Jamaican Stew Peas Put a New Spin on How I See My Mother-in-Law

Brigid Ransome Washington grew up in Trinidad and Tobago eating kidney beans the way her mother made them, but learning her Jamaican mother-in-law's method changed her perspective of the dish, and the woman who was teaching her.

Jamaican Stew Peas
Photo: Photo by Andrew Bui / Food Styling by Max Rappaport

Like many women who married into a family of brothers, I initially held overly ascendant intentions of growing into the daughter that my mother-in-law never had. As I imagined my future with Vivienne (who I fondly call "Auntie") I envisioned the nourishing and charitable bonds of familiarity that I have with my own mother, replicated on a different and slightly smaller relational stage.

There were times when I tried too hard. "Auntie, let me help you completely re-organize and 'Marie Kondo' your law office!" I'd say. She answered, pleasantly deadpan, "That's alright." There were times when I didn't try hard enough. "Auntie, any chance some of that extra fat in the ackee and saltfish can be skimmed off?", I'd query, only to be met again by her slightly-less-pleasant, but equally deadpan, "It cannot."

Today, my mother-in-law lives in Kingston, Jamaica, and I call Raleigh, North Carolina home, and my once-lofty intentions have been whittled down somewhat by distance and present-day reality. We settled into a relationship that was cordial if sometimes somewhat curt. Until a batch of stew peas brought us unexpectedly closer.

Throughout much of the English-speaking Caribbean, stew peas are a luscious staple made from red-kidney beans (which in Jamaica, are called peas) that are soaked, seasoned then simmered. Oftentimes, they are combined with rice to make the ubiquitous West Indian flagship dish of peas and rice. However, the preparation varies depending on the island and the preference of the person making the dish.

My own process is simple, succinct and fastidiously adherent to the way I've known stew peas to be prepared from growing up in Trinidad and Tobago. I soak red kidney beans then simmer them in a bevy of fresh, herbaceous and earthy aromatics. I administer a heavy pour of thick coconut milk. Then I slowly simmer them again and season the pot one final time – giving it more fruity heat with scotch bonnet hot-sauce and some penetrating depth with ground allspice. I usually serve it with brown rice and an avocado segment, for no other reason than that was the way my mother served it when I was a kid.

But when I was invited to share a recipe for stew peas with the readers of Food & Wine, I decided to call my mother-in-law first.

Our initial salutations were not unlike the bag of dried red beans that was perched on the counter—hard and a little grainy.

It had been months since Auntie and I had spoken in any depth or length. Even after close to a decade of marriage to her son, the woman still terrified me. However, I knew that Jamaica had its unique style of making stew peas and, terror aside, I wanted her input and perspective. I asked my husband to call her (on his phone) and after a quick-fire catch-up, he patched her on to me. Our initial salutations were not unlike the bag of dried red beans that was perched on the counter—hard and little grainy. But as I asked my questions, and as she began to walk me through her process, a warm conversation started to flow.

I was expecting thunderous variance between her methodology and mine, but what she communicated was a recipe of similar making with slight degrees of difference folded in—differences that carried her own signature. When soaking red kidney beans, she told me, it's essential to include five large cloves of fresh garlic into the water. "It gives it something extra, especially when it's being soaked overnight." Next, "Do not pour away that soaking liquid!" she exclaimed. "You should cook the peas in the same liquid it was soaked in, because it imparts a beautiful color to the finished dish." These small but substantive details held me rapt.

Auntie described how her Jamaican Stew Peas came together and the ingredients that were indispensible to her pot: "You can't make stew peas without thyme and pimento (allspice)." She asserted. She also shared those elements that were optional, like meat. "Yes, people typically use salted beef or pig tail, even some chicken, but you really don't have to." For me, this omission was revelatory: Customarily in Trinidad and Tobago, Stew Peas almost always includes some animal product. But the biggest difference was her inclusion of spinners.

Spinners are finger-like dumplings, with a dense toothsome bite, that are frequently used in Jamaican Stew Peas as a means to add heft and staying power. Auntie emphasized how forgiving the process of making spinners was and encouraged me not to stress about size and accuracy. "Each spinner should be the length of the palm of your hand and you should be able to fit two in each palm," she noted.

As our conversation drew to a natural close, Auntie added, with a note of self-reflection, "I would make Jamaican Stew Peas on a Thursday night, because the leftovers made for a great meal on Friday night as well… one less thing to deal with after a long and busy week." Then she paused.

It was a telling hush. In it I could detect the discrete but lingering scar of years-in and years-out fatigue. And in it, I suddenly saw the whole person, not just the intimidating mother-in-law: Vivienne the wife, the mother, and the full-time lawyer. Her recipe for stew peas opened a window onto her years-long balancing act in the '80s and '90s, working full time and hatching meal plans to nourish herself and her family with a meal that sated emotionally and physically. In that moment, I recognized our shared experience. I cannot count the many times I have looked forward to a Thursday-turned-Friday night leftover meal; one that would soothe and restore when ceaseless daily devotion and duty had left me with some hard edges, prickly and impatient.

I tangibly felt how a simple recipe could automate some strong, emotional responses.

After our call, I made Jamaican Stew Peas. I made them without meat, as Vivienne had directed. As they simmered, I tangibly felt how a simple recipe could automate some strong, emotional responses. When the sweetness of the coconut milk embraced the woodsy grain of the thyme and allspice, which then melded with the clean earthy nuttiness of the red beans, all those flavors bubbled and bloomed throughout our home, beckoning my husband out from his basement office and up to our kitchen. He looked at me with far-seeing eyes. It was the look of nostalgia, yes, but it was also the look of someone experiencing the wholesome delight of a childhood memory that had come to life in personic form. Before I knew it, I was kneading dough to make spinners, using the palm of my hand as my only ruler and yardstick, as I was instructed to do.

I was dubious at first about the spinners–after all, the dumplings were not included in my making of stew peas. But at first bite, I understood their salience and appeal–they added both texture and taste and invariably broke up the monotony of the dish. Ever since that day, I've appreciated spinners in a range of other applications—specifically soups and stews—and those humble little dumplings serve as a reminder to me that, at times, doubting my doubts can yield some delicious results. Though vegan, Auntie's stew peas were luscious. I savored how the pure, clean, nutty and earthy flavor of the red kidney beans shined through, perfect in its solitariness. The flavors were robust and penetrating but each one still remained bright distinct, down to the garlic used in the soaking liquid. Jamaican stew peas and spinners is one that sticks to your bones, and for my family, our hearts as well.

I don't think Auntie and I will ever divulge more about the multiple roles we hold as working mothers and their inherent demands. It's not her style. Nevertheless, a connection was solidified. And in that connection, I've come to enjoy a higher comfort; that in asking for a recipe, I also resuscitated a relationship.

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