Upscale foodies nyam and jam at GoldenEye

Untitled-1It was the name of the festival that seduced me. I wondered who would choose the word ‘nyam’ for such an exclusive event: The NyamJam Jamaican Food & Music Festival at the GoldenEye resort. The entrance fee made it clear that this was not a jam for people who normally use the word ‘nyam’. In fact, if you were the type of person who loves to nyam, you probably wouldn’t fit in.

The opening event on Friday, November 13 was billed as the ‘Fleming Villa Dinner hosted by Chris Blackwell and Mario Batali’. The cost was US$250 per person. This, I suppose, is modest by some people’s standards. If you were a guest at GoldenEye, you wouldn’t think twice about it. And the maestro Ernest Ranglin was performing. I would have loved to hear him.

CT0XvXXUsAAxQ5WOn Saturday, there was the NyamJam Culinary & Music Bazaar. It offered “20 booths from local and international chefs, speciality purveyors and Jamaican artisans showcasing their handcrafted works and wares”. The entrance fee was US$150 for adults and US$50 for children under 12. Angelique Kidjo, one of my all-time favourite artists, was headlining the jam. So I contacted the festival press office and arranged for a pass to cover the bazaar.

The big event of the festival was a five-course Celebrity Chef dinner on Saturday night, which cost US$350. That ticket allowed you to attend the bazaar. My press pass didn’t include dinner. But I didn’t mind. As a vegetarian, I didn’t expect much. It would take a lot of nyamming to get my money’s worth if I’d bought a ticket.

NOTHING NUH GO SO

I was amused to see on the NyamJam website that “[t]he name is derived from the local Patois for ‘snack’, which is nyam.” Of course, nothing nuh go so. But soon it will become ‘fact’! There’s actually an October 8 Observer story, ‘Setting the Stage for NyamJam’, which uses nyam with this new meaning.

Reporting on the launch of the festival in New York, the Lifestyle writer enthuses: “The group socialised over rum punch cocktails by Bacardi, Red Stripe beer and a selection of nyams … .” So there you have it. A nyam is really and truly a snack. How we love to imitate our imitators!

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So what does the word nyam actually mean? And where does it come from? The Dictionary of Jamaican English informs us that “the source is multiple: both verb (eat) and noun (food, or specific foods) existed in a number of W[est] Afr[ican] languages, and many were bought to Ja[maica]”.

Some of these languages are Hausa, Efik, Fula and Twi. The dictionary confirms that the “resulting multiplicity has in the course of time become sorted out so that, in general, NYAM is the verb, NINYAM a noun (food), and NYAAMS a specific food (YAM).

DELICIOUS STAPLES

For me, the best of the chefs were the Rousseau sisters, Suzanne and Michelle. Their food was ninyam fi true: rundown, turned cornmeal, pick-up salt fish, baked dumplings, pickled herring, fried breadfruit, roasted eggplant, coconut chips and crispy corned pork with green bananas. I got a vegetarian version of that dish which originated with the Maroons.

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Suzanne proudly told me that they wanted to highlight local dishes that do not usually appear in fancy restaurants: the delicious staples in Jamaica and across the Caribbean. The Rousseau sisters lived in Trinidad so their mix of foods reflects their sophisticated cross-cultural palate. Another big hit at the bazaar was Stush in the Bush, owned by Lisa and Christopher Binns. Their condiments are superb.

Some of the patrons who paid the US$150 entrance fee were not all that happy. They had expected to do more nyamming. The small Styrofoam plates used by all the chefs ensured that nobody could nyam dem out. And lots of little bits of this and that don’t usually add up to a satisfying meal. You just run the risk of getting colic. And talking about Styrofoam, I was surprised that GoldenEye resorted to this ecologically unfriendly material.

EATING JAMAICAN

Even for the patrons who were disappointed with the ‘nyams’, the musical jam was definitely filling. As one man said, Angelique Kidjo’s performance was worth 80 of his 150 dollars. Much better than the Jazz and Blues Festival, he added. NyamJam does have the potential to be a big tourist attraction. And it was widely promoted in the US media: Vanity Fair, Departures, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, The Miami Herald, Caribbean Journal. And even in India – The Economic Times.

All the same, there weren’t that many bodies on the ground. I would guess well under a thousand. One of the sponsors of NyamJam was the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). I wondered how the level of support for this new festival compares to that for long-established brands like Rebel Salute, which attracts a massive local and international audience.

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NyamJam is a very good concept: eating Jamaican. And especially in these times of austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund, we must nyam what we produce. Unfortunately, the word nyam has negative connotations.

The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that it means “To eat, esp[ecially] roughly or voraciously. (The word has never been an elegant one; its natural use today marks the most conservative speakers).” Nyamming has gone upmarket at GoldenEye. What a thing!

