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I am what I eat: Dawn Smith

Categories: Behind the stalls

Food, perhaps more than anything, gives us a sense of who we are. In this series, regular blogger Victoria Brown interviews traders about the foods that are important to them, and how their experiences of food have shaped their identity. This month: Dawn Smith of Pimento Hill

Words: Victoria Brown

“You can tell a lot about a person not just by what they eat, but how they eat,” says Dawn Smith, owner of Pimento Hill. “I find that it’s reflected in the people around me.” She and her friends have a similar approach to food. They like to experiment with different dishes and flavours, but more importantly they like to do it together. It’s a social occasion.

“When we meet, we meet in the kitchen. We chat, we’ll have some drinks, rustle up something.” They take their time because it’s as much about catching up as it is about cooking and eating. “It is a big part of me and how I socialise and it dictates how and who I socialise with.”

So in her own words, Dawn tells me, “I am what I eat” and this has as much to do with the social side of eating—how she eats and with whom—as it does with what she chooses to eat.

Taste is at once an individual and collective experience; people experience tastes differently and everyone has their own likes and dislikes, but the culture that we were brought up in has a lot of influence on the preferences we develop.

Rustic charm
Dawn grew up in St Mary’s, Jamaica, “a place famous for its rustic charm and cultural history”. She has spent her adult life in England with her family who are “post-Windrush” immigrants. She now calls London home, but her Jamaican heritage is still at the heart of what she does.

She tells me that in Jamaica socialising always involves food and eating food is always an excuse to socialise. Weddings, funerals, births, “pretty much any occasion really. It’s engrained in our culture.” Sunday dinner when she was a child was always a special event with at least four courses and everything was geared towards sharing.

Hospitality and reciprocity are central to Jamaican culture. In her study of social relations in rural Jamaica, anthropologist Elisa J Sobo explains how the body can be read as an indicator of a person’s social connectedness, their “ability and willingness to give”. For example, plumpness signifies health, vitality, generosity and sociability, whereas people who are ill-fed may be seen by their fellow villagers as antisocial, mean or stingy.

Dawn expresses similar ideas, but rather than focusing on the body, she focuses on how a person eats. “If you are at a table and someone’s cowering over their food it says something about that person. You’re thinking, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know if I want to be in the same room with this person’, because it says something about their personality, doesn’t it?”

Treating others like family
Sobo suggests that kindness is about being altruistic, hospitable and treating others like family. Sharing food is an important part of this. Again, Dawn reflects these ideas. “I think food brings people together, sharing food makes you trust the people that you’re with,” she says.

“It builds trust and it builds families and it brings out our nurturing, caring side.” She says that if you invite someone to dinner in Jamaica and they say ‘no’ you feel “immediate mistrust”. Sharing food “breaks those barriers down”.

Dawn’s family have “always, always been interested in food”. She tells me that Jamaican food culture reflects the diverse backgrounds of its inhabitants and this is evident in the huge range of dishes she loved as a child: Jamaican patties; curried goat with rice and peas; chilli con carne; fresh fish; fried dumplings; her mother’s casseroles, stews and carrot cake; and her grandmother’s saag aloo, daal and rotis (her grandmother was half-Indian). 

If anything, her interest in food has grown and diversified even further as an adult. She spent time living in different countries and travelled widely before settling in London. This exposure to different cultures has encouraged her to try different things and be a more adventurous eater and cook.

Evoke vivid memories
I agree with Dawn that you can tell a lot about a person by what, how and with whom they eat. Food has the power to stir emotions and evoke vivid memories. For all of the interviewees in this series, these memories focus as much, if not more, on the people doing the cooking, sitting around the table and sharing the food, as they do on the food itself. “If I want to sit and eat with you it’s because I like you. No other reason,” says Dawn.

Food is a language without words. In cooking or sharing a meal with someone you can tell them any number of things: that they mean something to you, that you wish to nurture or nourish them, that their opinion counts.

Equally, cooking or sharing a meal with someone can tell them something about you. It says: this is where I come from, this is where I’ve been or where I’m going. This is what is important to me, this gives me joy, warmth and comfort, this makes me feel at home. This is what I like and dislike, this is who I like and dislike. This is who I am.

Read Dawn’s recipe for hellshire fish here