A Caymanian Christmas would not be complete without one special food tradition: preparing mouth-watering cuts of fresh, seasoned local beef.
The tradition began years ago when many families who could not afford to keep beef in their kitchens year-round splurged on it for a special holiday treat.
To ensure this once-a-year delicacy made it to their tables, families would make arrangements with farmers to secure their allotment of beef well before Christmas.
Those unfamiliar with the traditional custom of “engaging beef” before Christmas may be disappointed if they try to get their beef without reserving it beforehand. Walk into a beef shop unannounced and you’re likely to be told that the beef is already all engaged. Still, no one is left without beef on their plate for Christmas.
The farmers might apologize that they cannot give you beef for Christmas, but I think most farmers are secretly thrilled that all their stock has already been sold. Knowing the chances of finding any unengaged beef this close to Christmas, but craving some stewed beef, I recently decided to try my luck at it anyway.
Driving through East End a few days ago, I happened to notice a little wooden shop tucked away behind some bush close to the main road. Stopping the car, I could see some sort of cutting machinery through the screen door. Aha, I thought, they are selling Christmas beef.
East End has always held bragging rights when it comes to farming the highest quality cows, and they make plenty beef about it during Christmastime.
“You selling Christmas beef?” I inquired as I walked in the shop.
“Yes, but not today and furthermore, it is already all engaged,” said the gentleman coming out from behind the screen door. He gave me that look that said, “You should know better than to show up unannounced looking for Christmas beef.”
Disappointed but not defeated, I continued on my way.
Now let me tell you, East End is a close-knit community. If you’re looking for someone, this set of friendly people will point you in the right direction. Sometimes, you do not even have to ask and someone will tell you all about what’s happening in the district. So was the case with a man walking past my car as I traveled down Bluhill Drive.
“Christmas beef is arriving in the town at 2:30 p.m. from the agriculture slaughterhouse,” the man said. Now, how did he know I was looking for beef?
This was my cue to head out to another beef shop on the beach side that I had spotted earlier.
Spotting some huge chunks of beef laid out on a table through the doorway of the shop, I stopped the car, grabbed my purse and camera and entered the beef shop.
No one said a thing.
I thought I could hear them thinking, “Now what is she doing in the way? Can’t she see we are working here?”
There was a whole pile of racket in the shop as the men hoisted the cow quarter up to the ceiling with a squeaky pulley.
“You getting the beef ready to sell?” I foolishly asked, as if it wasn’t obvious.
That was all it took. Without taking his eyes away from what he was doing, Evelyn McLaughlin, one of the butchers, said, “This all allotted out. Before we even kill the cow, the meat is all sold out.”
I thought the men might have an interesting tale to tell, so taking a detour from my quest, I asked them how long they’d been cutting Christmas beef.
Slowly, Sam Rankine drew the knife across the rubbing stone to sharpen it, and the men jockeyed the huge chunk of beef into position.
“I’ve been doing this some 40 years now,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
“Sam has been doing it since Evelyn started teaching him,” laughed Mr. Francis Welcome, who was also assisting with the cutting.
“Before the holidays are over, 11 cows will be slaughtered and most of the beef will be sold,” Mr. McLaughlin added.
He told me that the shop was built in 1962.
“Before we started using it as a meat shop, it was McLaughlin’s Grocery Store,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
He went on to say that before meat shops became common, the men would kill and slaughter the cows under the trees or on the beach.
I continued to watch the men cutting up the beef as other men in the community made their way into the tiny shop to oversee the process and add their opinions. Before I was told I was getting in the way of business, I bid them farewell and headed for the door.
“Come back closer to Christmas and maybe you can get your beef,” Mr. Mclaughlin shouted as we parted ways.
The Christmas Feast
Historically in Cayman, the Christmas feast was usually eaten in the mid-afternoon or early evening on Christmas Day, after everyone had returned from church.
The meal would begin with everyone admiring each other’s Christmas wear, as they drank sorrel, eggnog or swanky. Then it was time to bless the food.
The main course was usually slow cooked stew beef, sometimes mixed with fresh pork, accompanied by boiled cassava, breadfruit, pumpkin, sweet potato, cassava “bammy” and any other “breadkind” that was available.
Dessert was a big deal for local folks – the cassava cake was a favorite but there was also yam, corn bread, sweet potato pudding, bread pudding, light and fruit cakes.
The children enjoyed their favorite sweet coconut candy treat this time of the year, and they looked forward to licking the mixing bowl after the icing was plastered to the fruit cakes. They were also sent to search for almonds to make almond candies.
The best part of Christmas in those days was the cooking and preparation of the foods, which was mostly done in outside kitchens on the caboose.
Today most Caymanians still carry out this tradition. Families come together to secure beef for themselves and for those less fortunate in the family, and when Christmas comes around they get together to prepare the food. On Christmas Day, after church, everyone joins in the festivities of eating drinking and playing Christmas songs.