A Caribbean Christmas Memory (And a New Take on Sorrel)


By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

AS CHRISTMAS ( or “The Holidays” to some) arrives, I find myself transported into a state of nostalgia.
Memories of my youth flash to mind, taking me back to a time when life was simple and certain.  A time when traditions meant everything.

I recall with glee the happiness and anticipation that filled the air (no pun intended) when the “Christmas Breeze” started blowing.

This is a strong Trade Wind that typically came from the Gulf of Mexico across the Greater Antilles every year during the Season – hence its nickname.

Like magic, that “Breeze” seemed to cast a spirit of joy and general well being over the Land.  Anybody you had differences with during the year, turn fren’ again in the Season.

On almost every street corner you could see a small gathering of people dancing to the sounds of Christmas music blaring from a lone speaker that appeared out of nowhere and with no visible signs of an owner.

Hardware stores were packed with people ordering supplies to “dress up” their homes for Christmas.

New Paint, new curtains, new linen — tradition demanded every home had to look spanking new for the holidays or else face strong criticism and embarrassment. Not to mention, the flurry of activity at the Wharf when “barrel come.”

In those days, the chosen few who managed to escape to a so-called better life abroad would never live it down if they omitted to pack a barrel loaded with “foreign stuff” and ship it down to the family for the Christmas.

Our home was no exception.  Every year, our Gran Uncle who resided in Rochester, NY at the time, would never fail to send the family a barrel or two for the Christmas.

This was always a highlight for us, but not for the reasons you would imagine.  You see, Uncle G’s heart was always in the right place but his sense of style and taste somehow, took one heck of a detour!

I know plaid was typical for the season and looked really dynamic on our dining room table… but not so much in pants; especially not with the large squares that more resembled a quilt than any pants I had ever seen.

Let me not even mention the wild printed shirts and roach-killer patent shoes.

To be fair to Uncle G, maybe these were the latest fashions in Rochester…or in his town…well maybe for HIS era. But I guarantee you, if we stepped one foot outside our gate in THAT get up we would surely have been stoned (and I don’t mean drunk…well, that too!).

Now as tradition would have it, the big problem we faced every year is that the barrels actually preceded Uncle G’s visit.  That meant having to wear the masquerade costumes he sent and show our appreciation.

I wonder if in all those years, Uncle G ever figured out how strange it was that all the clothes he sent were never the right size for us?

Those were surely good times though. Lots of fun, laughter, music and of course, good food. Friends and neighbours continuously showed up at our gate and would be greeted warmly. Mom would serve up slices of her signature fruit cake on beautifully, decorated cake dishes, accompanied with a glass of freshly brewed Sorrel.

Yes, Christmas time was really the best time for me, back then.  So, in my efforts to keep some of those traditions and fond memories alive, I’ve successfully re-created an adult version of Mom’s special blend of Sorrel drink, in preparation for the upcoming season, but the only barrel I woulda welcome here right now, is a likkle barrel full a rum … RIP Uncle G.

Sorrel Sangria

6 cups water
1 Cup Dried Sorrel Leaves
4 Lemon Zinger tea bags
4 tablespoons brown sugar (or to taste)
2 cups dry red wine
1 green apple, cored and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 orange, thinly sliced
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 lime, thinly sliced
Bring water to boil in a medium saucepan, add sorrel leaves and brown sugar. Boil for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain. Discard sorrel leaves. Add the tea bags and let steep for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the tea bags and pour into a large pitcher and refrigerate for 2 hours. Add the wine and fruit to the pitcher. Fill glasses with ice and serve.

Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.


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