Excerpt: Chef Suzanne Barr’s Memoir, ‘My Ackee Tree’ — Plus, Try Her Recipe for Dutch Apple Pie
Suzanne Barr at her 'True True Diner' in Toronto. Photo: Samuel Engelking
You might know Toronto chef Suzanne Barr as a judge on television shows like Top Chef Canada and Wall of Chefs, or, if you’re a foodie, eaten her comforting Afro-Caribbean fare at the Gladstone Hotel, Saturday Dinette and True True Diner, which Barr has said was unceremoniously closed by her financial backers in 2020 during the first wave of COVID-19.
Her cooking honours her Jamaican heritage, while her restaurants acknowledged the pivotal role lunch counters played in the civil rights movement as places where sit-ins were staged in the fight for desegregation. The walls of the Saturday Dinette and True True Diner featured iconic black-and-white pictures of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and a shot of everyday heroes like “the lone Black man refusing to leave the counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina,” she writes in her memoir, My Ackee Tree. “Those photos meant everything to me.”
An advocate for racial and social justice, she sees herself as a change maker, raising funds for community food programs in low-income neighbourhoods, mentoring female chefs and chefs of colour, and paying staff a living wage.
Born in Toronto and raised in Plantation, Fla., Barr got her start as a private chef in New York, Miami and Paris, and met her husband, Johnnie, at a cooking school in France. She found out she was pregnant with their son, Myles, the day Saturday Dinette opened in Toronto in 2014.
In her memoir, Barr entwines food with her family’s Jamaican roots and recounts the stereotypes she battled as a Black female chef. In the following excerpt, Barr describes how she and her sister learned to prepare ackee and saltfish, the island’s breakfast staple that evokes bittersweet memories of her mom, Eunice Adassa Facey — also known as Nicey — who died of pancreatic cancer when the chef was 30. —Kim Honey
Excerpt from My Ackee Tree
My parents didn’t make a conscious effort to teach me how to cook. They were just cooking all the time, and I was there watching. Staring at my mother’s hands around that bowl.
The sky was always blue in Florida. Royal, sapphire, Egyptian, olympic, electric. Tanya and I wanted seasons, to watch leaves fall in autumn and wear snow boots in winter. We sometimes shuffled through family photos of a life before, memories of winters in Toronto with our cousins before we moved to Florida. But the view out my window in Plantation was pretty constant. Blue from the sky and green from a tree that never changed.
The tree, though, was something special: ackee. Jamaica’s national fruit. The poor thing rarely fruited, but it was still like a Jamaican flag in front of our house.
Of all the jobs Mummy asked me to do in the kitchen, cleaning ackee was my favourite.
Returning home from a Caribbean market, Daddy places a whole sack of ackee on the table. Bright-red fruit peeks from the bag. Each pod is the size of Mummy’s palm, and they look like beautiful undersea flowers, opening.
Tanya and I stand beside her at the counter.
“Don’t mash up de ackee.”
We roll our eyes. “We know, we know. You tell us every time.”
She sucks air through her teeth from behind pursed lips, then lets out a short, sharp kiss. It’s a technique my mum mastered before my time. Jamaicans are experts at kissing teeth.
A short kiss means minor irritation. A longer, deeper kiss means that Mummy is vexed. Kissing teeth can indicate annoyance, anger, and even joy …
It’s only a short kiss this time, and Mummy is showing us that she disapproves of our eye-rolling and our sass.
“Put the seeds here in this bowl.”
Her accent was subtle, but Jamaican Patois would shine when she was vexed, or when she was reminiscing with one of her friends. “Cha” (no, man) was one of her staples.
“Cha, cant bada with de childe, pickney de too facety.”
Mummy had an arsenal of dialects and accents for everyday use.
I didn’t love the actual work of cleaning ackee — gently separating the fleshy parts of the fruit from the shiny black seeds – but I loved knowing that we’d have ackee and saltfish the next morning. Ackee has a mild flavour, kind of nutty, and a buttery texture that pairs perfectly with salted fish.
“This one isn’t open, Mummy.”
She grabs it out of my hand.
