U.S. Army Veteran and Chef Nicola Blaque Brings Her Jamaican Holiday Traditions to Texas
Memories might collect as fuzzy visuals in our heads, able to dance in and out of our subconscious like ballerinas traipsing across the stage on their tiptoes during a Christmas performance, but it's the sounds and scents that bring the blurred edges of those pictures into focus. They become especially clear when recalling our fondest holidays of the past: the smell of sugar cookies wafting from the oven and the clink of ornaments coming together like toasting glasses of mulled wine. For U.S. Army veteran, chef, and Texas restaurateur Nicola Blaque, Christmastime smells like slow-simmering goat curry and spiced punch on the stovetop and sounds like spirited Jamaican carols and the glug, glug of rum being poured over a freshly baked cake.
"I remember always waking up and immediately smelling allspice and ginger in the air," says Blaque, who was born in Jamaica and lived there until she was 5. "For us, Christmas was big, and it was all about the food. My mother would start prepping days in advance for the rum cake and sorrel." (Sorrel is a sweet, hibiscus-infused Jamaican punch customarily enjoyed during the holidays.)
When she was growing up, Blaque's Christmases were spent everywhere from New Hampshire to Texas to Hawaii, depending on where her stepfather (who served in the U.S. Air Force) was stationed at the time. However, her mother always made sure their family's Caribbean traditions were upheld, hosting other military families for potlucks. "My aunts and grandparents would send huge boxes of spices and ingredients so, no matter where my mom was, she could do the feast," says Blaque.
Typical Christmas meals throughout Jamaican culture include vibrant, piquant dishes such as braised oxtails, fried sweet plantains, saltfish and ackee, and sweet potato pudding. The twinkling star on top of the Yuletide festivities? Rum cake. The classic spiked dessert hides out for hours before the merrymaking begins, soaking up rum in a secluded cabinet to safeguard it from those who'd like to take a nibble—or from that one relative who'd prefer to add an extra tipple when no one is watching.
Kindred to a fruitcake, it calls for dried fruits, citrus peels, cozy spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, and—of course—a bit of booze. The dessert and digestif traditionally tops off the savory feast and keeps the party ticking further into the night. "I even had rum cake at my wedding!" she adds.
During the 10 years Blaque served in the army, she would cook comforting meals in the barracks for her fellow soldiers during the holidays, before later going to culinary school and opening two successful Caribbean restaurants in San Antonio. She lives there now with her two young children, stepson, and husband Cornelius Massey. Her flagship restaurant, The Jerk Shack, quickly became recognized nationally for its jerk chicken (served by the pound, like Texas barbecue), while her newer concept, Mi Roti, offers build-your-own wraps and bowls inspired by Caribbean street food.
Now, when the holiday season comes around and a busy schedule keeps Blaque and her family in Texas, she celebrates in a familiar, fitting way: inviting over anyone who needs a place to go and serving up the nostalgic dishes of her heritage. "My husband and I host soldiers or people who are alone in San Antonio, much like my mom used to do. It's something that my parents passed onto us that feels just as important as the recipes," Blaque says.
But the revelry comes with a touch of Southern flair. "We're in Texas, and we love barbecue! So, we'll have ribs with the jerk chicken and steamed whole fish. It's not necessarily standard for Christmas, but good food is good food. It is the most universal language. And in Texas, every get-together deserves ribs, right?" she adds.
One magical thing about the holidays is that no matter where you're from or which memories you hold most dear, things are often more similar than they are different. The sounds of belly laughs and the smells of your favorite recipes twirl into mind like the tutued Sugar Plum Fairy. After all, fellowship and food go together like a slice of rum cake and a glass of punch.