Ackee: Jamaica’s Irresistible Delicacy

by Christine Sinclair

Ever heard of Jamaica? Yes? Ever heard of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt? Yes? Ever heard of ackee? No? Well, just like Jamaica and our international stars, ackee is a star in its own right. You don’t quite know Jamaica until you know ackee. So let me introduce you. Sit back, because you are in for a treat! Ackee has a rich history dating back to the slave trade. It has a delicious flavor, and a unique texture that you will want to add to your cooking repertoire. And the recipe below is Friedman approved, having debuted the recipe below to a group of students with rave reviews.

Ackee is a fruit that grows in clusters of three in a pod on large evergreen trees in tropical climates, namely on the Caribbean island of Jamaica and in other parts of the world, including West African countries, Haiti, and parts of South America. The outer shell of this fist-sized fruit is bright red, with hues of orange and yellow. It has a tough outer skin that protects its delicate inside. As ackee matures and ripens, it naturally opens up to expose its edible contents. This unique and bountiful fruit grows throughout the island and, in fact, is Jamaica’s national fruit and a main ingredient in the national dish, ackee & saltfish.

Ackee has been Jamaica’s national fruit for centuries, having made its way to the island during the 18th century, carried over on slave ships departing West Africa. Its name is derived from the West African Akye fufo and its scientific name, Blighia sapidawas, was coined by a man named Captain William Bligh, and has since become a staple food in the Jamaican diet. The yellow arils are edible, while all other parts of the fruit, including the seeds are discarded.

Ackee fruit by Rik Schuiling

Ackee fruit by Rik Schuiling

Ackee not only has an interesting history, but a unique and potentially dangerous toxic property. Ackee goes through stages of maturation and ripening. During these different stages, ackee has varying levels of a water soluble toxin called Hypoglycin A and B. These toxins produce a symptom called Jamaican Vomiting Syndrome (JVS) aka Toxic Hypoglycemic Syndrome (low blood sugar as low as 3 mg/dL), which can cause severe vomiting, abdominal pain, coma and death. But, wait! Before you run off dismissing this delicate treat, let me explain how ackee can be enjoyed with no toxic effects at all.

In unripe ackee, the concentration of Hypoglycin A is about 1000 parts per million (ppm). As the fruit matures, in addition to its exposure to sunlight, Hypoglycin A is drastically reduced to 0.1 ppm in the mature fruit. Ingestion of immature ackee (a.k.a. ackee not left to properly ripen and naturally open) produces the toxic effect in humans.

Ackee found in the United States is precooked and canned, and has gone through extensive processing checks by the USDA to ensure safe consumption. And these checks seem to work: There have been no known cases of JVS in the United States from canned, imported ackee due to these regulations.

Photo: Ackee stages of maturity

Photo: “Tastes Like Home,” Ackee stages of maturity

What are the health benefits of ackee?

Although there hasn’t been a lot of research on ackee—partly because it isn’t grown in the United States—what little literature we do have suggests that ackee provides many health benefits. People in Jamaica will eat ackee cooked or uncooked. The uncooked version is said to serve as a strong diuretic, helping move the bowels and keep them in good shape. While the uncooked version cannot be found in the United States, the cooked form can be found canned in international markets. And don’t worry, only mature ackee is canned for your eating pleasure!

Ackee in both forms is rich in the monounsaturated fatty acids, oleic acid (55.4%), palmitic acid (25.57%), and stearic acid (12.59%), and is low in calories (about 151 calories per 100g can of ackee). Ackee is also rich in many vitamins and minerals, according to the West Indian Medical Journal.

How is ackee prepared?

When ackee is cooked with different meats and spices, it takes on the flavors of what you pair it with—without losing its own unique taste. Many find it difficult to describe the actual taste of ackee, saying it has the consistency of avocado with a rich buttery flavor. After interviewing a number of people, the verdict is still out. The best way to know? Try it for yourself!

At Ackee Bamboo Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA, owners Marlene and Delroy Beckford prepare this staple dish for customers unfamiliar with ackee’s delicious taste and powerful history. Hoping to give them a true and authentic experience of Jamaica, they give out samples to convince the novice that they are in for a treat. As Marlene said, “If you say you have had ackee [and saltfish] you have been to the island.”

Ackee and Jamaican Culture

Ackee’s uniqueness, beautiful range of colors and its authentic and delicious taste describes the very essence of Jamaica. Ackee is Jamaica! Rooted in a deep history of the slave trade, revolution and liberation, ackee is so much more than a delicious meal. To try and put into words the meaning that this national fruit has is close to impossible. But, if you would like a bite size experience of a rich and powerful history, the next time you spot ackee in your local market or pass by a Jamaican restaurant, be sure to pick up a can or stop in and ask for a plate of ackee and saltfish with dumplings, green banana, yellow yam and callaloo!

