The Trinity of Home
Story & Photographs by Mary Warner
One of my earliest food memories involved staring into a steaming pot of green goo. In an island lilt, the woman who brought it over to our house called it callaloo, a common dish in her native Trinidad made of simmered okra and spices. We ate it alongside rice and baked macaroni and cheese, and washed it down with iced, sweet tea. I was hungry for flavor in a home where the economy of food—there were eight mouths to feed—often trumped taste.
Growing up, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to host people from all over the world. They were active in their non-denominational church, but having six kids prevented them from being the missionaries I think they secretly wanted to be. Instead we had the missionaries over for dinner, as well as visitors from countries I’d only read about in the encyclopedias I’d lie awake at night reading. Still, my parents were missionaries in their own way.
In 1987, when Tony and Jenny John arrived from Trinidad to Florida, it wasn’t long before Tony and my dad became friends after meeting in an automotive tech class. Tony says that they immediately hit it off, but it took a little finagling for Jenny to meet my mom.
“I had a real fear of Christian people,” Jenny says. At the time she was a jaded Catholic. “She’s so nice Jenny, you’ll love her,” her husband insisted, and eventually she did come over.
“When I walked into your house,” Jenny tells me, “it was so peaceful. It really touched me.” They became Christians soon after, and the four of them remained friends ever since.
That’s how I got to know Tony and Jenny. But it wasn’t until I sat down with them almost 30 years after we met, that I understood how coming to America reinforced what home meant to them.
In the Beginning…
Both of the Johns grew up in Petit Valley, one of the three valleys of Trinidad, a country that is part of the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, a mere 6.8 miles off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. Originally called “lëre”, meaning “Land of the Hummingbirds” in the native Arawak’s language, Christopher Columbus renamed the country “La Isla de la Trinidad” for his faith, but it also references the island’s three mountain ranges.
Trinidad is lush. When the couple recount their childhoods it’s mostly described in terms of the outdoors: hunting, fishing, swimming in the ocean, growing gardens, playing games, all activities that took place under an azul sky.
“We used to invent our own toys,” explains Tony. “We’d make scooters and trolleys from whatever we could find. We’d take a guava branch and shape it into a top for spinning with a string. We'd make small wooden boats—what we called “jockies”—and race them, homemade kites with razor blades on the tails, and cut each others kites and call out ‘Hi-O!’ when we’d take them down.”
In Jenny’s childhood home three generations of family lived under one roof. There was grandmother upstairs and an aunt and cousins in a large room in the downstairs area, which they shared with Jenny, her nine siblings and mother. Jenny’s father died when she was a baby, but even if he had been alive, such living arrangements were commonplace at the time. The outdoors, in large part, gave them their freedom.
“There were probably 15 kids in the yard at one time,” she laughs. By contrast, when I meet up with the Johns at their suburban home in Tampa, their two youngest children, Jesse, 17, and Crystal, 21, are in their respective bedrooms, doors closed, the A/C cranked on.
“They are American,” Tony says laughing, but his face betrays a sense of how the culture of his childhood is lost on his kids.
Tony’s family was large too. His mother worked in the home while his father drove a taxi to support their family of eight. Tourism was and still is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s largest economic drivers. After the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, business, in general, soared. So did Tony and Jenny’s aspirations.
Jenny’s mother, like all Trinidadian mothers of that generation worked at home, but Jenny had “visions” of doing other things. She had quit going to school as a young girl to help her family, but returned later on to learn administrative skills. She was 19, and was also working in a boutique called My Fair Lady when she met Tony.
“It was like a royal family,” Jenny laughs about how they met, “Tony was friends with my sister’s husband. It was at Christmas party.”
At the time, Tony changed jobs from car salesman to practical mechanic, a term he uses to describe having not gone to school to work on cars. He had always tinkered with them. Soon after they met, Tony and Jenny married. Together, they not only built a family, but a successful automotive business—Jenny did the books and ran the office, while Tony worked on the cars.
If it sounds like a storybook, it was. The family continued to prosper. To grow the company, Tony decided to study mechanics in the United States. So he applied for a student visa and enrolled at a technical school not far from where I grew up. The eldest of his daughters already lived in the states and had married an an American, but things were also politically in their favor then. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan had signed a immigration law that would become known as the “Reagan Amnesty”, which underscored the importance of immigrants in America, especially hard-working entrepreneurs like Tony.
In 1987, Tony and Jenny, and their four children, arrived in Florida.
How to Grow
“I fell in love with it,” says Jenny describing Florida pre-development—a open, spacious land, where strip malls and car lots had not yet dominated the landscape. For Jenny, it was an easy place to move around compared to Trinidad, and she liked the shopping too.
While Tony attended classes, Jenny set up their home and made new friends. My mom was one of the women she spent time with, and it wasn’t long after they settled in that we began to be regularly invited into their home. I asked my sister, whose steel trap mind I can always count on, what she recalled of those visits.
“Remember Renée?” she asked. “Well, her hair was so beautiful, and I loved the smell of it.” It was. Coconut and sweet. “I’d always used to want to sleep on her pillow when we spent the night,” she confessed. “It smelled so good!”
