Coco Bread Is the Taste of Freedom
This tender, coconut-scented Jamaican bread brings solace and liberation even when home feels very far away.
There are certain flavors that stop time. We have all experienced them. They are both autobiographical and anecdotal in nature. They hum with faint but meaningful details of heritage and also sing with lively stories from a bygone era. For me—a Trinidadian, my Jamaican husband, and our two small kids, coco bread is one such experience. It provides a deep dive into our Caribbean history and tells a story so reassuring and familiar, it resets us, even on the most difficult of days.
There’s nothing truly innovative about coco bread. It is, after all, just a bread made from flour, yeast and coconut milk, its namesake ingredient. The inclusion of coconut milk gives this bread a uniquely Caribbean sensibility. Although the bread is beloved throughout much of the English-speaking Caribbean, Jamaica is the birthplace of coco bread. And in the eyes of Jamaicans, coco bread is a national darling.
Sold in bustling storefront bakeries, these barely sweet, hand-held pockets of buttery bread are oftentimes served stuffed with a piping-hot beef patty or with creamy cheddar cheese. The pairing is an unpretentious tradition, one which delivers a satisfying meal-on-the-go and nourishes islanders of all stripes who were raised on the staple. It is simultaneously the daily provision of the typical barrel-chested day laborer, as well as the lunch-of-choice for office workers and scions of the tourism industry. As social equalizers go, coco bread is iconic. It reinforces a mighty truth that while the working class and upper class may not share much, they do, in fact, share histories. One will be hard pressed to find a native West Indian whose lineage doesn’t include a painful brand from the region’s dark history of colonialism, slavery, and indentured servitude. It is here that coco bread retains its relevance.
Like many other culinary traditions, the origin of coco bread is shrouded in questions. There is no real certainty regarding its genesis. However, locals believe coco bread was a product of scarcity. Its humble composition and satiating ability are a reflection of the masterful way enslaved Africans—and later, indentured Indian laborers—who worked on Caribbean sugar plantations used enterprise to create something out of nothing. The simple power of coco bread is in its ability to bring together the past and present into sweeter alignment.
As a boy growing up in Kingston, my husband Joseph fondly recalls regular visits to Tastee’s Bakery—a thriving fast-casual eatery that has over fifty outposts throughout the island. With his hands in his pocket and a faraway smile, he remembers ordering coco bread and beef patties surrounded by all manner of Jamaicans, as reggae blared in the background. When asked how he felt in that specific moment, he exclaimed “Free! Everything felt right in the world.”
For our family—by way of my husband—coco bread is emotionally stabilizing, and making and eating it blunts the small yet palpable sting that comes from being away from our countries of origin. When Joseph left Jamaica on a full scholarship to study computer science and physics in the United States, there were some obvious trade-offs (the weather, for one). However, giving up vital aspects of his culture was never part of the deal, nor was grappling with the harsh realities of everyday racism. My husband came to realize that this land of boundless opportunity carries in its soul a bias and lethal fear of the dark skinned. And as such, the accomplishments he achieves here carry a distinct load, which ultimately chafes against the freedom and weightlessness he enjoyed as a young boy in that exuberant Kingston bakery. For him, coco bread has become a key that unlocks an important part of his truest self.
Just over ten years ago, Joseph was pulling an all-nighter at the university, preparing to defend his applied physics Ph.D., when someone called the police stating that “some homeless guy got a hold of some keys to the Physics lab.” The police came, asked for Joseph’s credentials and questioned his presence. Joseph, who is of medium build with a complexion that resembles the coloring of strong tea, complied and respectfully answered their questions. His gentle disposition, thick Jamaican accent and easy Caribbean cool did much of the heavy-lifting in de-escalating what could have easily been a tragedy. The police ultimately left Joseph to his work but also left him shaken. And today, every time an unarmed black man is killed at the hands of police, it digs on a wound.
To this day, I regret not having the presence of mind to make coco bread for Joseph, my boyfriend at the time, when he recounted this event to me. I know that the coco bread in itself wouldn’t have alleviated his fear or healed his very real hurt, but at the very least, it would have stopped time and taken him back to the place where his freedom was real, even if for a second.