She’s since joined the Ve’ahavta Street Academy, an adult education course, and signed up for a speakers bureau to further boost her confidence and help her manage what she describes as severe anxiety.

“People wouldn’t know that if they met me, but I’m working really hard.”

She said she hopes that speaking about her own challenges and progress will encourage people to seek out help — because it is there.

Santos also has been trying to find Dragon and wants him to see the exhibition.

“We just don’t know what people are going through,” Santos said. “At the end of the day we breathe the same, we bleed the same, you know, we are human beings.”

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar

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