Jennie and Me

Published in Gourmet Live 02.22.12
Julia Turshen visits her former babysitter’s birthplace in St. Vincent and comes home with a better understanding of the person through the island and its food

Jennie and her aunt Nell

My babysitter, Jennie, had a significant role in my upbringing—my mother and father hit the jackpot when they found her. A loving, bighearted woman with a generous laugh, Jennie lived with us on weekdays from 1988 until 1998, as I went from nursery school through junior high. During that decade, my family moved from Manhattan’s Greenwich Village to the suburbs of Westchester, my parents changed jobs, my older brother and I went through a period of particularly brutal sibling rivalry, the economy boomed, the Internet happened, and we traded our Walkmans for Discmans. And Jennie was there through it all. The better part of my childhood had Jennie’s unconditional love strung through it, and now, nearly 25 years since we met, Jennie and I maintain a close relationship.

Jennie and I really got to know each other through food. After school I would sit on a wooden stool in the kitchen while she prepared dinner for my brother and me. I would do my homework or—more likely—we would gossip about my friends and about the television programs we would watch together in the evenings (we never missed Family Matters). Jennie’s cooking for us was about pure efficiency, about getting us fed quickly and easily. She prepared simple, straightforward, thoroughly American stuff like macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and twice-baked potatoes. Every now and then, and usually only if I begged her, she would roast Cornish hens packed with Stovetop stuffing, which made me feel like royalty—a whole bird, just for me!

Jennie didn’t personally love the food that she made for us, so she would spend weekends at her studio apartment in Brooklyn making food native to St. Vincent, the small Caribbean island where she was born and lived until adulthood, when she moved to the States to pursue work. On Monday mornings, Jennie would arrive at our house with shopping bags loaded with containers that she’d stow in the back of our refrigerator. Throughout the week she’d heat up chicken curry or fish stew or pilau, a fragrant, spiced rice with soft lentils and hearty bits of chicken. She’d eat her food while our chopped beef was simmering for a pasta casserole.

I coveted Jennie’s food. It wasn’t like anything I ate at school or at anyone else’s house and, even more, it wasn’t like any of the dishes prepared on the food television shows I devoured or in cookbooks I kept by my bed. (I have always been food-obsessed.) Sometimes she’d fill a small bowl for me or tear off a piece of her roti and wrap a bit of curried goat in it and delight in how much pleasure I took in her food. Occasionally I’d persuade Jennie to make bakes—small deep-fried, savory Caribbean bread rolls. I summoned all of my patience and willpower while she insisted that they cool as she pulled them, so beautifully browned, from the hot Crisco.

Nearly a decade after Jennie moved on from our family, when I was a recent college graduate living in Manhattan, I asked her to teach me how to make her chicken pilau. When I walked into her apartment in Brooklyn, she immediately told me that when I’m in her home I “need to be free.” She was referring to “all of them buttons” on my men’s oxford shirt and my blue jeans, the same uniform I’ve worn every day since Jennie has known me. She told me to change into one of her housedresses since it would be less constraining. I hesitated and tried to explain to her that I am comfortable in my clothing. I soon realized that my argument was futile and gave in. It was the first time I had worn a dress in years. Without asking, she rubbed my pale, dry arms with cocoa butter. “You were softer when I took care of you!” Later that evening when I was on the subway headed home I discovered that she had tucked a container of the salve in my coat pocket.

Jennie prepared the chicken pilau with intuition and ease. She measured nothing, answered phone calls, showed me photographs of her nieces and nephews, stirred the pot. She coaxed the temperature on her tiny stove, the centerpiece of her kitchen, which is really just one small wall of her apartment. She boiled water for tea and opened her cabinet, its contents nearly bursting (Jennie doesn’t throw anything away). She pulled out two of the mugs from the collection we’ve been building over the years—I try to send her one from each place I travel. I drank my tea, rich with evaporated milk and sugar, from a Prague mug while she took colorful Las Vegas for herself.

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