Boxing Day, Caribbean style

We celebrated Boxing Day this year in Brooklyn, land of the largest Caribbean population outside of the islands. My best friend Cynthia, with her Bermuda-Trinidad family roots, has hosted Boxing Day for years. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas. Yes, I know Bermuda is not Caribbean, but British! And this is a very British holiday celebrated by thousands of British West Indians as a day for eating holiday leftovers.

Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood friends and family streamed in and out between 4 and 9pm in an open-house fashion. Everyone had a jolly good time catching up on old times. What is Boxing Day? It has nothing to do with the sport of boxing. There are a lot of stories out there. One version dates back to an actual box. During the Middle Ages, the poor box at church was opened on the ‘day-after’ Christmas and the money was distributed to the poor. Some churches still do this on Boxing Day. Medieval servants were given the day off on the ‘day after’ Christmas. Feudal lords packed a ‘Christmas box’ of leftover holiday foods and gave it to their servants and tenants on the ‘day after’ Christmas.

This seasonal tradition has survived since slavery times as a way for Caribbean people to maintain culture and food legacy. According to Food Culture in the Caribbean by Lynn Marie Houston:

“During slavery, there were seasonal holidays in the Caribbean: Christmas, Boxing Day, Easter (known as Pickannany Christmas), Crop Over Festival and a Yam Festival, that is no longer celebrated.”

Traditional Caribbean Boxing Day menus varied from island to island. Ingredients and preparations reflected the diverse mix of people – Native, African, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, English, Scottish, Irish and more.

The following ‘cook-up’ (a combination of leftovers and freshly made food) was served by a composite of my friends and family on Boxing Day: Main-Baked Ham glazed with brown sugar, pineapples and mustard; Chinese LoMein noodles-Vegetarian and with Shrimps; Curry Chicken, Jerk Chicken; Callaloo – Caribbean Greens soup/stew; Long String Beans; Pigeon Peas, Coconut Rice cooked with or without the peas or red beans. Several varieties of hot sauces and chutneys were mentioned. Hors d’oeuvres– Cod Fish Cakes; assorted Baked Vegetable and Meat Patties; and Trinidadian Pastelles-steamed meat patties. Desserts- usually consisted of dense cakes, breads and puddings, including Coconut Cake, Christmas Black Cake, Fruit Cake soaked in rum and Plum Pudding. These cakes were eaten and also given as holiday gifts. Because sorrel and pigeon peas (gungo peas) are in bloom this time of year, you will always find these items on the menu. Beverages such as Sorrel, Mauby, Ginger Beer, various Fruit Punches, Angostura Bitters mixed with Ginger Ale, Wine, and especially island varieties of Beer and Rum were also very popular.

Spend the Christmas holidays in the Caribbean for a unique historical experience. The Bahamas and Bermuda maintain the most elaborate Boxing Day traditions that I have seen so far. On the day after Christmas, the Bahamas streets erupt with excitement with a parade called Junkanoo. Music, food, dancing, handcrafts and fun highlight this carnival. Bermuda’s acrobatic Gombey troupes wear elaborate African masks and costumes as they wind their way through the streets with music and dance.

Also called St. Stephen’s Day, named for a saint who was martyred, Boxing Day is steeped in history that has evolved in a variety of ways in the Commonwealth and around the world. If you search online for ‘Boxing Day’ you would not find much that is Caribbean. Instead you will see lots of Australian and United Kingdom shopping ads as if it were Black Friday.

Here are some links about Boxing Day around the world: General, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Barbados

Have you ever celebrated Boxing Day?

My Year-End Reflections


My year-end reflections are all about thankfulness. I felt my light rekindled by sparks from so many people known and unknown to me. That is why I must express my gratitude to everyone for a wonderful year.

