Jamaican Food, History,Biology,Culture, B.W. Higman, Ethnobiology Letters, Aug.3, 2010

US$75 (s)

Barry Higman, distinguished historian and anthro-pologist of the Caribbean, has produced what is to date the most authoritative account of the history, biology, and culture of Jamaican food. It will be, no doubt, of great interest, not only to Jamaicans, but to scholars in diverse fields, including the ethnobiological sciences.

His interdisciplinary effort notwithstanding, Higman tells us his “approach leaves out much and that readers may wish for more on the sociology of consumption, on the role of food in society and religion, in festivals and rituals, and in politics and culture” (p. xviii). His justification for this, quite reasonable I might add, is that there “is enough in these subjects to make another book” (ibid). Higman also notes that the book could have been organized around nutrition or Jamaican “dishes” and “their combination in meals,” but this would have made “difficult an analysis of origins and the story of particular ingredients, which,” he tells us, was his “primary objective” (ibid). Instead, Higman chose to structure his discussion around plants and animals as sources of Jamaican food.

There are two introductory chapters and three major sections with 2 to 4 chapters each. The first chapter begins with the question “why do Jamaicans eat what they eat?” and in so doing, establishes a clear link to Raymond Sokolov’s broader question posed in his book Why We Eat What We Eat: How the Encounter between the New World and the Old Changed the Way Everyone on the Planet Eats (1991). The second introductory chapter starts by pointing out that the three principle ways Jamaicans obtain food are from production based on their immediate environment, the introduction of exotic plants and animals, and trade, and it explores the choices of “what and what not to eat and drink” in Jamaica based on “systems of supply” and “taste.” In this chapter Higman introduces a broad overview of the island and its history that takes us from the original Taino to the introduction of supermarkets and fast food outlets in the 1960s.

Following the introduction, Part One focuses on the parts of plants used for food with four chapters covering roots, stems and leaves, fruits, and seeds respectively. The author’s comments on his choice of this approach are worth noting. He writes: “Generally, all aspects of a particular plant have been discussed together, and the plant as a whole has been located with the part that dominates its uses” (p. xviii). This is important as it prevents what would otherwise have been a fragmented discussion of the different species of plants. Part Two deals with animals in the same way as plants and the discussion is organized around their groupings “into biological families.” The first chapter of this section focuses on molluscs, crustaceans, insects, and reptiles. The remaining three chapters cover fish, birds, and mammals. Part One and Two with their focus on plants and animals comprise the most substantial parts of this book.


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