:: by A. Naomi Jackson ::
The best cure for spiritual exile is to go home. And so that’s what I did this spring break. Well, sort of. Instead of traveling to my ancestral home of Brooklyn, I went to California with two missions in mind: eat well and chill hard. My first stop was Oakland and Miss Ollie’s, a pan-Caribbean restaurant in that city’s slowly but surely gentrifying downtown corridor.
Growing up, eating out wasn’t a thing my family did. My parents cooked every night from a menu my father painstakingly typed and posted on the fridge each week. Saturday nights, my stepmother declared her kitchen closed for business. Those nights, we ate out from one of four places – the Chinese spot around the corner, the best pizza parlor this side of Nostrand Avenue where you could buy a slice with a subway token, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Danny & Pepper, the rightfully famous jerk chicken spot on Flatbush Avenue. Put simply, eating out was something that white people did, and something we did sparingly. Even then, eating out meant buying food and bringing it home to eat it together.
The result of this relationship to home cooking is that I came to think (and still do) that my parents’ food was the best. And even though my assimilation has meant that I now enjoy eating out, I still look sideways at Caribbean restaurants. I make a few exceptions – Allan’s Bakery, the dueling Ali’s roti shops in Bed-Stuy and Flatbush. So when I heard about Sarah Kirnon’s experiments in Caribbean cooking in Oakland,from her partner (a dear friend of mine), I was both excited and suspicious. Given that Oakland is not exactly known for a bustling Caribbean community with a discerning palate to crown or refute champions of their cuisine, I wondered how this would go.
That said, my experience at Miss Ollie’s, named after Kirnon’s Bajan grandmother, did not disappoint. The first night, I ate pepperpot (oxtails included) and the most incredibly prepared ground provisions. I thought I’d been transported to the upper room when I bit into the fried chicken – perfectly crispy, piping hot, and with a burst of herbs cooked right into its flesh. It wouldn’t be saying too much to write that this was the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.
The next evening was an entirely different spread – perfectly sweetened bakes and saltfish (a take on the Trini staple buljol), fried plantains with garlic aioli, greens with just the right amount of bitterness and texture to make eating them seem the opposite of a chore, and the piece de resistance, rice and peas with freshly grated coconut.
The creole doughnuts at Miss Ollie’s I think, are something everyone should eat before they die. They had me wanting to kiss the cook. With the role of cook’s kisser taken, I decided to just take one more bite to solidify my gastric memory, and vow to never, ever forget the way I got to taste home so far away from my parents’ kitchen.
All Photographs, taken at Miss Ollie’s by Eric Wolfinger
A. Naomi Jackson was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. She is currently working on her first novel, Star Side of Bird Hill.