by Al Mohamed
When I first volunteered to write this article for the Holiday Season, I had every intention of it being a documentation of an old family recipe and tradition. Pepperpot is a dish that I grew up eating from Christmas to New Year’s Day every year as a child and I haven’t seen it made since I moved out of my parents’ house years ago. But this article quickly turned in to something completely different.
I had flown my mom to Canada for a week to spend some time with her parents and gather an essential ingredient before coming back to Chicago. That ingredient, Cassareep, is a concoction used as a sauce base in a few Caribbean dishes, but mainly in Guyanese Pepperpot. It’s one of those things you can try to substitute for when you don’t have any, but it’s necessary for your dish to be the real deal.
Cassareep is also one of those things that makes you wonder how people figured out what it is, how to use it, and why it’s good. It’s basically a browning/thickening agent made from reducing juice from the cassava root. I can see how someone smashed a root and decided to boil that juice to see what happens – it’s plausible. But raw cassava juice also contains a heaping dose of cyanide. So at some point, someone casually said, “You know what would make this vat of poison great? Boil it and throw in some clove … maybe some sugar. And salt. Chilies? K. Taste it, let me know how it is.”
In the ensuing Brown People’s Magic, the Cassareep forms as a thick, molasses-like fluid that imparts a bittersweet note to the stew that we call Pepperpot (two words, not to be confused with Pepper Pot, which is something completely different). Its original function also included acting as a backwoods preservative.
The dish traditionally sits in a lidded pot on the stovetop from Christmas day until New Year’s Day. No refrigeration, no sealing, and no food poisoning for some magical Cassareep-related reason. You heat the pot to a simmer daily, and this magic potion keeps you out of the hospital. Soothing a hangover by ladling Pepperpot into a bowl and dipping some crusty bread is why it’s beloved during the holidays by such rum-loving people as the Guyanese.
My mom and I spoke on a Monday morning and I told her about the article I wanted to write. I could hear her voice light up, and she immediately started repeating our entire conversation to my grandmother. She was delighted to hear one of her grandchildren had an interest in carrying on the traditions of food from “back home.” I asked her if Grandma would part with a few tablespoons of her Cassareep stash so I could learn at my house when Mom flew in on Friday. Mom said Grandma was already pouring some in to a small jam jar.
Fast forward to the weekend and Mom has been shopping nonstop. Apparently the grocery selection in Chicago, including the sheer number of zabiha/halal butcher shops, is mind-blowing in comparison to what she has back in Orlando. She’s been to Chicago almost half a dozen times and has never been to The Bean, Buckingham Fountain, or the Sears Tower. But she can tell you exactly which butchers on Devon Ave. “don’t smell funky” to her and how to get to the halal KFC on Western.
Mom says she needs to buy me a pressure cooker because “a proper West Indian boy who knows how to cook should have one.” I ask her how she ended up with a “proper West Indian boy” since she raised me around rednecks in a swampy Florida suburb before I spent the last 4 years surrounded by hipsters in Chicago. She laughs. I think it’s a valid question – being isolated from the Indo-Caribbean communities in New York, Toronto, and Orlando in the past few years made me realize that I took it for granted. It seems everyone else I know has a part of Chicago where they can go to get the foods their grandma made, but I couldn’t. I had to settle for trying to fit in good Indian, Latino, and Chinese food all in the same weekend. Guyanese cuisine is an amalgamation of a lot of influences, and that’s what I tell myself when I’m chugging antacids at the end of those weekends.
As we unload the day’s purchases in the kitchen and start the process of cleaning and cubing the meat for the Pepperpot, she tells me how much she loved the Chow Mein I made when I first moved out of the house years ago. Guyanese Chow Mein is a far different dish than what you’re probably thinking of. The cumin- and Garam masala-spiced meat and noodle dish is a Guyanese favorite. I explained that my secret was mixing ground lamb with my ground beef and that I got the idea from watching Italian chefs make meatballs. She chuckled as we browned the oxtail, which gives a fattiness and to the stew, along with rich flavor.
Once we browned the oxtail and added the cubes of beef, I asked her if she knew any of the amounts for the ingredients, and she looked at me like I’d asked if butter was a carb.
It’s at this point that I realize this experience has nothing to do with a recipe. It’s like the difference between the memories and stories I have with my family and the photos of those occasions. What really matters are experiences like the one I’m having right now.
I asked mom how her recipe differs from Grandma’s and she told me what she thought her mother does differently. She told me that her grandmother’s recipe was different, too – never the same but always good. We added the Cassareep and she urged me to take a picture, as if it matters any more:
As the valve rocked and hissed atop the pressure cooker, we stood in the kitchen and talked about what we’re doing and the memories associated with it. I told her about what I remembered from our Christmases growing up and she told me what the season was like back in Guyana.
I asked her what she thinks about my generation, the first in America for our family, not carrying on too much of our culture. How does that make her feel? She quickly told me “Well, I guess we’re all Americans now..” and made mention of my cousin’s daughter, who still practices Indian dancing. Before I can say anything else, she sidetracks into two more recipes she’s going to teach me. Her adult-onset ADHD left my house stocked with enough food to last me until the New Year. I don’t know if she’s sad at the thought of what we discussed, or just happier to be teaching me how to cook our cultural staples.
As I drove home from dropping mom at the airport, I knew that I hadn’t learned a damn thing about mom’s cooking. I can’t recreate those flavors that she can make at the drop of a hat to take me back to my childhood. I smile, though, when I realize that she could probably say the same thing about her mother’s food. Then it turns into a full-on grin at the thought of cooking for her the next time she visits.
I really enjoy my growing cookbook collection and trying new recipes from the many food blogs that I follow, but time in the kitchen with my mom is something that can never be replaced. So, to all of you: take a moment during the holidays to appreciate what a family member might be doing in the kitchen for you. Then get in there with them and learn a thing or two. I can promise you it won’t be just about food.