Picture: Ackee & saltfish with green banana, yellow yam, boiled dumplings and greens

Picture: “Pinterest,” Ackee & saltfish with green banana, yellow yam, boiled
dumplings and greens

Ackee Recipe

Ingredients – 4 people

1/2 lb saltfish (dried, salted codfish)*

12 fresh ackees or 1 (drained) can of tinned ackee

1 medium onion

1/2 tsp black pepper

3 tbsp of butter or cooking oil

1/2 a hot chili pepper (ideally Scotch Bonnet)

1 bell pepper (red, green or both)

1 chopped tomato

1 sprig fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme

Optional ingredients: 2 cloves of garlic 4 scallion (green onion)

*Eliminate the saltfish to make this recipe vegan

Preparation

  • Cover the saltfish in cold water and let it soak overnight (minimum 8 hours) changing the water several times (this removes most of the salt)
  • Bring a pan of cold water to boil and gently simmer the fish for 20 minutes (until tender)
  • Chop the onion, bell pepper, chili pepper and tomato
  • Remove the fish from the water and allow to it cool
  • Remove all bones and skin then flake the flesh of the fish

Cooking

  • Melt the butter or add oil in a frying pan and stir fry the onion, black pepper, bell pepper, chili and thyme for about 3 minutes
  • Add the tomatoes and flaked fish and stir-fry for another 6 minutes
  • Add the ackee and cook until hot throughout and tender. Stir gently to avoid breaking-up the ackee

Serve with yam, green banana, or fried dumplings

ackee4

Christine Sinclair is a second-semester NICBC student in the dual MS-DPD program whose family is from the beautiful island of Jamaica. She is an avid health enthusiast who loves challenging activities such as boxing, cross-fit, and distance running. If Christine isn’t cooking, she is eating, or talking about food. 

The Bittersweet History of Valentine’s Day Sweets

by Jennifer Pustz

Preparation for Valentine’s Day seems to start earlier every year. The seasonal candy aisle in the local grocery store or pharmacy says goodbye to candy canes and red and green foil-wrapped sweets just in time to make room for heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and the ubiquitous “conversation hearts.” Valentine’s candy has been part of this celebration of love for many decades despite its connection with two ingredients that have very difficult histories: chocolate and sugar.

Europeans discovered chocolate during their conquest of the Americas, and its story—like any good love story—has been complex since this first encounter. The Aztecs consumed chocolate as a beverage and this preparation was transferred, along with shipments of cacao beans, across the ocean to Spanish royalty and ultimately throughout Europe. The love of chocolate made a return trip across the ocean when European colonists brought the practice of drinking chocolate with them to places like Boston, where consuming chocolate became a mark of high social status. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has several examples in its collection of eighteenth-century silver chocolate pots and porcelain mugs made specifically for the preparation and drinking of chocolate.

Many of the affluent men and women enjoying this beverage became wealthy due to their role in the sweetening of chocolate. Sugar shares its history with the slave trade, the economic growth of the North American colonies, and many New England families who owned and operated sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands. One family, that of Isaac Royall, Sr., lived in an opulent Georgian mansion less than a mile from Tufts University’s Medford campus. (In fact, a portion of the Tufts campus was at one time part of the Royall estate.) Royall owned a sugar plantation on the island of Antigua and following a series of slave revolts, droughts, and other natural disasters, decided to bring his family back to their Massachusetts home. Among the fragments retrieved during an archaeological dig were pieces of porcelain chocolate mugs.

It wasn’t until many decades later that chocolate emerged as a more widely-consumed beverage, became available in bars and other shapes, and was seen as a symbol of love presented in a heart-shaped box. Milton Hershey is widely recognized as the genius behind mass-produced commercial chocolate. He founded the Hershey Chocolate Company in 1894 and introduced the Hershey’s Kiss in 1907. As for the marriage of chocolate and Valentine’s Day? This has been attributed to the British chocolatier Richard Cadbury, who began selling the now ubiquitous heart-shaped boxes of chocolate in the 1860s.

In addition to sweetening bitter chocolate for consumption in truffles and Kisses, sugar is the base of many other popular Valentine’s Day sweets. In 1902, the New England Confectionary Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, known as Necco, sold its first “conversation hearts.” These sweet and tart little candies were printed with a variety of messages, from the fairly innocent “BE MINE” to a more suggestive “KISS ME.” More than one hundred years later, Necco still manufactures the candy, but has updated some of the messages to include “LOL” and “YOU ROCK.”

As those of us who study at the Friedman School are well aware, chocolate and sugar continue to be controversial foods. The chocolate industry is fraught with issues like deforestation and unfair labor practices, and sugar is under attack from all sides due to its likely role in the obesity epidemic, as evident in the title of Gary Taubes’ new book What Not to Eat: The Case Against Sugar. Despite their associations with difficult social issues, chocolate and sugar continue to tempt us, but today’s world does provide us with choices. From fair trade chocolate to lower-sugar options, we can still indulge our Valentine’s Day traditions—even when we are aware of the long and bittersweet history of these favorite sweets.

Jennifer Pustz is a first-year NICBC student in the dual MS-MPH program. A public historian by training, she is also on the Board of Directors of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts, which is open to the public for tours between the end of May through the end of October.

