21 Thoughts on Our Vacation + Coconut Rice and Beans
My husband and I recently decided that it was time for us to embark on our first real vacation with our kiddos. This led to several weeks of agonizing about where in the world to go, and where we would stay when we got there, and what to pack. We were terrified of picking wrong, ending up in a place that wasn’t as kid friendly or awesome as we had thought, or biting off more than our kids could handle.
Eventually, settled on Beaches Resort in Negril, Jamaica. It was six glorious days of swimming in perfectly turquoise water and reading books on a chaise lounge with my toes in white sand. It was six days of no cooking, dishes, school lunches, or TV. It was glorious.
I wish that I had the mental capacity right now to write you a brilliant essay on the subject, but I am so very exhausted from all of this vacationing. Instead, I have cobbled together a random list of my thoughts and reflections on our time away. If you stick with me to the end, you will be rewarded with a recipe for Coconut Rice with Black Beans, my take on one of my favorite Caribbean dishes.
When travelling with children, you should have the following items on your person at all times:
Something to write with and something to write on
Several empty plastic bags, preferably ones that seal
Snacks. So many snacks!
2 extra shirts + 1 pair of pants for everyone involved
While traveling with children, you should just pay the extra $30 to check the damn bag (or a second bag!). Getting our kids through the airport while schlepping a wagon full of Paw Patrol carry-on wheelies, duffel bags, and backpacks was a bit of a nightmare. Carry on as little as possible, but obviously not so little that you are ever caught without all of the items listed above.
The evening we arrived in Jamaica, we went down to the beach at sunset. It was like something out of a postcard. The water was a perfect shade of turquoise and the sand was so pale and soft. The beach was miraculously quiet, and the sun was so ludicrously beautiful it almost looked fake. As someone who has never been to that part of the world, I was shocked to find that this beach looked exactly like my fantasy of a Caribbean beach. The girls immediately waded in, lifting up the hems of their brand new sundresses to keep them from getting wet. Before I knew what was happening, they were suddenly in up to their waists, and then their shoulders, giggling widely. It was such a joyful moment. I think I will remember how they looked and how they sounded for as long as I live.
I returned email and texts twice over the course of the week, and took a few pictures of the girls, but mostly my phone stayed locked in the safe in our room. Spending almost a full week without my phone and watching next to no TV was a wonderful reset. I would love to say that this was a conscious choice, but mostly it reflected the truly shitty wifi at the place where we were staying.
Instead of carrying around my phone, I kept my book with me wherever I went, fitting in a page here and a chapter there while the kids swam in the ocean or frolicked in the water park or dug around in the sand. As a result, I actually finished two full books! Two! They were: I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron, and Yes Please by Amy Poehler.
These books were perfect beach reading for me-- not too heavy, but still substantial and smart. They also worked really well as a pair. Both are collections of essay on a range of topics, mostly relating to the experience of being a woman in a certain time and place. The both talk about motherhood, work, home, aging, and friendship. They are both set largely in New York City. And they are both written by ludicrously funny and successful women who are willing to say what they really mean about things that matter. I sort of felt like Nora and Amy and I were engaged in an ongoing imaginary conversation together.
Have you read these books? I really don’t care if you have or not, I am now going to give you a few of my thoughts on each. Feel free to skip ahead if you like.
I have loved Nora Ephron’s writing since I was a 12 year old watching When Harry Met Sally for the first time. Even though I didn’t know her name, her work was able to speak to my weird, neurotic little heart in a way that no other screen writer’s could. When Michael came home from the book store the night before our trip having picked up this book for me to read on our trip, I knew it was the perfect vacation book for me. As soon as I started reading it, though, I realized that I had read it before, on another vacation. What can I say? I am getting old, and my brain is kind of like a colander these days. Bummer.
I decided to forge ahead with it anyways, and my reaction to it the second time around was kind of curious. While her writing felt as warm and sharp as every, I found that both the world and I had changed since my last reading. Her perspective felt really dated at times, and sometimes even elitist and smug. Her chapter on modern parenting hit a particularly sensitive nerve, and I was tempted chuck the book into the ocean right then and there and call it a day. But.
But her thoughts on falling in and out of love with her apartment were so resonant, and her observations on her evolving style as a cook were so delightful. I fell in love with her all over again. I thought about it some more, and I remembered that there is value in sitting with the voices of other women we admire but don’t always agree with. I also think that it is worth considering that some of the views I find so problematic do represent the thinking of a particular place and time, and that, if she were still alive, and if I were to call her on the phone and ask her about them, she might have a very different take. I don’t know if this is true, but I can hope it might be.
I thought Amy Poehler’s book was great, though it seems to have gotten terrible reviews. If you haven’t read it, you should tell me, and I will mail you my copy, which, I should probably warn you, is totally warped and sandy because I mostly read it while sitting waist deep in the ocean wearing a gigantic hat. So much about this book resonated with me, but particularly the following advice: “Decide what your currency is early. Let go of what you will never have. People who do this are happier and sexier.”