Here are two quotes about gratitude that I believe:

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” – Dr. Maya Angelou, from Celebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer

“Feeling grateful or appreciative of someone or something in your life actually attracts more of the things that you value or appreciate into your life.” – Dr. Christiane Northrup, women’s health expert

I chose eight reflections on thankfulness in honor of my maternal Chinese grandmother, Violet Chan Keong. Eight is considered a lucky number. Eight is pronounced as ‘Ba,’ in Chinese and sounds like the word ‘Fa,’ which means to make a fortune. Included in the definition is abundance, prosperity, success and high status. Since Grandma Vi really loved this number, I continue her legacy by doing things in series of eights too!

1. Abundance. I am grateful for abundance in many areas of my life especially for my loving husband, dear family and friends. Some years ago, I lost everything. To start over, I uncluttered my life. I let go of all negative thoughts, people and broken things. I focused on gratitude, self-love, and hard work. Slowly, I found peace and a sense of gratitude about simple things like air and water. Prosperity began to return to my life. It was not easy. I rarely slept. I worked and studied day and night for many years. I never took vacations during those times. Today, I feel grateful for the light, strength and courage to have reinvented my life several times by now. And, I give daily thanks for basics like health, shelter, clean water, air, food and freedom.

2. Civil Rights Movement. I am thankful for growing up during the Civil Rights era. The timing of my birth, at the end of Jim Crow racial segregation laws and colonialism, allowed me to witness astonishing change in my family and the world. Affirmative Action laws opened doors for me. “Put on your rhino skin and be grateful you woke up this morning,” my aunt often advised me. As a child of activist parents, I did not realize that I was learning how to be a leader. I participated in boycotts and lead protest marches. I organized strategy and held fundraisers. We survived terrorism, exploitation, racism, sexism, degradation, and marginalization. I may be thankful, but I am not satisfied with today’s unfair world. There’s still so much to do.

3. Family. I am grateful for growing up with two caring parents and an extended family and community. I wish more youth grew up like me. I had responsibilities and great expectations placed upon me. Family dinners, meals at neighbor’s homes and everyone’s stories fueled my life and career. I am grateful for the memories of all elders –Jewish, Chinese, Africans etc.—as they passed down their culture, history, language, music, dance, arts and religion. Through family stories from Africa, South American, China, Caribbean, Europe, Louisiana and Mississippi, I inherited an open mind, valuable advice, and a thirst for knowledge.

4. Food. I am thankful for my family’s food legacy. Everything I learned about life was learned at my family’s kitchen table. As a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants, conversations naturally turned around on poignant observations about American life as well as knowledge about the production and consumption of food from the South, Caribbean islands and beyond. My parents kept a garden and a large pot of beans and rice and some baked treats ready for visitors. It was considered good luck to save the last drop for unexpected guests! We never knew who was coming although we had some regulars. But if a spoon dropped, it meant that a woman and child were coming; if a fork dropped, our surprise guest would be male. These superstitions and spirit stories over meals with friends and strangers were part of a daily routine.

5. Creativity. I am thankful for my left-handedness that developed creative abilities like playing musical instruments, writing, and ‘thinking outside of the box.’ You really do need creativity to re-imagine and re-invent yourself. Thinking the unthinkable to transform your business or life is hailed today as ‘disruption’ or creative business strategy. Our ancestors who made a way out of no way were creative. Creative people possess improvisational, ingenious, and adaptability skills. How many of our mothers ‘improvised’ in the kitchen to create feasts out of leftovers?

6. Soul. I am grateful for my soul. I am thankful for soul as it relates to music and Black people as well as it relates to our spirit. In order to create and improvise anything you need to be in touch with your soul. You must look deep, beyond your physical self to find your soul, heart, faith and perhaps religion. Although I am not a church member, I am very spiritual and find myself at altars often in churches and temples. I am thankful for my family exposing me to many faiths. I grew up as a Buddhist, Catholic, Candomblé, Pentecostal/Holiness, Baptist, and Methodist in a Jewish-Hasidic neighborhood in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was born in Harlem.

