In Jamaica, porridge is considered to be the consummate breakfast food, whether at home or on the go. From the break of dawn, you will find street vendors in any bustling area hawking all kinds of porridge to hungry commuters on their way to school or work. Jamaicans believe that porridge makes babies strong and healthy and, for adults, it serves as an affordable, hot, and hearty breakfast that fills you up and sustains you for many hours.
Porridge is a shared inheritance from our African ancestors and the Scottish migrants who came to Jamaica in the early 1900s and it showcases how the diverse cultures on the island merged to create Jamaican cuisine as we know it today. A traditional African meal typically included a form of savory “pap” or “fufu” made from whatever starch was local to the region; provisions like cassava, green plantain, or maize would be pounded in a mortar and pestle and then cooked in liquid to make a sort of purée or paste similar to grits. This tradition was carried on by enslaved Africans working on plantations on the islands and likely combined with the Scottish tradition of porridge for breakfast, morphing into the sweet dish we consume today.
Porridge, like much of our simple fare, was forged under the brutal arm of slavery and illustrates the resilience, inventiveness, and survival instincts of our people, who, through creativity and ingenuity, managed to turn the meagre ingredients they had available to them into the most nourishing and sustaining meals possible. In Jamaica we make porridges of all kinds and any starchy vegetable can be turned into porridge. Locally favored versions are made from ingredients that include cornmeal, hominy corn, green banana, green plantain, peanut, and, of course, the requisite oats.
Of all the porridges, cornmeal is our personal favorite. Our maternal grandmother made it for breakfast at least twice a week for herself and our grandfather. “The key to making a good porridge,” she always maintained, “is the nutmeg and the vanilla; but it’s also very important not to have a lumpy porridge, so be careful to stir well, and consistently, to avoid lumps!”
It can be made creamy in various ways with milk, coconut milk, and the critical ingredient of condensed milk: a culinary inheritance from the World Wars that simply never went out of style or left our shores. There are few more satisfying or comforting ways to break the fast than with a steaming hot bowl of cornmeal porridge—topped with a generous drizzle of condensed milk, of course.