Jamaican born artist Simon Benjamin wanted to prepare something specific to Jamaica for our salad. The only hitch? “Jamaicans don’t eat much salad. We like our greens cooked.” In Simon’s native Kingston, there isn’t much of an affinity for light meals, or snacking. Historically, Jamaican cuisine developed hearty meals to be eaten at the onset of the day, fuel for various kinds of manual labor. Simon tells me not to be surprised if I eat at a Jamaican restaurant, and the question arises, “do you want rice, or food?” “Food,” is Jamaican slang for boiled yams, green bananas, and sweet potatoes, the starchy anchor to every meal that powers you through the day.
In the realm of super-filling, beloved starchy produce, there is the breadfruit — a fruit that ranges in size from a grapefruit to a soccer ball, and grows on a flowering tree. It is related to the Southeast Asian jackfruit, and holds a sacred place in Jamaican cuisine. The breadfruit is a source of constant debate of whether to eat it roasted, or fried (please do watch the Chi Ching Ching video on the preceding page, it’s the best thing I’ve seen in years). It’s subtly floral and sweet, softening in the fire, and crisping when fried in oil. A single tree produces up to 200 or more fruits per season, making this the manna of the island, cooked every which way.
Now living in Brooklyn, Simon spends much of his time traveling back to his native Jamaica, not only for the food, but in an effort to answer one burning question: why don’t most Jamaicans and people of the African diaspora in the Caribbean swim, despite living by the sea? It is hard to imagine that island life for most Jamaicans excludes the ocean, but the coastline has become a pleasure reserved for tourists, settled by resorts with high walls and a lack of legislation to guarantee beach access for locals. But Simon thinks there’s more to it than that. He traces a widespread fear of the ocean back to oral histories of crossing on slave ships, a communal trauma that has instilled more fear than wonder in a community surrounded by water.
Simon, an avid surfer, was the exception to the rule growing up in Kingston. His father, a military helicopter pilot, would discover secluded beaches overhead while flying for work, then toss this kids in his Jeep and find them by land. As a result, Simon grew up swimming and enjoying the beach in a very unusual way. Simon is now an artist and a commercial director, and the water is a central theme in his stunning video installations. Making work about the ocean up until now, Simon tells me, “it’s my goal to get Jamaicans to actually engage with the water. I want to find a way to use my art to make positive change in the way Jamaicans relate to their own landscape.”