Thanksgiving’s Holy Trinity: Turkey, Cranberries, and Pumpkin Pie

by Jennifer Pustz

These three staples are the stars of many a Turkey-day menu, symbols of a celebration shared by Native Americans and the English in the early years of the Plymouth colony. But were these foods at the “first feast?” How have these headliners stood the test of time? Friedman student and historian Jennifer Pustz gives us the scoop.

The air is crisp and the leaves are turning red, orange, and gold. Pumpkin is the flavor featured in nearly every bakery and coffee shop. It is fall in New England. In the midst of midterms and heavy workloads, many of us look forward to Thanksgiving break for a brief respite filled with friends, family, and Turkey-day comfort food. As we know, many holidays are centered on food-related traditions, but no holiday is more deeply rooted in specific foods than Thanksgiving. Turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie are the headliners of the traditional feast and evidence of their long connection to the Thanksgiving celebration may be found in the very best history books—cookbooks.

The fact that bountiful tables and cornucopias have become symbolic of Thanksgiving is somewhat ironic given challenges that English colonists faced during their early years in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Half of the first settlers to arrive on the Mayflower in November 1620 died during their first winter in the colony. Lack of shelter, disease (in some cases, like scurvy, due to malnutrition), and hunger took a heavy toll. The indigenous people of New England had long managed periods of bounty and want by moving camps frequently with the seasons. The English brought none of these skills and arrived after the growing season was over in September/October. Their situation slowly improved, due in part to contact with Native Americans who taught the English how to grow corn, a grain they may have known but not nearly as well as wheat. The English brought seeds for wheat, rye, and peas with them, but their early attempts to grow familiar crops in an unfamiliar place were largely unsuccessful. But a future successful harvest would be worthy of celebration.

 

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1907. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1907. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

The turkey has long served as the symbol of the Thanksgiving feast. Although the story of the first Thanksgiving is a mélange of myth and conjecture, the turkey may have actually been part of the celebration shared by Native Americans and the English in the early years of the colony. In his history of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford mentions the plentiful population of wild turkeys. By the end of the eighteenth century, a recipe for stuffed turkey served with cranberry sauce could be found in the earliest cookbook written by an American for an audience of fellow countrywomen using ingredients that could be procured in this country. In American Cookery, first published in 1796, Amelia Simmons included the following instructions for stuffing and roasting a turkey:

“Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound of butter, one quarter of a Pound of salt pork, finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient) fill the bird and sew up. . . . hand down to a steady fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast, and put one pound of a butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles, or celery.”

The cranberry was a part of the native Wampanoag People’s diet for centuries before the English arrived. The colonists were familiar with a European variety and used it in the aforementioned sauce, and also filled pastries with stewed, strained, and sweetened cranberries. In addition to being a fruit that kept well, it had the nutritional benefit of preventing scurvy.

Traditional Thanksgiving foods remind us of the seasonality of foodways in an era before reliable refrigeration. It is unclear exactly when the first harvest celebration that became known as the modern Thanksgiving holiday took place, but it is believed to have been between the months of September and November. Therefore, vegetables harvested in the fall—pumpkins and other squash, potatoes, and other root vegetables—became an important part of the holiday feast. Amelia Simmons included two recipes for pumpkin pie in American Cookery. Of the two recipes, the simplest instructed readers to combine “One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.” In fact, pies of all types—sweet and savory—were a regular part of early American meals, not just on special occasions as they are more likely to be today.

 

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1908. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1908. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

For many modern Americans, the best part of Thanksgiving dinner comes the next day, when they turn leftover turkey into sandwiches, hash, soup, casseroles, and more. In 1877, a popular cookbook called Buckeye Cookery, And Practical Housekeeping offered recommendations for leftovers that might be considered tasty even today:

“After Thanksgiving Dinner a most excellent hash may be made thus: Pick meat off of turkey bones, shred it in small bits, add dressing and pieces of light biscuit cut up fine, mix together and put into dripping pan, pour over any gravy that was left, add water to thoroughly moisten but not enough to make it sloppy, place in a hot oven for twenty minutes, and, when eaten, all will agree that the turkey was better this time than it was at first.”

However you celebrate your Thanksgiving, be it with an organic turkey or a Tofurky roll, with or without cranberries and pumpkin pie, may it be filled with joy and gratitude.

The recipe quoted here (and many more) may be found on the website of Michigan State University’s Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks. If you would like to learn more about Thanksgiving’s origins and food history, check out J.W. Baker and Peter J. Gomes, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2010), which is available as an e-book from the Tufts library. And, if you’d like to see where history was made, a visit to Plimoth Plantation—an easy day trip from Boston—provides the perspectives of the English colonists and the Wampanoag People: https://www.plimoth.org/

Jennifer Pustz is a first-year NICBC and MPH dual-degree student. Prior to starting at Friedman, she worked for ten years as the museum historian for Historic New England, the nation’s oldest regional heritage organization, and prior to that as historian for Brucemore, a historic house museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her research has focused on the stories of enslaved and free domestic servants from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. She was also a contributor to Historic New England’s publication, America’s Kitchens (2009), a history of the domestic kitchen that cultivated a love of food history. In her new career, Jennifer hopes to weave the lessons of the past into the future of healthy eating behaviors, interventions, and policy.