The Petchary heard a sad piece of news over the weekend. A seventeen year-old boy walked around the house to the back yard one day, while the rest of his family were busy with everyday chores and activities. Go and call your brother, the mother told her daughter. The daughter returned two minutes later to tell her that her brother seemed to be dead.
The boy had hanged himself from an ackee tree. The television news showed us the ackee tree, with its raw chipped grey bark, its long green leaves hanging down forlornly in the heat. It stood there, an innocent tree, hardly looking strong enough to bear a teenager’s weight. There was no sign of any wrongdoing, any sad event. It just stood in the dusty grey yard, as it always had and probably always would, until someone decided it was too old, not bearing enough fruit, getting in the way, and chopped it down.
There is something about ackee trees. This is not the first time that desperate Jamaicans (almost always males) have hanged themselves from their branches. One wonders why this particular fruit tree is chosen. Mango trees and breadfruit trees are rarely favored. Perhaps it is simply that there is an ackee tree in everyone’s back yard.
The Petchary is not fond of that strange fruit, the ackee – although she feels she ought to love it, as ackee and saltfish is Jamaica’s “national dish.” However, there is something about its oiliness that is cloying. And there is the fear that it contains some dangerous fat…which may possibly be connected to the fact that Jamaica has an extraordinarily high rate of prostate cancer, almost the highest in the world. The breakfast ackees sit there, plump and sickly yellow, with wisps of salt fish and overcooked green pepper, alongside some dumpling and green banana and yam maybe (all good stuff, yes…) And Jamaicans lick their lips over the ackee – that’s the special ingredient.
Now, why do only Jamaicans eat the ackee, when it grows in many other parts of this hemisphere? The Petchary understands it grows in the Amazon rain forest, but the indigenous people don’t eat it – perhaps there are too many other fruits available that are less trouble to eat. Oh…the Haitians sometimes eat it, too. And it’s an import – possibly brought over on slave ships? – from West Africa.
And the trees are tough and hardy and grow, determinedly, everywhere. When the Petchary family first moved into their house in Kingston, an ackee tree flourished near the fence. The Petchary dogs barked furiously when a marauding neighbor raided the tree. Men in trees always seem to infuriate Jamaican dogs. In the end, the tree was cut down – it was a nuisance. But years later, it still grows back, its glossy green leaves sprouting with every shower of rain, only to be cut back again and again. The Petchary doesn’t want an ackee tree!
As it is such an integral part of Jamaican culture, the Petchary feels she should embrace the humble ackee tree and its lurid fruit-which-is-not-a-fruit. Yet when she sees the concoctions of creative young cooks at the annual culinary contest – ackee muffins, ackee patties, ackee puree, ackee cake – the reaction is simply a faint nausea.
Ah, the sad ackee tree! It’s the one and only tree the Petchary takes pleasure in chopping down. After all, too many of them are haunted by the sad and weary souls of teenage boys and men.