7. Gardens. I am thankful for the herb garden on my kitchen counter, a sleeping winter garden on my roof, and gardens everywhere. I love gardens for flowers, bees, butterflies, flavor, fragrance, spices, seasons, nourishment, empowerment, and beauty. Mostly, I am thankful for everyday life lessons to be learned from gardens.

8. You, the reader, current and future clients. I am thankful that you paused here to read and look at my pages. I started the year of 2014 with plans to simply collaborate and post more. I am proud that we produced stunning results and received global recognition for our projects in NYC, Brooklyn, Ohio, the UK and Japan. Because of you I have work and purpose. I hope you continue to find joy and reasons to stop by. Happy Holidays!

Mixed-up Ethnic Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American holiday but the people in my world love to mix up the holiday menu. I know a lot about mixed-up ethnic holiday fare coming from a Southern, African-American, Native-Creole-Chinese-Caribbean family. We always include items and ingredients to honor the legacy of the colorful people coming to dinner. Ours is a true melting pot!

I was trained by my elders to cook using a variety of traditional methods. Some examples are ‘add a handful of this and a pinch of that’ and the ‘by eye and nose or pay constant attention to what you doing’ methods. Years ago, I published “Cooking Your Way – MTA Employee Cookbook,” a sold-out, edition of over 800 recipes from New York City’s most diverse workforce in the nation. And, I am still searching for ways to mix it up in the kitchen.

My holiday menu for this year is still in the works. I will find inspiration from farmer’s markets, friends, relatives, memories and dreams.

My Persian friends turned me on to their version of Thanksgiving: “Mehregan, a Persian version of Thanksgiving, is an ancient Iranian holiday that celebrates the fall season and harvest. In New York City, Cafe Nadery in Greenwich Village kicked off its first Mehregan celebration recently with a literary and culinary arts festival. Highlights included storytelling, a pomegranate-peeling contest, readings, music and delicious food. The themes were memory and food.” Click here for the full story.

My Native American, Creek-Cherokee friend shared her Thanksgiving: “Since Thanksgiving has such a complicated history for my people, I think it was especially important for my family to integrate our traditions into this holiday,” she said. “We do that in several ways. We pray in our own Native languages at the table and also host a Stomp Dance the night before.” Click here for the full story.

How do you mix it up for Thanksgiving?

Lessons from the Garden

Lessons from the Garden will feature women storytellers and organic food at a Pre-Thanksgiving conference, set for Saturday, November 15, from 8am-4pm, at The Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith, 1200 Brentnell Avenue, Columbus, Ohio.

This mind, body, and soul event will offer intellectual, spiritual and physical nourishment, including a walking tour of a new urban garden and mini-farm that was launched during the Spring of 2014. The program will feature deliciously cooked, homegrown food and speakers who will cover topics such as storytelling, food, health, family and social media.

The presenters are: Paula Penn-Nabrit, Bio-Diversity: Great for the Garden and for Life, Barbara Nabrit Stephen, Seed Starting: The Essential Nature of Nursing, Organic Feeding & Good Nutrition, Sylvia Wong Lewis, We are Heirloom Seeds: Know Your Family’s Story, and Patricia Patton, Spreading Your Seeds: Learn to Master Social Media with Responsibility and Profitability.

“Hello Ohio! You are invited to celebrate Columbus’ newest urban garden at ’60 Lessons from the Garden.’ This event is our way to say ‘Thank you’ to the great people of Ohio and beyond who helped us to build the Charles Madison Nabrit Memorial Garden,” said Paula Penn-Nabrit, CEO, Telos Training, Inc., the non-profit organization presenting the event.

“Gardens have Biblical themes and metaphors in life. From the beginning (Genesis), God planted the Garden of Eden and Revelations mentions gardens, gardeners and growing plants. In life we speak of seasons, soil, seeds, roots, visions, platforms, growth, sustainability, and interdependence,” said Penn-Nabrit, founder of the garden named for her late husband.

