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Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture

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by B.W. Higman
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This engrossing and astonishingly comprehensive history of Jamaican food should serve as a model for the serious approach to a national cuisine.

Jamaican Food is not a cookbook. In 580 pages, B.W. Higman offers a systematic, rigorous, and readable survey of the plants and animals consumed in the Caribbean island country.  Higman, a native Australian, is emeritus professor of history at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. His work has been recognized with the Bancroft Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Beginning with a chapter entitled “Why Do Jamaicans Eat What They Eat?” Higman uses historical tools, as well as biological, economic, and political analyses, to explore the evolution of how people sustained themselves on the island. He examines what is known about the foodways of the indigenous Taino people, along with the better documented history of the introduction of colonial powers and enslaved workers, and how all these interacted.

The bulk of the book is divided into two parts. In Plants, further divides his inquiry into:

  • Roots 
  • Stems and leaves
  • Fruits
  • Seeds

And in Animals we find: 

  • Molluscs, crustaceans, insects, reptiles
  • Fish
  • Birds
  • Mammals

Higman enriches his account with reproductions of period and modern illustrations of plants and animals, as well as production, import, and consumption charts for many foods. The notes and bibliography are suitable extensive.

Just as revealing is evidence of the role of these many foods in everyday life in Jamaica. Higman reproduces songs and folklore, highlights foods which are so abundant as to require no cultivation, and discusses the locally produced foodstuffs which Jamaican expatriates longingly request be brought to them by anyone traveling to the wider world.


Paperback. Color and black-and-white photos; line illustrations; charts; maps.

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