This expression may not be the common anymore. But it was the norm to us as boys, growing up in Jamaica in the nineteen eighties. What do we mean? When we talk about “running a boat.” In its simplest definition. It is Jamaican vernacular for cooking some food, but to most Jamaican men, this term encompasses much more.
We use this term when the persons involved are not related. They could be friends, construction workers on a building site, kids off from school for the summer or just hungry young men after a football game on the weekend.
This practice of “ running a boat” went on throughout the Caribbean, but is known by different names.
In my neck of the woods, it was mostly young men who ran boats. With most of the prep and cooking done outside in the backyard. We cooked surrounded by our pals who took the opportunity to learn, praise or comment on your lack of cooking skills. They were also not shy about taking over if they thought you didn’t know what the hell you were doing. Some sailors of boats were more sophisticated and were able to use their parent’s kitchen mostly because their parents were not home. Most Jamaican parents did not take kindly to you, and a bunch of your friends messing up their kitchen or getting in the way when the official dinner was being prepared.
“Running boats” was off the books. Something you did with your pals, outside on wood fire, charcoal stove or a single burner gas stove. We enjoyed it all, not just the eating but the cooking as well. The best cooks were quickly recognized and enjoyed an elevated boss status of sorts. They then directed things, assigned people tasks and ensured that proper food sanitation rules were followed.
Be not mislead, this boat running was a place where democracy ruled supreme, so if the top cook started getting too haughty and became a mean boss. He would quickly be cut down to size or replaced. It is also true, however that many persons who participated in “running boats” did not cook or even pretended to be interested in cooking. Most of those non-cooks would still be strident with their comments, critiques, and jokes. Some persons were just there for the fun and the food. It was always a great way to spend the afternoon.
The menu of the boat for us kids if you lived in the urban areas or “town” as we still call it, was mostly dependent on what you could liberate from your parent’s cupboards. We would meet and compile what we were each able to contribute, then decide on a menu.
If you were fortunate enough to have an ackee tree in your yard and or access to a neighbors ackee tree, to God be the glory. It was ackee with rice, ackee with dumplings, ackee with spaghetti. It was straight ackee until that tree stops bearing.
But when we had money, the menu became more diverse. A chicken was at the top of the list, but we also cooked chicken back, the famous “ ghetto steak,” chicken foot, tin mackerel, fish, corned beef, cow head and many more.
If you lived in the country and had livestock, you would have a better quality menu, as you would often have chickens available. Birds you could shoot with a slingshot, crayfish and river mullet. Also various cuts of fresh meat. Bits of corned pork and beef parts that would be smoking over wood fire in the old “creng-creng”.
My crew had a standing rule of a pound a man so for each person there, we should have a pound of meat or “ salt thing” as we called it back then. And a pound of rice, flour dumplings or whatever was the carbs.
You see, running a boat was a gut busting endeavor which usually resulted with few persons being able to finish their portion. It was all good though, as we were very generous with our boat. We usually shared with the girls, parents or anyone who stopped by and wanted a plate.
“Running a boat” taught many Jamaican men that the kitchen was not a place just for women. Those experiences have served us well teaching many young males to be comfortable in their kitchens. Preparing meals for our families and helping with the household chores.
Many women may wonder how so many Jamaican and Caribbean men are good cooks, well now you know. We grew up “ running boats.”