It has been said that enslaved Africans wore necklaces of seeds for good luck, seeds from the ackee plant, when they were forced onto ships’ hulls bound for the New World. Ackee, which is now known as the national fruit of Jamaica, is not indigenous to the land, but is native to western Africa. It made its debut in Jamaica in the late 18th century during a peak period of the British slave trade, which by its official end, in 1807, had brought more than 1 million Africans to the island.
Saltfish and ackee is one of the most popular dishes from Jamaican cuisine today. For those unfamiliar, ackee has a unique and earthy taste. It is a pear-shaped fruit whose skin ripens red, then opens petal-like, revealing three or four arils with black seeds atop each. As a source of protein, the fruit was essential for the survival of the women, men, and children forced to work grueling hours on the sugar plantations scattered throughout the Caribbean.
Salted fish was an imported commodity, too, from North America, and planters would occasionally share that bounty with their hungry slaves. African women, who were charged with arduous and unyielding labor on plantations, and who also had to generate sustenance for themselves and their families, mixed the leftover salted fish with ackee along with “Food,” shorthand for the prepared combination of starchy root vegetables like cassava, yam, and taro, which they grew and cultivated themselves. Saltfish and ackee represents the unseen labor of generations of women who, in the two centuries since the end of slavery, shaped how millions eat and survive in the Western Hemisphere.