I know that this is pretty obvious advice. Cliched, even. But even though 20-year-old me would have nodded along reading it, she wouldn’t have really gotten it. It has taken me so much time to truly believe in this wisdom, to understand that endlessly dwelling on the things you will never have, or will never be, will not only not change anything, it will actually make all the awesome things you do have going for you so much less powerful. I kind of wish I could call up my younger self and tell her to stop sinking all of her emotional energy into the big black hole of self-piety. “Yes,” I would tell her. “You might never feel great wearing a bikini or teaching math. You might never publish a book or drive a car. Get over it. Figure out what you do bring to the table and lean into that. If you do that, people won’t care about the other stuff. They probably don’t care now.”
One of the things that irked me most about Ephron’s book was that she was constantly getting laughs and the expense of other women who saw or did things differently than her. I am sure I found her caustic criticism of other women and other ways of mothering hilarious when I was 26. I no longer do. Her insistence on casually throwing other women under the bus felt miles away from Poehler’s position on the matter: “This is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again: ‘Good for her! Not for me.’” I am personally not sure that repeating it is enough. I think we should all get this tattooed somewhere on our person, because it is the key to successful female friendships and world peace
7. My very favourite thing about this vacation, after the ocean and the reading, was my daily afternoon snack of a made-to-order crepe stuffed with Nutella, which I enjoyed with a big mug of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. How am I supposed to go back to regular life, where there is no one around offering to make me my 3 pm crepe? And the coffee on this trip was so good. There was fresh, very hot drip coffee available at all hours, with a carafe of heated milk on the side. Heated milk, I tell you! My usual afternoon coffee at home consists of left over morning coffee, which is by then sort of sludgy and full of sediment, reheated in the microwave, causing a weird milk skin to form on the top. Inevitably, I will re-microwave this concoction 2-3 more times before accidentally abandoning it in a random location in my house, to be found two days later.
8. Vacation parenting is simultaneously the very best and the very worst. Discuss. . .
9. This vacation included:
The worst sunburn I have had in a decade
Mae getting full body hives and slamming her fingers in a drawer
Zoe getting a Fever
Catching both pee and vomit in my bare hands.
Given all this, I still consider it a resounding success! I believe this says a lot about how I expect things to go on any given day at this point in life.
10. When tourists speak in a jokey local accent to each other in front of actual locals, I want to punch them. I don’t, of course. Instead, I give them mean nicknames behind their backs. I am not particularly proud of this, but I think it is still probably better than committing actual physical violence.
11. The resort where we were staying had the most amazing gardens. I was in awe! I am totally obsessed with acquiring house plants, and it was so cool to see all of these tropical beauties thriving in their natural habitat. My greatest regret is not having taken more photographs of the the plants.
12. I love plantains so, so much. They might be my favourite food, and yet, I have never cooked them at home. Maybe this is the year!
15. I am writing this list by hand on the airplane, in my kid’s ‘doodle book,’ with a pen I stole from our hotel room. Little known fact about me: I steal pens from places I want to remember.
16. Other than the pen, I didn’t steal anything from our hotel room. This makes me feel like a Real Adult.
17. Michael has just reminded me that I also took the single-serving sachets of coffee grounds from the room. I pointed out that one could hardly blame me for that, as the coffee in Jamaica was, as I have said, so very good. Plus, we took that together, so he is as guilty as I am.
18. As great as this vacation was, I was so ready to come home after 6 days. I needed to get back to my own bed. I needed my children to go back to school. I needed to stop drinking tropical cocktails at 9am. It was time.
19. When I woke up the morning after we landed, I was thrilled to see that while we were gone the trees had burst into leaf, and my perennials were sprouting, and people had finally put away their winter coats. My house was clean, and my friend Kate had kept all my plants alive (thanks Kate!), and it was time to start working in the garden. Kitchener may not be a Caribbean paradise, but it is home, and that is no small thing.
