A Plate of Tropical Fruits

I had several ideas for this week’s FoodieTuesday but this photo of a plate of tropical fruits captured my attention. I stared at the fruits for several minutes, remembering the breakfast that it accompanied, the people who shared the table, the laughter, the view and even the activities we did that day. The colors, in particular, reminded me of the sun and warm temperatures.

A Plate of Tropical Fruits
Slices of cantaloupe, pineapple, lime, paw paw (papaya), mango and banana

Cantaloupe: Though not native to Jamaica, local farmers have been experimenting with and growing cantaloupe. But production is relatively small. Only about 2,000 metric tonnes are exported annually.

Pineapple: It’s difficult to tell from the photo what variety of pineapple this was. You can find at least three different types growing in Jamaica – cowboy, sugar loaf and Ripley.

Lime: Almost every Jamaican has a lime tree in their backyard garden. We use limes to make lemonade (limeade), in cooking and baking. We also use the leaves to make tea.

Paw Paw: Paw paw as we call it here is the reddish orange fruit on the plate. It is probably native to the West Indies. The fruit that is popular now is smaller than the variety I remember (the one I didn’t like as a child). According to the University of the West Indies website, there are 45 species of papaya and the “trees” reach fruit bearing age after only a year. The “Solo” type, with pink flesh was introduced to Hawaii from Barbados and Jamaica in 1911.

Jamaica exports the “sunrise” variety which has a deep red flesh. We started exporting in the 1980s, with more than half of the fruit going to the US. A smaller percentage also made it to markets in the UK, Canada and Holland.

Mango: It’s difficult to say which type of mango this one is, since we have at least 21 different varieties. From the size, I’d guess that it’s either a Julie or Bombay.

Banana: I can say for sure this was not a honey banana, but beyond that I can’t say which type this was as we have several varieties in Jamaica.

Which tropical fruit is your favorite?

 

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Cooking With My Mama

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of my mama, who I lost 13 years ago today. Mama baked almost every Christmas but she cooked only on special occasions so most of my experiences with her in the kitchen center around baking.

Those memories are so clear in my mind, they’d practically overshadowed her visits when she’d commandeer my kitchen and take over all the cooking. It never ceased to amaze me how the same woman who only cooked at home when the “spirit moved” her had the energy and enthusiasm of someone younger once she landed on my doorstep.

Mama would have a meal ready for us every evening except Friday when she’d use whatever was left over to make something new. On Sundays, she’d prepare dinner, as well as dessert.

It was during one of her visits that I asked her to show me how to make escoveitch fish. Although I was confident about preparing most of our staple foods, the thought of making escoveitch fish left me feeling a bit incompetent. Mama was surprised that I didn’t know but eagerly agreed to show me.

That weekend, we bought red snapper and as soon as we returned, Mama set to work preparing it. Mama was nothing but thorough and even though they had cleaned the fish at the market, it wasn’t up to her standards. She found scales they had missed and trimmed any fins that weren’t properly cut. Then she washed the fish thoroughly in water mixed with limes.

Next, she patted them dry with paper towels and set the fish aside on more paper towels to absorb any remaining water. Since we would be frying the fish, she wanted to make sure there was very little moisture left. (You can also coat the fish lightly with flour to avoid having the oil pop.)

Once that was done, Mama measured and mixed salt and freshly ground black pepper. She scored the fish on both sides and rubbed in the salt and pepper mixture. She also rubbed the mixture on the inside of each fish then set them aside to marinate.

While she waited, Mama cut up onions and Scotch bonnet peppers. She also Julienned some carrots and set that aside too.

After she fried the fish, Mama put them in a Pyrex dish. She poured vinegar into another saucepan, added onion and Scotch bonnet slices and pimento berries and let them simmer for a few minutes.

The pungent aroma of vinegar, onions and Scotch bonnet can be an assault on the senses so it’s best to open a window or turn on a fan.

Once the onion had wilted, Mama turned the flame off and poured the vinegar mixture over the fish and let it marinate overnight. Leaving it in the marinade overnight allows the fish to absorb the flavors of the vinegar and pepper.

Mama’s Escoveitch Would be a Hit for Easter

Thousands of pounds of escoveitch and fried fish were eaten in Jamaica between Good Friday and yesterday, Easter Monday.  Easter is just not Easter without it or the ubiquitous bun and cheese.

 

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Jamaica: Gratto Bread

Jamaicans love bread, it’s a staple of our diet, and we have several types. Our hardo bread (hard dough) goes with everything from condensed milk to bully beef, and creamy Anchor butter. The soft, buttery coco bread seems even tastier when it’s enveloping a hot and highly spiced patty.

Peg bread does well with a mug of tea; duck bread is a must at Christmas time, and bammy (cassava bread) and gratto bread aren’t complete unless they’re accompanied by fried fish – especially sprat with the gratto.