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Who Owns Jamaica’s Beaches?

UnknownEaston Douglas once took up a very big job that’s still not finished. I suppose it was much harder than chairing the board of the National Housing Trust. A board of ‘yes’ men and women makes things really easy for a chairman. This is particularly true if it’s a ‘bagasse’ board, accountable to no one.

As minister of environment and housing, Easton Douglas announced in 1995 that the Government had started to develop a policy for controlling access to Jamaica’s beaches. Nothing much has come of this promise after almost two decades. We are still stuck with a 1956 Beach Control Act.

According to that pre-Independence law, the Queen of England owns our beaches: “all rights in and over the foreshore of this Island and the floor of the sea are hereby declared to be vested in the Crown”. But even that outdated act does acknowledge the fact that the rights of the public have to be protected against selfish private-sector interests.

images-1Hotel owners, for example, can apply for a licence to operate ‘private’ beaches. But the act makes it absolutely clear that “licence shall not be granted under this section unless the Authority has certified that the issue of the licence is not likely to conflict with the public interest in regard to fishing, bathing, recreation or the protection of the environment”.

Now this ‘Authority’ is the very same Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) that appears to have given its stamp of approval to the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) to sell off protected public lands on Long Mountain to private developers. So I really don’t have much faith in the capacity of the NRCA to protect the public interest.

CONSPIRACY THEORISTS

Two Sundays ago, I watched that episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travel series, ‘Parts Unknown’, which focused on Jamaica. Avoiding the well-known all-inclusive hotels in and around MoBay, Bourdain turned to Portland, where Jamaica’s upscale tourist industry started. And he didn’t paint the usual portrait of the island as ‘paradise’. He got it right.

Bourdain documents the sharp lines of division in our society. The programme wasn’t aired on CNN in Jamaica. Conspiracy theorists immediately came up with a wicked explanation. It was because Flow is owned by Michael Lee-Chin. He came off so badly in the show that he stopped the company from airing it.

When I checked with Flow, I learned that CNN sends targeted feeds to different markets. We get the Latin American and Caribbean feed. Bourdain’s show is not on our feed. It’s now on Vimeo.com.

Hopefully, either TVJ or CVM will negotiate the rights to air the episode. We all need to see it. It’s not a pretty picture of our country. The landscape is beautiful and the food is appetising. But the disparity between the rich and poor is rather ugly.

‘WHAT KIND OF PERSON”?

Perhaps Michael Lee-Chin should have been much more cautious about exposing himself to Bourdain. This is how Bourdain introduces him: “There are those who believe that the area can come back; that it must come back. That the future is in hotels and resorts and restaurants for wealthy visitors as it once was.

trident-castle“Take this place, for instance: the Trident hotel. Expensive, luxurious! Best of all, I’m the only guest. Oh, did I mention that it comes with a castle? What kind of person would own a building like that? Who? Why? Then this man arrived and kind of answered that question. All of this belongs to Michael Lee-Chin. Local boy-turned-billionaire. One of the richest men in the world. And my host. He’s invited me for dinner.”

With guests like Bourdain, you don’t need gatecrashers. Down the road at GoldenEye, St Mary, Chris Blackwell, another host, gets the full Bourdain treatment. It’s a case of show me your friends. This is how Bourdain puts it: “When Blackwell heard I wanted to visit the local fishermen, he hooked me up with his good friend, Carl, to accompany me.”

Apparently forgetting that this wasn’t a B movie, Carl Bradshaw acts quite ugly. One of the insistent fishermen tries to tell the truth as he sees it. Blackwell’s ‘development’ plan for Oracabessa will create major problems: “This going belong to di tourist. . . . ┬áThe native here don’t have no beach in a few months time.”

“JUST STOP BOMBO KLAAT TALK!”

Bradshaw menacingly responds, “Wi no care ’bout truth, man. Wi kill people fi truth, man.” And he shouts down the middle-aged fisherman, “Yute, yute, just stop talk! Mi seh just stop bombo klaat talk!” Bradshaw forces the fisherman out of the interview. And then descends into a pseudo-philosophical rant on “tolerance”!

The star of Bourdain’s show is Cynthia who, with her partner Dennis, runs a cookshop on Winnifred Beach in Portland. It’s the only public beach for miles. The Urban Development Corporation (UDC) tried to capture the beach for private use, promising that the public would still have access. Cynthia’s response is completely understandable: “We don’t trust them. So we do not believe what they say.”

The Free Winnifred Benevolent Society took UDC to court. Last month, before Bourdain’s travel show aired, they won the case. Their heroism is a part of Jamaican culture we definitely know. The barbed-wire fences that block public access to so many beaches around the island must be torn down. With no regard for Missis Queen and her untrustworthy deputies, we must claim the right to sovereignty over our own beaches.

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