NIAGARA FALLS—Once Rachel Hutchinson married a Jamaican, she was so moved by his friends’ homesickness for food and family that she threw a backyard picnic.
Then it grew and grew and grew.
In the last decade, the daylong Jamaican summer “Taste of Jamaica” party of curried chicken and reggae music now at Hyde Park every Father’s Day has become so big that she has been wondering what to with it next.
“We take all donations.... Go out and buy paper plates because we need those like crazy,” she said. “We need everything.”
She doesn’t keep an exact count of all the people who come for Caribbean-style chicken and peas and rice that is given away by the plateful and paid for with donations Hutchinson collects beforehand. She estimates that about 1,000 come from near and as far as Canada, Rochester, Lockport, Mississippi, Florida and New York City for the public picnic that features music by DJ Delroy “Avalanche” Palmer.
“Most Jamaicans are very supportive of one another. When they find out something is going on, knowing that they are from the same homeland, they come around. They come around quick,” said Hutchinson, 47, who works as a support assistant and advocate in the state Developmental Disability Service offices in West Seneca.
Hutchinson’s husband once did the same kind of agricultural work that draws many Jamaicans here to earn as much as they can to take home to their families: A government program allows people to come for a few months or more to help with seasonal farm work like the harvest and picking ripe apples in local orchards.
They do all types of work, she said. “They could be plowing, setting up the land. They do a lot of pruning, packaging, boxing,” said Hutchinson. “All the while their doing it, I’m quite sure they have home on their mind. That’s how they are.”
Does your husband cook?
He’s a very good cook. Most Jamaicans are very good cooks.
I have no idea. Maybe because they start cooking when they’re like 8 years old. My husband is really good at making the curried chicken rice and peas. There’s a certain way you do it.
After all these years, I still cannot make that stuff. I tried it once and it did not taste nowhere compared to my husband’s. It’s not just curry alone. There’s other seasonings.
Did your husband come here because of the agricultural program?
He was working on a farm … It’s mostly males here that come over on the programs. They work and save.
They’re very well known for cooking and playing dominoes.
After your backyard barbeque drew about 40 people, you decided to move it?
I thought, ‘Maybe I should do this on Fathers Day to give them more of a special feeling that something’s going on for them.’ In 2004, we started having it at Hyde Park.
Every year since 2004, it has quadrupled in size.
Probably, including adults and children it had to be at least 1,000 people. When I first started, this was strictly out of my own pocket. We were doing it out of kindness. After we started noticing that it was getting bigger and bigger, we started doing fundraising parties to help alleviate the financial stress we were going through trying to accommodate everybody.
A lot of people that come are from the programs. They enjoy themselves. A lot of them say, ‘Don’t stop. Please keep doing this. I look forward to this every year.’
They love their music. They love socializing with others. That’s something they look forward to every year, including my husband.
They usually prep up everything in our basement the night before. They have like about three big size Dutch pots of rice and peas. Along with other dishes and stuff.
Sometimes it can be discouraging. It’s a lot of work.
It sounds like you need some collaborators.
Sometimes you get a group of people that just can’t agree on anything and they disrupt the whole thing. I want people that are going to be real open minded.
I wish I had some more help. I can’t lie. Sometimes I want to give up.
Can you describe something you really enjoy once the party is underway?
Actually I had a son who died of cancer in 2000. My son, he used to love the way my husband cooked the rice and peas.
If you would see the three different big-sized Dutch pots that they make the rice and peas … I think, ‘Wow, if my son was here he would eat that whole pot.’ He loved the reggae music. He just loved the food. I just wish he was here to be a part of it. Sometimes when I’m out there, I see so many children out there enjoying themselves…
That could be my little son out there. He’s probably just watching down on us. He’s trying to bless everything that we’re doing. That was one of the last good things I remember him saying. He wanted the rice and peas. He was five. He died May 1. He was known as Shaboo. Kalif “Shaboo” Mallory. That’s what I got on his tombstone.
I think of him when we’re doing it. When I see all those kids running around, knowing how active and bright he was. I know he would be enjoying that the same way.