p-town a we-town
(yes, all the aproned folk are jamaican--save for the brazilian woman in the baseball cap.)
in spite of its reputation as a premier spot for gay vacationers and "all-yearers" alike, and despite the pervasive homophobia in jamaican society and public discourse, provincetown boasts a remarkable number of jamaican residents each summer. comparatively, one sees few african-americans in p-town. sure, you find your occasional "inter-racial" or black gay couple, but african-american tourists are rare on the cape--with the exception of martha's vineyard, which has a reputation as a premier spot for the african-american elite.
the jamaicans in p-town, like the jamaicans in many parts of the US, are migrant workers. they join the irish--and, judging only by a trip to moby dick's in wellfleet, where employees wear their nationality on their name-cards, eastern europeans--as cape cod's imported labor force of choice. one sees jamaicans working in most of p-town's restaurants. the supermarket boasts a group of cashiers seemingly all of jamaican origin. at night, after the restaurants close, one sees jamaican folk walking home from work, hanging around on bicycles, and boarding a big bus to return to the hotel where most of them stay. on the pier, one can find curry goat and curry lobster and stew chicken.
one night while walking down commercial street, i approached a kid on a bike who was clearly jamaican--as indicated by his dress, his manner, and his exchange with a fellow patois-speaker--and i asked him how he liked living and working in provincetown. it's ok, he explained: there are plenty of girls and money to be had. "it's uncle sam, y'know"--by which he meant, cha-ching. he told me that there's a decent reggae session in town on sunday nights at club euro. i asked him what it was like to live in a place where batty men strut freely and he barely had an answer. seemed he was used to it, or just not ready to be too candid with a stranger. as he said, there are still plenty of girls in p-town. if only the average jamaican had the same level of tolerance.
one day while staying on the cape last month, becca and i decided to cook a big jamaican breakfast for family and friends. we had about five cans of ackees that charlie and i had carried back from jamaica, where they cost a third of the price they fetch up here. (a can of ackees in the boston area runs about $10--more than any other canned food i've seen.) we went out in search of a variety of jamaican breakfast staples: callaloo, cho-cho (for escoveitch), coconut milk (for rundown), scotch-bonnet peppers, mango and paw-paw (aka, papaya). we found them all, as well as such products as irish moss, banana chips, and cream crackers, at the grand union supermarket in provincetown. we even found salt-cod, though the packaging and product were a bit more shi-shi than we were looking for. when i asked the jamaican woman at the fish counter, in my best jamaican, "y'ave saltfish?" she looked puzzled. "sound different," she said. i couldn't figure out what she meant by "sound different," but i gathered it was either that i sounded different than the average customer looking for salted cod or simply that the name for "saltfish" here sounds different. at any rate, she pointed us to some salted cod that would work fine as the saltfish to accompany our ackee and callaloo dishes.
when we got to the cash-register and loaded our rather jamaican bunch of groceries on the conveyor belt, i was sure we would get a reaction from our jamaican cashier. she barely registered anything, however, despite the fact that very few people in p-town--at least those that look like we do--must assemble such a clearly jamaican batch of groceries. (i should say, though, that the place did have a rather extensive section of jamaican products--not surprising given the number of jamaicans living in town.) the only time she spoke up is when a woman in line behind us asked becca what cho-cho was. "it's kind of like a cross between an apple and a radish," becca said, "you can put it in soup." "can you put it in a salad," the woman asked. becca wasn't sure. i knew i had never had uncooked cho-cho, but i wasn't really sure either. "you have to cook it," said the cashier, without looking up. good to know. good 2 go.
we drew the rest of our ingredients from local resources. to be frank, we would have used snapper for the escoveitch if we could have gotten it fresh. we substited haddock instead, which was great. it was our first attempt at escoveitch fish, and it was a success to be sure. the night before we boiled equal parts water and vinegar, and added sugar, peppers, carrots, and cho-cho. then we fried the haddock in vegetable oil and poured the sauce on top. despite our lack of experience, it came out perfect.
mmmmm, escoveitch fish.
instead of making the rundown using canned mackeral (as is customary), we substituted bluefish, which was delicious. even the shi-shi saltfish gave the ackee and callaloo a fine zip. we also made rice&peas, which, to be honest, we still haven't been able to get quite right just yet. (i think the trick is to use dried-and-soaked beans rather than canned ones, and to get the right grain of rice.) overall, it was an amazing meal. we were proud of ourselves, and our audience was volubly and visibly appreciative.
(from left to right: callaloo, ackee, cans of coconut water and irish moss [for the curious and uninitiated], bluefish rundown, banana and mango, papaya)
were we to be seen laboring over all these jamaican dishes in our cape cod kitchen, we'd probably look about as strange (and yet as tolerable) to p-town's jamaicans as a chorus of cross-dressed men promoting a "facts of life" cabaret show ("they take the good, they take the bad, they take it all!"--i kid you not: i heard this tag one night while walking down commercial street). then again, maybe we wouldn't seem so strange. jamaicans are used to people emulating their style and they tend to appreciate (or at least find amusement/flattery in) such a level of engagement with and respect of their cultural traditions.
all the same, it may depend on who's wearing the apron. the irony of jamaicans in p-town highlights the strange places people find themselves in a world of globalized labor. i hope they enjoy their summers "down the cape." they seem not to mind the experience enough to return each year. i'm sure the wages and the standard of living make it worth dealing with whatever bizarro world they find themselves in--p-town being one of the more extreme examples. it seems unlikely that the average jamaican migrant worker can get into p-town's carnival as much as they might get into boston's. of course, many jamaicans, especially the type who have to migrate for seasonal work, reject carnival as an elite import from trinidad--an uptown party for brown folk who aren't terribly comfortable with black jamaican culture. i think the attitudes are different for jamaicans who live up here, who are more likely to feel a sense of pan-caribbean identity so far from yard.
at any rate, i'm looking forward to checking out the various parades and parties in the boston and cambridge area this weekend. more about that soon.