Recently, everyone in my family came down with a nasty cold/flu that has been going through Miami like a wildfire in the Everglades. We were walking around like sniffling, bleary-eyed zombies addicted to Kleenex and Theraflu. Pitiful.
On a Saturday, after struggling all week with over-the-counter medications, my wife turned to me and said, “You know what you have to do, don’t you?”
It wasn’t that I was dreading making the chicken soup, but my new responsibilities at the college were taking their toll, and I thought about the mountain of work that I had brought home. I was determined that not even a cold was going to stop me from finishing the job. I reluctantly told my wife yes, with the secret hope that everyone would have forgotten by the next day.
But by the next morning, my son, Andrew, was downstairs with a list for the supermarket and his stern admonition, “Don’t forget to make the dumplings.” Sometimes I have to remind Andrew and his sister that it’s called “chicken soup,” not “dumpling soup.” So on Sunday evening, after going to the supermarket, I pulled out my stock pot and made the famous chicken soup that my mother taught me how to cook.
My mother, Merty Synidia Philp, née Lumley, was a country girl from a small town named Struie in Westmoreland, Jamaica. According to my aunt, Norma Lumley, my great-grandfather, Andrew Lumley, came over from Scotland to build churches in Bethel Town, which is two miles from Struie. My grandfather, Frederick Andrew Lumley, was a baker/shopkeeper/bartender/farmer/village reader of letters in Struie. He also worked as a cook on a ship that traveled between Jamaica and Cuba, and he taught my mother how to cook chicken soup the way my great-grandfather taught him.
My great-grandfather and my grandfather are a part of a Scottish lineage in Jamaica. As youngsters at Jamaica College, we used to joke that when the teachers were taking roll, you could go outside, smoke a cigarette in the bathroom, come back, and they would only be getting to the McKenzies after going through the MacAdams, McDaniels, McDonalds and MacDougalls.
The meeting of Scotland and West Africa (I will vouch only for those two — who knows what else happened in my grandfather’s bar on a Friday night?) down in Westmoreland, tempered by the rigors of farm life and the daily chores of feeding the chickens, produced a set of habits such as dependability, tenacity and a certain fearlessness toward work and sacrifice that kept my mother’s family together.
For my mother’s family to survive in Struie, they had to be ready for any opportunity that presented itself. My aunts and uncles had careers in fields where opportunities were open: nursing, law enforcement and teaching. They did well in these professions because in Struie they had learned firsthand about dependability and sacrifice. Everyone on the farm was expected to contribute something. There weren’t any exclusive boys’ jobs (except with the bulls and hogs) or girls’ jobs. You had to help any way you could.
This tenacity and attitude toward work helped my mother throughout her life. She began as a teacher, and then she became a legal secretary to one of the top lawyers in Jamaica. When she left Jamaica, she started all over again and eventually became a nurse — the career she had always wanted. But she always stressed that, if a job had to be done, someone had to step up and do it. If you couldn’t do the job, you could help.
This is why she taught me how to cook and to iron my clothes, because the last thing she wanted was a wutless (good-for-nothing) man in her house. Everyone had to do something.
So, back in Miami on Sunday evening, it was my turn to do something that no one else could do as well.
Whatever work I brought home from the college had to be put aside for my family’s sake. I made the chicken soup from a Jamaican-Miami recipe with a whole chicken (skinned and quartered by yours truly), thyme (of course), onions, butternut squash (they only had somefenke-fenke pumpkins, and the kids prefer squash), dumplings (the kids used to help me make them when they were younger, but they’re teenagers now and way too cool for that), carrots, celery, parsnips (added since we’ve come to Florida — for a little sweetness), chayote (don’t make the mistake of going into the Cuban supermarkets and asking for cho-cho; you will get hurt), turnips, and scallions added just before serving.
The soup may not have cured our colds, but it gave us a chance to sit down together and have a hearty meal with equally wholesome company. Well, not so wholesome. There was a revival of “The Dumpling War,” a family habit, which I hope our children will never share with their children.