20. This is the first real vacation that we have taken as a family. It was a very long, hard winter, and we were very tired. We emerged from it feeling very much in need of rest and joy and sun. We choose an all-inclusive Caribbean resort because we felt like it was the easiest thing with two little children, and I was too tired to taken on anything beyond the easiest thing. Still, I embarked on this vacation feeling pretty conflicted about the ethics of participating in the type of tourism that all-inclusive resorts often engage in. Despite having had a very positive experience at the specific resort we stayed at, I left feeling just as conflicted. I know that because of my economic and racial privilege I am able to experience a version of the Caribbean that many people who actually live there are unable to access. This is incredibly wrong. I am left wondering if there is a way for me, as a privileged, white outsider, to engage with the people, economy, landscape, and culture of this amazing place in a way that is more respectful and responsible. It’s such a complicated thing, and I am so ignorant of the dynamics at play. I truly loved my time in Jamaica and I would love to return to the Caribbean someday. Before we travel again, I would like to commit myself to doing more reading on the subject, so that I might feel like I am making a more informed choice the next time around. I am beginning by returning on an article that has stuck with me from university— June Jordan’s “Report from the Bahamas, 1982.” Any suggestions on where to go from there are welcome :)
21. The most satisfying meal we had on our trip was a buffet of traditional Jamaican foods that had been set up on the beach under a huge white tent. I had been off enjoying some luscious alone time (my mother’s day gift!), and returned just at the tail end of lunch. The whole tent was empty, except for one big round table, at which sat my family and several members of the staff. It was so lovely to be able to sit down with some of the people who worked so hard to make our trip so wonderful and actually have a conversation. The food was so, so good—jerk chicken and pork, plantains, goat curry, bammies flat, round little cakes made from cassava flour), coleslaw, roasted sweet potatoes, and, of course, rice and peas. I asked our fellow dinners how often they cooked these types of traditional foods at home, how they prepared this or that. This resulted in a good-natured but somewhat heated debate about the best ways for preparing rice and peas. It seemed that seasoning was key—one of the guys had recently moved from St. Lucia, and the others teased him about how the version of the dish from St. Lucia wasn’t as good because it wasn’t seasoned enough. I learned that all of the cooks at the table cooked their beans from scratch in a pressure cooker, although several of them used powdered coconut milk for convenience. Some seasoned the water the beans were cooked in, others did not. They all used scallions in the dish, while I have always used diced onion. They were such had such a wealth of cooking wisdom, and they were so kind to share it with me. We talked about how the nature of home cooking is such that, no matter where you are from, everyone has their own way of doing things, often passed down for generations. There is never one unified, definitive, authentic version of anything.
Look at that! You made it to the end! Thank you for sticking with me. Below is the recipe I promised!
Coconut Rice and Beans
I have not had the benefit of a Caribbean friend or family member to pass down their wisdom on the subject, so I have had to come up with my own method for preparing this. The result is (I think) delicious, but not at all authentic. After having the amazing opportunity to talk shop with a table full of Caribbean home cooks, I tweaked my approach, integrating some of their tips, such as adding a whole, uncut scotch bonnet to the pot. Even so, I offer my version humbly. I believe that accurate representation of culturally important dishes matters, and I want to make it clear that my version is not authentically Jamaican. For one thing, I use black beans, rather than the more traditional kidney beans or pigeon peas. In the past I have always used canned beans, but, inspired by those by those cooks I met in Jamaica, I pulled out my instant pot and used it to cook my own beans, and now I am hooked! Feel free to go which ever route you like.
This rice is obviously amazing as part of a feast of Caribbean dishes, but it is also wonderful with grilled salmon, or a mountain of grilled veggies. It pairs particularly well with a really fresh and acidic salad, like a slaw, which balances the richness and adds a contrasting crunch.
I make this dish in two ways. If I am feeling (slightly) more modest, I use one can of coconut milk, topped up with either stock, water, or the liquid from cooking my beans (which is not the same as the liquid from inside a can of beans, which I always discard) to make three cups. When I am feeling very decedent, I use two cans of coconut milk, again topping off with the alternative liquid to get a total of three cups. The result is super sweet and creamy, almost like a savoury rice pudding. Choose your own adventure!
2 tbs virgin coconut oil*
1 small onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbs fresh ginger, grated
1 tsp each:
Leaves from three sprigs of thyme
1 Scotch bonnet pepper, left whole
1 1/2 cups long grain rice, such as basmatti, rinsed in cold water and drained
1 or 2 cans full fat coconut milk**
1 1/2 cups cooked black beans (this is the equivalent of 1 can)
Chicken or veggie stock, or bean cooking liquid (optional, see notes)
Salt to taste
*If you don’t already have coconut oil, don’t go out and by it just for this recipe. Feel free to sub in butter, olive, or vegetable oil.
**I love, love love coconut milk, and I use it a lot. I have found, however, that not all coconut milks are created equal. Many brands have added thickeners and other ingredients, which result in a taste and texture I don’t love. Look for one that contains only coconut and water. For a long time I swore by Cha’s Organics brand Organic Coconut Milk, which is delicious, and which I could get delivered through the grocery service I use (Mama Earth Organics). Unfortunately, the price was a bit tough to swallow—$4.95 a can! After a lot of hunting around, I hit upon a winner; Farm Boy’s Coconut Cream costs a fraction of the cost, and also contains no weird ingredients. I would still say that Cha’s would win out based on taste alone, but the Farm Boy version is the best combo of taste + value. Did any of you actually you read all of that? Is there anyone out there who cares about coconut milk as much as I do?
Add the oil to a large pot over medium-high heat. Saute the onions, garlic, and ginger until soft and translucent.
Add the salt, ground spices, thyme, and scotch bonnet to the pot. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes in order to wake up the spices and meld all of the flavours together.
Add the rice to the pot and stir, coating it in the oil and spice mixture. Cook for a few more minutes to toast the rice.
Add your liquid and bring to a boil, uncovered. Turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting, cover the pot, and leave to simmer for as long as your package of rice advises (probably 12-ish minutes).
At the end of that time, open the lid. Quickly check to make sure the rice is cooked and has absorbed most of the liquid. Dump the beans on top of the rice and put the lid back on. Let this sit, off the heat, for 5 minutes.
Use a fork to fluff the rice and incorporate the beans. Adjust seasoning to taste.