Brothers and coconut candy
My mind was on Jamaica when writing last week’s column for reasons that had nothing to do with its most famous dish: my new grandson, Peter. Although Peter was born in the United States, his birth mother is Jamaican. Like his four-year-old brother Robbie, he is adopted and African-American. My daughter/his mother, Anne, and I had one of our nerdy/enjoyable debates on whether the Caribbean is considered American. It was inconclusive, but I’m sticking with African-American.
The adoption papers were signed last Wednesday and celebrations ensued. So waking up on Thursday to news of the terrorist massacre of nine African-American folks attending a Bible study class in Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t just inspire the bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustration and anger that’s become far too common. It made me fearful for my precious grandsons.
Robbie and Peter live in Brooklyn, which is increasingly becoming not only NYC’s hippest borough (Manhattan is so passé), but also one of the coolest places on earth. Even there, though, Anne and Ben have experienced negativity in Robbie’s co-op preschool from black parents who disapprove of whites adopting black children. Back in Springfield, I still sometimes overhear blatantly racist remarks.
After Obama’s presidential victory in 2008, more than a few pundits posited about whether it meant America was now a post-racial society. Those thoughts were quickly laid to rest as loud segments of Americans voiced their absolute convictions that he’d been born in Kenya, or would confiscate all American’s guns, or was different from “real” Americans, etc. Optimist that I am, though, I see a positive side to their rants because they’ve brought to light endemic racism that’s been below the radar of many of us. And as horrific as the vigilante terrorism was last Wednesday, I hope it’s made us at least realize how far we still have to go. The same is true of the recent police shootings of unarmed young black men. (I strongly believe most cops want to serve and protect their communities. But the crushing stress of their jobs, as well as some bad apples, can lead to tragically unacceptable endings.)
There are periods in history when society takes a leap forward: The Civil War, with its devastating loss of lives, is one. The decades of deplorable Jim Crow laws resulting in injustice and violence against blacks eventually led to protests resulting in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Such historical times almost always include violence and outrage and are never comfortable. But it’s our awareness of that very violence, outrage and discomfort that makes us realize that we can and must do better, even if the results aren’t perfect.
I know that Robbie and Peter will sometimes have to face the kind of discrimination that white people can only know about secondhand. I’ve written before that from the instant I held Robbie, he didn’t seem like “the other”. (OK, I later realized that didn’t include hair care.) What I meant was that my immediate, intense love for him was no different than I felt when first holding my babies. That was true, and we cherish the familial bonds holding us together. But we also must acknowledge and celebrate our differences, whether they be ancestry and skin color, or lifestyles and opinions; and that we as a family are richer precisely because of those differences. And so is America – or at least it should be.
Welcome to our family and to the world, Peter!
Coconut drops may not be as famous as jerked meats. But they are an integral part of Jamaican heritage cooking, always present at cultural events. Commercial versions are available, but the best are made in home kitchens and eaten there or sold on the streets or taken to church or the workplace.
As with many heritage recipes there are endless variations. Ginger is an essential ingredient but the amount varies wildly. Some recipes call for half as much ginger as coconut; others for just a tablespoon or two, or to add a crushed piece of ginger that’s removed after cooking. I like ginger’s spicy heat, but feel free to adjust to your taste. The same is true of the sugar: use the maximum for a sweeter confection. A few recipes call for a teaspoon of ground allspice or tablespoon of vanilla.
Don’t substitute pre-grated coconut for fresh; it’s absolutely necessary for the right consistency and texture.
Jamaican coconut drops
- 2-3 medium coconuts
- Fresh ginger root, approximately 1/4 lb.
- 2 -3 c. brown sugar
Make sure your coconuts are fresh and not dried out. The easiest way to do this is to shake each coconut at the store. If you hear a fair amount of liquid sloshing around on the inside the coconut should be fresh.
Almost all coconuts available locally have been scored around their outsides, making them much easier to crack open. Have a bowl on hand to catch the coconut water. Break open the coconuts. I like to use a hammer and chisel or the thick end of an old chef’s knife. This is not a job for your best knives. Drain the coconut water into the bowl and reserve. Slice off a sliver of the white coconut “meat” and taste to make sure it’s fresh – if not, you’ll be able to tell.
Remove the coconut meat from the shell with a knife. I like to use an oyster-shucking knife but any sturdy knife will do. Again, this is not a job for a good knife. It’s not all that difficult, but be careful initially so that you don’t cut yourself. Rinse the coconut meat to remove any bits of shell but leave on the brown “skin” attached to the white meat.
Cut the coconut meat into a fine dice, about ¼- to 1/8-inch squares. The pieces don’t have to be uniform but should be roughly the same size. You will need 3 cups of firmly packed, diced coconut meat. Set aside.
If adding diced, fresh ginger to the coconut drops, peel the ginger using the bowl of a spoon. Slice the ginger across the grain/fibers into 1/8-inch-thin coins, then stack several at a time and cut into slivers. If the slivers are more than 1/2-inch long cut them in half again. You should have approximately one cup.
If using the ginger as a milder flavoring, peel a 2- or 3-inch piece of ginger as above, then smash it with the flat side of a knife.
In a large, heavy-bottomed cooking vessel with a close-fitting lid, add the 1 cup diced ginger or piece of ginger and a cup of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then add the brown sugar, 3 cups of firmly packed coconut and enough water to just completely cover the coconut. Bring to a rapid boil and reduce the heat to medium/medium-high. Cover the pot and let it cook for 15 minutes.
Uncover the pot and reduce the flame to medium low. Use a large spoon, preferably with a flat bottom, to continuously stir the mixture to prevent it from burning or sticking. Cook the mixture until the sugar begins to caramelize. It should be very sticky with the liquid almost, but not completely, gone. You may want to turn the heat to the lowest possible setting towards the end.
Using 2 tablespoons, scoop up a tablespoon of the mixture and then push it off with the other spoon onto a surface to cool. Traditionally this is done on banana leaves which can then be used to serve. These days, the surface is usually lightly buttered foil or parchment paper. Cool completely before serving.
Makes approximately 18-24 servings.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.