“It’s poisonous. The fumes will kill you,” she says.
It always shocked me, that fact. If it’s eaten too soon, before it opens on its own, it can be toxic.
She sifts through the bag, pulling out any closed pods, and places them on the marble windowsill above the sink. It’s where she puts tea bags she’s only used once, the kitchen sponge, her beloved spider plant.
Ackee flesh gets under my nails. It’s kind of slimy but not gooey. Firm yet soft to touch.
“It looks like a brain!” Tanya and I giggle.
“Cheeky innit! Stop playing with the food and finish up,” Mummy says firmly.
A seven-pound bag of ackee turns into one pound of flesh. Shells go in the garbage, black seeds are sprinkled in the backyard in hopes of another tree.
Cooking salt cod is a process. Mummy soaks the fish overnight in water, and then drains it the next day. She adds fresh water and brings it to a boil. The water spills over, and she kisses her teeth; she drains the water, boils it again, drains again, boils it for a third time, and drains it once more. Each time she changes the water, more salt is pulled from the fish.
When the fish is ready, she parboils the ackee flesh. Then she flakes the fish into big, succulent chunks and adds crispy sliced bacon, tomatoes, thyme, and scallions. Cooked ackee looks like scrambled eggs with its firm fluffiness and light-yellow hue.
There’s power and deep memories in that combination of flavours for me, and that’s why I rarely cook ackee and saltfish myself. It sits too heavy on my heart. All I think about with that dish is my mum.
Nicey’s Dutch Apple Pie
My mum’s strong hands on top of mine. I’m eight years old, and she’s showing me how to press a mixture of flour and butter onto warm apples. I can smell cinnamon and nutmeg. Feel the soft skin of her inner arm against mine as the indentations of my fingers appear on the crust. It’s a beautiful memory of our kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. Sunday night dinner always included dessert when I was a kid, and this was one of my favourites.
Mum always used the store-bought graham cracker shells. She was a working mum, six days a week. Office job. Then cleaning offices. Then cleaning and cooking at home. Our mothers, bless them, truly. This recipe takes me right back home.
I made my mum’s apple pie when I first met Suzanne Hancock, and it started this whole project. Got me thinking about Nicey, my journey, got Suzanne thinking about her own losses and how sharing them can be healing. I hadn’t talked about my mum’s death much before that, and it made me want to celebrate her life.
6 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cored
2 tbsp (30 mL) granulated sugar
1 tsp (5 mL) orange zest
½ cup (125 mL) water
1½ cups (375 mL) salted butter
3 cups (750 mL) all-purpose flour, sifted
1 cup (250 mL) firmly packed brown sugar
2 tsp (10 mL) cinnamon
1 tsp (5 mL) ground nutmeg
½ tsp (2 mL) sea salt
Pinch of ground allspice
Store-bought 9-inch (23 cm) graham cracker pie shell
Vanilla ice cream, to serve
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
1. Cut the apples into half-moon-shaped slices, about ¼ inch (5 mm) thick, and place them in a medium saucepan. Add the granulated sugar and orange zest. Toss until the apples are evenly coated. Add the water and cover. Place the saucepan over medium-low heat and cook for about 8 minutes, until the apples start to soften, making sure they do not turn mushy.
2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Continue to cook for about 12 minutes, until the butter browns slightly and begins to develop some flavour. Let cool for 1 minute.
3. In a medium bowl, add the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and allspice. Stir to combine. Add the melted butter to the bowl with dry ingredients. Use a wooden spoon to stir until the mixture resembles the texture of coarse sand, with lumps of sugar, butter, and salt.
4. Transfer the apples and any liquid in the saucepan to the graham cracker pie shell and level off the top. Use your hands to pile the flour and butter mixture on top of the apples, patting the flour mixture down with each addition and making sure to round the top of the mound. Don’t worry if it looks dry or it cracks.
5. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the top of the pie looks golden brown and you can see the apple filling bubbling on
the edges. Let cool before serving
each slice of pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Excerpted from My Ackee Tree by Suzanne Barr and Suzanne Hancock. Copyright © 2022 Suzanne Barr and Suzanne Hancock. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.