If You’re Not Sweating, Something’s Wrong With You

By Lindsay Sterling

A sculpture on display at Filament Gallery in Portland, Maine, memorialized one of Jamaica’s great cooks. Her likeness is carved out of wood, sanded and polished with butcher’s wax. Her lips are closed in an understated smile of sublime satisfaction, as if saying to her numerous children and grandchildren, Mmm. Look what you’ve become.

One of those grandchildren is the sculptor, Alva Lowe. He grew up “hanging onto her skirt” in her restaurant kitchen in St. Catherine, Jamaica, in the 1960’s. “The best part of cooking with my grandmother was pounding the cocoa beans.” He’d do it in a big mortal and pestle that he plunged down with his whole body. His least favorite part was preparing for goat head soup: holding the animal’s hind legs steady while his grandfather expertly slit its throat. Still, that time in Jamaica’s history he describes as paradise. “You could walk from one village to the next. There were star apples, guava, jok fruit, guinet, unbelievable fruit.”

By his early teens, however, Jamaica had changed. “If you were in the wrong group, you could be standing next to your house and they could shoot you down.” In 1969, Lowe left for New York City and since has been a personal chef for a fashion designer in Connecticut, a wood sculptor, house renovator, and chef and co-owner of The Kitchen Garden restaurant in Steuben, Maine, where he served his grandmother’s Jamaican jerk chicken, toned down a notch for the American audience. In Jamaica if you’re not sweating while you eat, people say, “What’s wrong, man?”

Alva has since been back to Jamaica only a few times and likely won’t return. His grandparents have both died, and because it is assumed there that anyone who has moved to America finds wealth, he would likely be a target for kidnapping and ransom demands. The sculpture of his grandmother, now between shows, sits on display in his living room. Her face exudes Jamaican history (she is a descendent of the native Arawak people, known for their peaceful natures) and, to this viewer, universal grandmotherly love. Alva says the traditional dish she cooked, rice n’ peas, has “everything in it to make you feel good.” I think the same is true about this sculpture. It’s a source of goodness. Something to be cherished, gazed upon and wondered at in a challenging world. 

Recipe coming soon.