It’s easy to flip straight to the recipe section in Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau’s captivating new cookbook of innovative recipes inspired by the plant-based agriculture and history of their native West Indies. Exquisitely photographed dishes like Roasted Eggplant and Tomatoes with Spiced Cilantro Yogurt and Feta, and Grilled Pineapple Upside-Down Rum Cake, immediately spark visions of vibrant spreads full of tropical flavor.
Do yourself a big favor, though, and first take the time to read “A Sisterly Welcome” – where the Jamaican chefs lay out their book’s premise by way of introduction to their great-grandmother, Martha Matilda Briggs, whose life story they unearthed while researching their 2014 cookbook, “Caribbean Potluck.”
Until then, they were unaware that “Ma Briggs,” as she was called, had risen through the societal ranks of colonial Jamaica from domestic worker to restaurateur, becoming famous for the now-iconic griddled veggie patty she is said to have pioneered during the 1930s. This revelation set the sisters – already following in her entrepreneurial footsteps as renowned chefs in Kingston – on a deeper exploration into the hidden culinary contributions of the Afro-Caribbean women who came before them.
The title of the book derives from the small plots of land called “provisions grounds” allocated to slaves by the British West Indian sugar plantation owners, where women used their creativity to transform the humble roots, tubers and vegetables they harvested for their families into dishes that would become the backbone of a daily diet transcending all social classes.
It is these ingredients upon which the Rousseaus organize the chapters of their book, along with the tropical fruits, flowers, coffee, exotic spices, and spirits that began appearing in journals and cookbooks post-Emancipation.
Rather than try to duplicate those bygone dishes, the authors use their research to inspire their own contemporary creations that are at once rustic and refined. Starchy breadfruit is sliced and fried into chips to serve with avocado and plantain salsa; curly kale is cut in thin strips and tossed into a tangy salad with with quinoa, along with red bell pepper, pumpkin seeds, chopped almonds, and feta. Don’t let the candied sorrel buds in the recipe title scare you off – the authors say you can use pomegranate seeds instead. (I couldn’t find those either and used halved red grapes, and loved it.)
Ma Briggs would be proud.
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.’
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