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Jamaican Food Stories: Hurricane Gilbert! What did we eat?

Hurricane Gilbert / via

“Wild Gilbert” as Lovindeer called it in his famous song made in the aftermath of Gilbert’s 1988 devastation of Jamaica. This category three monster that uprooted huge trees and stripped roofs from houses was my first experience of a major Hurricane. I am now embarrassed to admit that myself and many of my peers wanted Gilbert to hit the island. We wanted to experience a hurricane. I must try to remember this the next time I am annoyed by a stupid utterance from a youngster. Before Gilbert we only heard stories of the “ Fifty-one storm,” this had also devastated the Island especially the eastern parishes. Grandparents and parents told stories of their experiences riding out the infamous storm and how they managed to survive in its aftermath. It didn’t seem that bad. I don’t know if it was because there was no internet yet or the older folks had bad or selective memories. The damage may not have been bad in their neck of the woods. The “fifty-one storm” they spoke so nonchalantly of was, in fact, Jamaica’s most devastating natural disaster of the 21st century. It was unfortunate, but 152 persons died. That bit of knowledge might have resulted in many more prayers for Gilbert to pass by Jamaica. Then again, at that age, the delusion of your invincibility is very intoxicating.

Breadfruit / via

I was fortunate to be living in a house with a slab concrete roof and metal louver windows at the time. Which I still believe is the perfect house style for the Caribbean especially now with the increasing frequency of strong hurricanes. That will never happen as “form” is preferred over “function” nowadays. We have thrown out proven hurricane designs for the beautiful contemporary styled homes of our neighbors to the north, many of whom have never seen a strong storm. French windows and shingled roofs adorn the landscape. Beautifully styled roofs have become the justification to replace your roof and furniture if a cat three passes by and wreaks havoc. After the island had been devastated by Hurricane Gilbert, Many of my peers and I had come to the stark realization that we would be without electricity and water for weeks and possibly months for the rural folks. We suddenly realized that the loss of power and water had never come up when old folks told you about the “fifty-one” storm as most rural homes did not yet have power and piped water. We adjusted as people must do at such times and found out we could manage with much less.

We did not have ice. Cold water and cool drinks became a luxury. Fresh meat was hard to find, and some of it looked suspect. I remember some beef that was bought to be cooked and everyone gathering around inspecting it as it did not resemble any meat we had cooked before. We threw it out. Many reports abound that unscrupulous meat purveyors were selling donkeys and many other domesticated animals as other meat. It was straight canned meat for many of us. “Bully Beef” ( corned beef ) and “dutty gal” ( tin mackerel ) and sardines ruled the roost. Callaloo and Pak Choy was also available. Pigs tail, saltfish, and salt mackerel were abundant. Most of the supermarket shelves remained empty for weeks after the hurricane. Fresh fish was available as the flooded rivers had washed a lot of debris out to sea. A lot of fish came closer to the shore to feed. Many Snook and Jack fish were caught along the shoreline. Pumpkins started to appear everywhere, people who had not planted pumpkins found them growing in their yards after Gilbert. My parents said the same thing happened after the “ 51 storm”. A lot of bird peppers also sprung up, and there was an abundance of breadfruit.

Hurricane Gilbert / via

We can’t speak about food after the hurricane and not mention the price gouging that prevailed. Many despicable retail shop owners tripled their prices for basic food items. The marriage of food items was also commonplace. Food marriage is when the retailer will force you to buy a slow moving item to get the other food item you want. Luckily the government was quick to crack down on the practice, but it still happened in some areas. Most folks remembered the retailers who carried out this practice and stopped buying from them when normality returned if they had another suitable retailer in their area.

Jamaicans living overseas were indeed a blessing in those times. Most Jamaicans received barrels and boxes of food, clothes and household goods from friends and relatives in Unites States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The government of those countries and many other nations assisted the Island with food, money and other goods. Innovation was alive and well in those times as generators hummed in many town squares. Music was blaring, and mini carnivals sprung up everywhere. People would come out in the evenings to get something cool to drink, eat some jerk chicken and play some game of chance. Jamaicans have always found a way to have fun in the face of adversity. People still laughed, ate well and enjoyed themselves in the aftermath of “wild” Hurricane Gilbert.

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Jan 18, 2023

😍nice blog I enjoy reading it and will use it to educate my kids and conversatio talk time with friends

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