There’s no doubt Mervyn Hemlee’s heart is in the right place. He clearly loves the recipes in this cookbook and wants to share them, even if many are more American than the “tropical” fare the book’s title would indicate. How else to explain “Waldorf Salad,” “Easy Lasagna,” and “Chicken Mexicana” in a Caribbean cookbook?
The back jacket of this slim volume explains that Hemlee moved to the U.S. from the Caribbean and honed his cooking skills working in a college cafeteria and perfecting dishes off campus in his apartment. Reproducing recipes from his childhood, he notes that he would improvise or call his mother when he couldn’t find authentic ingredients to finish a dish.
Unfortunately, only a seasoned cook will be able to sort through Hemlee’s recipes to find the gems worth preparing — and then will need further help preparing them. Although Hemlee’s writing is simple and to the point, the recipes are rife with typos, spelling errors (“flower” occasionally used for “flour,” for example) — and confusing assumptions. The sweet potato muffin recipe calls for 1 pound of sweet potato, crushed — leaving readers to figure out how to cook it before “crushing” it. (And does crushing even apply to a sweet potato?) The “Easy Lasagna” recipe says, “Bake to your own satisfaction,” without indicating oven temperature, pan size or cooking time. No one wants to guess that much when making a recipe.
Hemlee’s book badly needs some explanation of the recipes and their ingredients. The reader longs for exposition on Caribbean cooking and the influences that would inspire Hemlee to write in his recipe for “Spicy Roasted Chicken”: “Garnish chicken with yogurt, pomegranate seeds and green chiles. It is a Mexican Tradition (sic).”
Alas, no answers are found here. Perhaps these varied recipes will whet a reader’s appetite for more, but for any sort of knowledge-based Caribbean cooking experience, readers will have to look elsewhere.