In my last article, I introduced you to the national dish of my birth country, Grenada. This time around, I’m taking the opportunity to give you a little history on where the dish, Oil Down, originated. Never mind that it’s loaded with flavor and nutrition, it has also brought people together and helped to pass on traditions to the young. The origins of the ingredients also show how diverse we are as a people.
Through research, I’ve realized the historical context on the process of making Oil Down. You see, slaves who were brought to the island to work on plantations also brought with them their culture and traditions. This is the typical meaning of the phrase “it takes a village,” and it definitely took a village to come together to create this delicious one-pot meal. Although we have evolved, there are still reminders of what used to be; such as the way people live, the music they create, the costumes they wear during carnivals and the plantations where some of the island’s cocoa and spices are still being harvested. These plantations around the island are commonly referred to as “estates.” In fact, my family still owns theirs. I’ve never visited its location and as far I know it’s being used to grow and harvest crops. My mother has shared her fond memories of spending time there. It’s one of those places that rarely gets talked about because of its historical significance, however, this estate known to my family as “Shadow,” bears little resemblance to slavery. In the mid to late 1800’s, my Scottish side of the family settled in Grenada just as slavery was abolished in 1834, and there my great grandfather met my great grandmother, who had immigrated to the island from St. Lucia. The rest was history.
The same way that the island is considered a melting pot with immigrants from all over, Oil Down too, is a melting pot. As a matter of fact, most of the ingredients used in Oil Down are also imported. With the combination of callaloo or dasheen leaves, which are “indigenous to the Caribbean and were cultivated by Grenada’s earliest Amerindian inhabitants,” green bananas, which were brought in by European settlers from Asia and salted pork tails and nose, which were also imported by European settlers, Oil Down has something for everyone. Back then on the plantations, slaves brought in from West Africa had one thing in common: passion for building their communities, even though life was still so very rough. Making Oil Down was not just a way of nourishment and saving time, but making sure that their neighbors were involved and also being fed. They would each bring something to add to the pot, ensuring that there would be their “piece of the pie,” and because of the sheer quantity of ingredients, no one person could collect it all. In other words, whatever they could salvage from their master’s home was what they brought to add to the pot. Anyway, once they each brought what was needed, they would begin the sometimes tedious process. When the food was cooked, everyone received his or her share and all was well. This tradition stayed in Grenada and became the country’s national dish. On most days, anywhere you go, there’s a high chance of passing by a family’s home and smelling the aroma of an Oil Down in progress. It gets its distinct smell from the mixture of spices along with the flavorful milk of dried coconuts. It’s vastly intoxicating.
According to my cousin and island native, Antonia Frederick, “no two oil downs are the same, everyone adds his or her own touch.” Antonia grew up making the dish with her maternal grandmother, who like everyone else, cooked for the entire family. When asked, most people are open to discussing the bonds and relationships they’ve developed all through cooking Oil Down with their neighbors and grandparents. I too, have very fond memories of cooking Oil Down with my mother and Grandmother, and I will cherish these memories as I plan on passing them on to my future children. In the end, it’s really all about families getting together to enjoy a delicious meal.