In the years 1898-1906, Cayman’s first commissioner, Frederick Sanguinetti, visited the Sister Islands on several occasions. He made a note in his records that on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, everything seemed orderly and content, and amazingly, there was no sign of poverty. What really struck him most was the flourishing coconut industry; the cultivation and export of coconuts was the main industry of the Sister Islands at the time.

An average of 1 million coconuts were exported every year.

Cooking with coconuts

Apart from their economic significance, coconuts were very much part of the daily diets of many Caymanians. Coconut oil for frying was indispensable before the days of canned butter and Crisco. You’ve never tasted fish as good as when it’s deep fried in coconut oil.

Today, in our far districts, it is still possible (on a rare occasion) to get a trace of hot coconut oil being used to fry up jacks or barracuda. It’s a whiff of déjà vu … like hearing an old song that brings back a memory.

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The fragrance of coconut takes me back to the ‘70s and ‘80s when the aroma would bombard my nostrils while waiting for a plate of fried snapper and plantains at the Apollo 11 Club (now Over the Edge).

Keeping traditions alive

Joel Jackson with his home-produced coconut oil.
Joel Jackson with his home-produced coconut oil.

Joel Jackson of George Town is keeping the process of making traditional coconut oil alive. In his backyard he boils, cooks, stirs, purifies and filters coconuts until the oil is ready to be bottled and distributed to a long list of his regular customers who would never consider buying the imported store brand.

It takes about 100 fit coconuts to make one gallon of coconut oil. “Fit” means the nut has ripened into a brown color and the jelly inside has turned into a hard meat.

Joel then bottles the clear pomade, which he seals with a heated tamper-proof shrink band.

Business is good, but the coconuts are not as plentiful as they were back when they thrived in the early 1900s. On Aug. 13, 1915, a massive hurricane struck Cayman Brac, destroying nearly every home and tearing down 90 percent of all the coconut trees. On Little Cayman, 40 percent of the trees were gone.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, an effort was made to revive the coconut industry, but with the devastation from the storm and a fungal plant disease, the industry never recovered.

Healthy or not?

There’s been much debate about the health benefits of cooking with coconut oil, whether it’s good or bad for you. To get to the bottom of the dispute, one needs to understand the maze of medical jargon – lower cholesterol, reduced inflammation, boost immune function, saturated fats, HDL (good) cholesterol, etc. Since it comes from a plant, it may contain beneficial phytochemicals yet to be discovered.

As an interesting footnote – the coconut sapling is also known as the “Tree of Life.”


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