I remember my first plate of Oil Down as clear as the skies on that day. Sand crinkling beneath my toes, I balanced the delicate paper plate laden with smoky goodness as I headed over to my special rock. It wasn’t very comfortable, but far enough from my greedy cousin and close enough that my mother wouldn’t holler my return to the pack. I was too young to identify the ingredients before me but prudent enough to appreciate the hot, molten treasure in my hands.
Daydream dissolved, I stared at the tinned coconut milk on the shelf, wondering whether it was worth the effort. Breadfruit requires a Pacific island contact. No one ate salted pork down under and the DIY version scared even the food scientist in me. In the classroom, we referred to Oil Down as Grenada’s National Dish but at home, it’s a commemorative meal. A promotion at work, finally receiving that sou-sou hand, or simply celebrating the week’s passage. A beach lime or humble “blocko” isn’t definitive unless it takes center stage. From personal successes to social gatherings, it’s how we Grenadians give thanks for life. And the Almighty’s praises were long overdue.
Oil Down carries such significance because it was birthed from a place of survival and sustenance. In a period where every mouth mattered, each ingredient was strategically combined to satiate the hungriest man, woman, and child. It is anchored by breadfruit – an eighteenth-century gift from Captain Bligh to a neighbouring St. Vincent – and the dish’s authenticity is negated by its absence. It can be supported by provision of the land – green bananas, yams, dasheen, and maybe a potato or two. Any more would result in mutiny.
Dumplings are kneaded with tight precision to dredge the turmeric-tinted coconut milk. Common vegetables make an appearance but the usage of callaloo is mandatory and two-fold in purpose. Firstly, to ensure the dasheen plant is fully utilised and more importantly, to naturally condense the volatiles in ways a pot cover could not suffice. However, the real celebrity of this dish and most dishes of this nature is the meats. Yes, you read it pluralized. Cuts of pork, beef, and cod which were preserved through curing and any fresh poultry remains from that day’s butchering, which had been well seasoned, were all invited. Their placement at the bottom ensures doneness and that their flavour seeps into the surrounding porous vegetables.
The level of required preparation seemed more than daunting at a young age. But a good chef knows the value of apprenticeship and a wise student understands the privilege. First, they started us off cleaning callaloo leaves. After enduring one too many beatings for wasting water and staining our clothes, my cousins and I mastering the art of stripping that stubborn stalk. By then, you were approved to peel provision and as your stamina improved, grate coconuts for milk – the source of oil which precedes the name. Breadfruit-gutting and dumpling-making were for the firm-handed, for which the previous responsibilities had trained your muscles. Success then qualified you to ‘pack the pot’, but on rare occasion, the master chose to surprise the apprentice.
When my time suddenly arrived, my nerves were under pressure – my mother being quite the honest patron. From my perch, the hollowness of the large vessel stared back at me, daring me to start my mission. It was akin to the barrels my uncle would send us at Christmastime. Every year I stared amazed at the puzzle-like accommodation with which soap, shoes, and tinned sausages could share space. When the same is achieved with Oil Down, you were assured that each ingredient would cook adequately, without the need to stir or shift. It took a couple attempts to achieve her standard but I credit those days for my present proficiency in luggage assembly.
All that being said, most cooks enjoy the role of both sous and master chef. When it comes to large crowds, like an Independence cook up, it’s a labour of love and the responsibility of one. I couldn’t be happier because feathering my skin on that coconut grater was a bullet dodged. And though originated in a misogynistic society, men are often the greatest connoisseurs. Perhaps their compartmental focus or steady grip accounts for their skillfulness.
Take for instance my first attempt at Oil Down on foreign soil. In a bind similar to that of present, I took the liberties of making some unwise substitutions. It was my male country mate who, in a bold move of patriotism, saved the meal from liquefication and ultimately the island’s reputation. Trust me, I’ve seen Oil Down and their cooks disowned for such mismanagement, and rightfully so. Actually, you run the risk of hindering the dish’s culmination. The final stage in every Grenadian kitchen occurs when the dish is left to ‘cousoumeh’, broken French for, you guessed it, consummate – allowing the flavours to meld together after the excess water was boiled off. With all ingredients in tandem, you were guaranteed a meal that stained more than just your plate so this step cannot be overlooked.
Everyone has their favourite part of Oil Down. Sure, every ingredient makes an appearance on the plate but it’s not odd to hear “Put ah next dumpling dey, soldier” or “Wey yuh goin wid dis likkle piece ah pig tail?”. Then there are persons like my cousin, who proudly confesses his dislike for breadfruit. He is literally one provision away from his citizenship being revoked. To this day, I’m enamored by ‘bun bun’, the food that adheres ever so slightly to the pot’s bottom. There’s something about the caramelised remains that beckon you way before pot scrapping has commenced. Back in the day, my vantage point from the rock ensured I could see the pot spoon before hearing it, so I was always first in line.
For a dish of such complexity, Oil Down has yet to achieve international, jerk chicken levels of recognition. Instead, she’s the tempting seductress, taunting many a foreign tongue, though never leaving the country herself. For the visitor, it’s a flirtation with gastronomic danger. A memory too painful to recount, buried in the recesses of salivations never to be curbed. To a Grenadian expat, she’s our first love. The one who slips in and out of your life. The one you would fly miles across the ocean to taste again. Even family members, without advance notice, know to put on a pot for any returning national, stopping short of bringing it to the airport.
As such is my predicament. Another Independence sans le dish. The one day guaranteed to taste three, if not four types of Oil Down, depending on your place of employment. We would low-key score each pot based on juiciness, quantity of meat and choice of vegetables. Even though the cook is allowed to “mek do wid wat ee have”, we shamelessly expected her or him to operate within the confines of our expectations. Then arguments would erupt over why Oil Down is better served dry or why the sanctity of white flour dumpling should be preserved. Much less the one who insistently advocates for a vegetarian version. We are pretty united when it comes to that.
I could blame the distance, I could even blame the Vid. But it wouldn’t shorten the days. So on February 7th, I will join many other Grenadian expats around the world. Divided by sea and land. United in grief and gripe. Until we meet again.