The entire house always smelled good. Jenny cooked dishes familiar to her from Trinidad and often shared them with us. My parents encouraged our curiosity, thwarting any dissent by serving leftovers from those feasts. Callaloo, I learned, can go a long way. Later on, when they’d make short visits home, we’d hope they’d return with coconut candies or the special cheese my mom would use in the macaroni “cake” Jenny taught her how to make.
When Tony had completed the automotive course and their visa had expired, it was time for the Johns to return home for good. My parent’s encouraged them to stay, and the Johns even tried to extend their visa, but the paperwork didn’t come though in time. They left ready to return to the world they left behind in Trinidad.
“God started blessing us,” says Jenny. In the midst of a government coup, they bought property, and put in a new garage and began doing same-day transmission service. The business boomed. Crystal, then Jesse, was born and they thought they’d stay in Trinidad forever—except that as Trinidad gained its independence and the country began to benefit from its oil and tourism economy, things began to change. Mangroves that Tony recalls exploring as a boy were cleared, tall buildings erected in their place, and as the country prospered, Trinidad became more crowded.
So in 2001, just after the fall of the Twin Towers, Tony and Jenny began the process of returning to the United States. This time for good. Two years later, the Johns arrived, bringing with them their two youngest children. They eventually settled into a subdivision in Wesley Chapel, a sprawling northern suburb of Tampa.
It’s not perfect though. They struggle with the difference between what Americans and Trinidadians mean when they talk about “community”.
“Everybody knows everybody in Trinidad,” says Tony. “Here you are not free to do what you want to do. If your mailbox gets a little bit of junk, you get a letter. If your lawn gets a little too long, you get a letter. If you want to paint your house, you can’t paint your house without approval.” They admit they didn’t understand this condition of the propriety when they bought it, but they’ve accepted that this is where they are now. They own a parcel of land in a more remote area where the land is undeveloped and hope to build a small country house on it one day. I believe they will.
For now, Tony runs a marketing and exporting company, supplying parts to his oldest son Fabian, who has taken over the family’s transmission business. Jenny finally did get to realize more of her dreams. After taking a Certified Nursing Assistant course, she began working in hospice, visiting patients in their homes, and she now works in a facility providing patients with not only practical care, but loving support. It’s an opportunity she says that continues to be a blessing in her life, and one she doesn’t think possible if they had stayed in Trinidad.
In addition to their faith in God, Jenny and Tony cite continuing their Trinidadian traditions in Florida as the foundation for their stability, traditions which, at their core involved food. But how were they able to import a culture where, as Jenny explained, if you opened the door on Sundays, all you smelled was food? Where the spread—a mix of rice, macaroni and cheese, stewed chicken, baked chicken and potato salad, red beans, lentils, boiled plantains, yucca, dasheen, and pilau—requires special ingredients. You grow a garden and learn how to substitute spinach for dasheen.
Traditionally at Home
When we finish our interview, Tony and Jenny invite me outdoors. There are plants growing wild alongside the back of their house and a few trees planted in the yard. Tony plucks a wide, light green leaf, from a plant.
“That’s broad-leaf thyme,” he says and holds it up to my nose. “We use it a lot in Trinidadian cooking.” There is also sugar cane and soursop, a fruit that’s festooned with prickles and whose flesh is tart. My favorite is the sorrel bush where a pink flower has begun to unfurl.
“I make a tea with that,” Jenny says, and when we go inside, she shows me a pot filled with a sanguine liquid. Flower bits float atop the surface, along with cloves, cinnamon sticks, and something she calls “mixed essence,” which is similar to vanilla extract. She’ll drain the mixture and freeze it in batches for the Christmas holidays.
Christmas in Trinidad was especially memorable for both. They tell me about the smell of salted hams, how their sweet scent would waft through the air while boiling in large pots over fires outside. There were also apples and grapes in the markets during Christmastime, two fruits which weren’t readily available other times of the year. Even the traditional Christmas tree was reimagined as a branch cut from a random tree in the yard, then festooned with odds-and-ends. It wasn’t the things that set the tone of the festivities, they explain though, but the people and the food.
Feasts, where those two things came together, included everything that would be prepared for a typical Sunday meal, plus the addition of rum cake, ginger beer, sorrel, and pastelles. Tony swoons over the last item, a meat-filled, tamale-like food as common to a Trinidadian Christmas as stockings are to the American version. After he describes them to me I realize that I have had them before, though until now, I didn’t understand their significance. I ate them often as a kid when the Johns brought them over as an offering, each one lovingly prepared by the women in the family, meat tucked into the folds of the soft corn meal, then wrapped with banana leaves and tied with a string. We’d pluck the ones they gave us from our freezer, boil them until warmed through, and unknowingly unwrap the meaning of family, of home, of love.
But its sorrel, the drink Jenny has already begun almost two months before Christmas that portends the coming festivities when the family will gather, and in the tradition of parang, a Spanish style of music-making, they’ll move from house-to-house playing music with guitars, chac-chacs, and cuatro, while eating food, and dancing with one another. They’ll do this here in Florida. In their new home.
I realize that it doesn’t seem to matter where the Johns are in the world, the scenes they describe are filled with laughter, music, plates piled high with food, and a warmth and comfort that only this sort of gathering can produce without a bonfire. It’s the trinity of home: food, family, and love.