“We are pulling all of these topics together and serving home-cooked food too! This event is for all women. We are following-up our “Power of Women – Day of Discussion” event held in 2010 that attracted over 100 women from many generations–Milennials to the Elders and diverse religious or ethnic backgrounds. This is also a birthday party to help me celebrate 60 years on the planet,” Penn-Nabrit added.

Cost is $60. To RSVP, call 614-835-6784. Free parking is provided. Visit, or send an email to:

Cooking Genes: Chino-Cubano food

Cubano Chino lunch


I miss Chino-Cubano food. Although my family’s cooking genes featured a range of old-school Caribbean-Asian fusion, I discovered Chino-Cubano food late in life. Right after college graduation, I ate this delicious, affordable food every day when I worked in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. There were two eateries on 9th avenue owned by the same chef that I loved. I don’t recall the name. But the owner’s name was Mr. Yip. Both joints featured a huge melange of Chinese-Cuban food served on oval plates for just a few dollars.

Besides the delicious food, I loved eavesdropping on the Chinese workers speaking Cantonese to each other and Spanish to customers. This was an only-in-New York experience or an anthropologist’s dream. I think I loved listening to the workers talk as much as I loved hearing my own Chinese Trinidadian relatives speak with West Indian accents.

Back in the 70s, my first job as a teacher-counselor at the YMCA took me to this old West side neighborhood. Located next door to a police precinct on West 54th between 9th and 10th avenues, it was my usual lunch time routine to explore 9th Avenue, NYC’s richest ethnic food world.  Although both eateries offered basically the same menu, I took turns going to each one. I was raised eating Guyanese, Trinidadian and Jamaican-Chinese Caribbean food. Chino-Cubano food was a welcome change.

My usual meal was simple: Special Fried Rice, a side order of fried platanos and a café for $4. Today, this meal cost about $10! This is still a bargain. Cuban-Chinese cuisine is not really fusion. It features juxtaposition or a pairing of both Chinese and Cuban food on the same plate. Eg. black beans, with rice—either white, yellow or Chinese fried rice, platanos, bok choy, Chinese dumplings, broccoli, pork, chicken or seafood.

Sometimes my Trini-Chinese mother tried her hand at Chino-Cubano cooking. She would “Latina-fy” her menu with black beans, yellow rice and plantains. To “China-fy” Cuban food, my mother would insert ginger, Hoisin or oyster sauce, bean sprouts and bean curd to her dishes.

At one of NYC’s oldest Chino-Cubano restaurants, La Caridad78’s menu features wonderful contradictions:  “Comida China y Criolla” lists the Cuban dishes as “Spanish Dishes.” “Platos Criollos” is the menu headline, but the word criollo is a contradiction too. It was originally used to distinguish Cubans from colonials. A Puerto Rican friend pointed out to me that the dishes listed are actually Cuban, not Spanish: vaca frita, chuletas en salsa soya, bisté de palomilla, rabo encendido and others. Listed on other menu pages were typical Chinese dishes such as bok choy, lo mein, beef with bean curd, and sweet and sour chicken. Tsingtao, a Chinese beer is also served along side regular ones.

There are very few Chino-Cubano recipes posted online. Here are a few that I found:

Genealogy background: Chinese indentured male workers arrived in Cuba in 1847 to replace the African slaves. Since the Chinese women were not allowed to join them, many Chinese men intermarried with Afro-Cuban, Native and local island women creating a unique multicultural society. Another migration from 1919 to 1925 brought over 25,000 more Chinese immigrants. They took advantage of the island’s prosperity during those times, primarily in Havana. This long Chinese history on the island left an indelible mark especially in traditional Cuban food. After the Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, many left for Miami and New York where the Chino-Cubano restaurants flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, today, very few of these eateries exist. Many New Yorkers like me have fond memories of their favorite Chino-Cubano restaurants.

(Cooking Genes is an ongoing series)

Do you recall eating Chino-Cubano food? Do you have any recipes or menus?