In an elegant driftwood shack perched high in the hills overlooking the town of Ocho Rios in Jamaica, Stush in the Bush welcomes guests to feast on their Ital cooking. Though the cottage is humble in size, each piece of rough-hewn furniture and arrangement of objects is displayed with a brilliant artist’s eye. Even their collection of machetes flares out from a wooden pot like the petals of a rare dried blossom.
“Stush in the Bush” is Lisa and Christopher Binns. Lisa is the “stush.” In Jamaican patois, a stush is a gorgeous girl who acts a bit stuck-up. While Lisa shows none of the conceit implied in the term, she is indeed gorgeous, with a smooth golden caramel skin and sunny manner that advertises the benefits of her cooking. It is she who is responsible for the earthy and complex taste of their recipes, as well as the exquisite placement of the simple objects around them.
Chris is the “bush” part of the phrase, and his contribution is equally important. It is he who grows and harvests the food that flourishes on their many acres of hillside gardens. Wielding his large machete as if it were a paring knife, he slices off a wedge of passion fruit just plucked off a tree and offers it to us. Before I even tasted it, its perfume stimulated my senses. It was like no fruit I had ever tried, and the sweet, juicy flavor made me finally understand its name. During our talk, Chris spoke of Lisa with love: “She’s a hottie, a sweetie, and a foodie. I’m well-fed in many ways.” Indeed, their passion fruit butter, one of their bottled sauces, declares that love and affection are two of the ingredients.
Like many Jamaican people, Chris is friendly, gracious, and humble, with an air of laid-back wisdom. When I asked when he became Rasta, he chuckled that when his family chastised him for not having more traditional values, he declared himself Rastafarian. “I grew up Rasta in my heart.” Rastas believe in Ital cooking. Drop the “v” and last three letters from vitality, and you get Ital, a natural and pure way of eating that believes strength and health comes directly from the earth.
Chris and Lisa don’t even own a refrigerator. Chris laughed, “You know you’re going to get fresh when you eat with us. If you want to be a bush girl, you have to eat from the tree.” He encouraged us to pick luscious ripe mulberries off a tree before the birds got them.
Lisa confirms the importance of the freshness of their food. When she once chilled their fresh-picked rocket and arugula, the greens “coiled up” and lost their tender tang. They pick their crops only when ripe. Scotch bonnet pepper, for instance, is often green in the market, but it reaches its peak ability to spark fire into sauces when it’s a yellow color. Ripe mangoes in Jamaica, which have little in common with the ones we buy in grocery stores, are the flavor base for their bottled Mango Lime Ginger Vinaigrette.
Lisa started lunch off with a piquant carrot and ginger soup, which was a peppery balm for the sore throat I brought with me to Jamaica. Her spicy scotch pepper cornbread was moist despite the fact that the recipe lacks eggs and butter. Zesty green beans married well with flecks of nutty roasted garlic. Lisa hails originally from Barbados and has lived in New York. She said, “My dad was the chef, my mother was the cook; I’m all about marrying flavors and the aesthetics of it all.” Indeed, her Ital pizza was beautiful. Amongst its ingredients were caramelized plantain and a fresh tomato sauce. After the dessert, which was sweet coconut bread drizzled with chocolate and spread with her passion fruit butter, I yearned to roll into a hammock and enjoy the view that rolled all the way down to where the ocean met the sky in a seamless sea of blue.