When my aunt visited us a few Christmases ago, she brought a list of the foods she had to have while she was home. It included otaheiti apples, gratto bread and fried sprat.

Jamaica: Gratto Bread
Freshly baked gratto bread

I hadn’t seen gratto bread in many years and when my aunt mentioned it, I thought immediately of my childhood and my grandmother who would buy gratto from a bread van that passed by her house with breads and other freshly baked goods a few times a week. But I wasn’t sure where I’d find gratto so I checked with my neighbor.

You’ll have to go to a bakery (rather than the supermarket), she said. It took us a few days and a few bakeries before we found one that sold gratto bread. (One of my aunt’s friends brought her otaheiti apples from her garden but we didn’t find sprat until the evening before we drove her to her next destination.)

What’s Gratto Bread?

The word gratto (sometimes gatto), according to the Dictionary of Jamaican English (Cassidy and LePage), is from the French, gateau. I haven’t been able to find out more about the French connection or the origins of this bread, which the dictionary says “is rolled out flat, folded over, then folded again to produce four layers which are then boiled (or usually) baked.” It seems only a few bakeries still make it.

When the gratto finally arrived, it didn’t look familiar and no matter how much I searched my brain, I couldn’t retrieve an image of the one my grandmother used to buy. This was square, the size and shape of a small sheet cake. There were holes on the edges and in the center, likely to vent it while it baked.

It didn’t look familiar to my aunt either. The gratto bread she remembers had a cornmeal filling. Goes to show that even on an island the size of Jamaica, foods can vary between regions. Despite not recognizing the gratto bread, my aunt was so excited to try it, I barely had time to take a photo before she cut a piece off.

It tasted slightly sweet but the texture was similar to the dense, hardo bread that we normally eat. Although it didn’t have the cornmeal filling that she remembered and she didn’t fried sprat to go with it, my aunt enjoyed her gratto bread and I felt very happy that she was able to cross that off her list.

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Negril’s Rick’s Cafe Turns 40 Years, Folks!

I was rushing towards Times Square around 5:20 p.m. a few weeks ago when I noticed the unmistakable colors of the Jamaican flag high atop one of the buildings in the heart of the square.

I slowed my pace and looked. Sure enough, it was the flag. It was emblazoned on the finely chiseled body of a man, his arms outstretched as he prepared to take a dive, his movements magnified frame by slow motion frame. I was still fixated on his body when I it registered: the Rick’s Café logo.

Before I knew it, before I remembered that I had my digital camera in my bag, the ad was gone, replaced by another not so memorable one. Darn!

I did the next best thing: I took out my phone and sent a text to everyone in my address book. “Rick’s Café is 40, they have an ad in Times Square!!”

Yes, folks, Rick’s Café, voted the Best Beach Bar by the Travel Channel, is 40 years old. Forty? I was surprised. When did that happen? Wasn’t it just the other day? Time sure flies, I thought.

I still remember the first time I heard about it. I was in a taxi on my way to JFK to catch an Air Jamaica flight home. The driver asked where I was going and when I told him, he asked if I’d ever been to Rick’s Cafe. I hadn’t, even though it’s located in Westmoreland, close to where I was headed.

Rick’s Cafe was founded in April 1974 when Negril, then mostly a fishing village with few amenities hadn’t even started dreaming of tourism – at least, not on the scale it is now.

I can’t remember the first time I visited but after that, it became a regular place to hang out and watch the sunset, a place to take friends who were visiting. Seriously, if you’re in to watching the sun as it slowly paints everything in its path orange, purple, red, gold, blues as it moves behind the horizon, drink in hand, then Rick’s Cafe is the place for you. (That finely chiseled body, I mentioned earlier, yeah, Rick’s known for that too. They’re usually several more like him and they’re like the icing on the cake.)

Rick's Cafe Turns 40 Years, Folks!
Rick’s Cafe ad, Times Square

The next day, I told all my Jamaicans friends at work to go check out the ad and I looked for it every day after that, camera and phone at the ready, but I didn’t see it. I was disappointed. Did I imagine it?

I returned for several more days, no luck. Honestly, I kinda gave up. Then one morning, as I was passing through at 8:30, which is late for me, I glanced up halfheartedly, and caught the last frame of the ad. Big smile brightened my face. Okay, I though, it’s still playing. And it seems to rotate on the hour at the half hour.

But just to be sure, I made a plan: I’d pass through Times Square at 5:30 to see if I’d catch it. Sure enough, I did. I left work late, the following evening not even thinking about the ad and saw it again. This time, it was at 6:30.

A few days later, I ran into Paul, one of the people I had told about the ad, in Times Square. He was in the right place – at the corner of 43rd Street and Broadway — but he was looking away from the ad.

I set him straight and we waited together. Several ads cycled through then without fanfare, the Rick’s Café ad appeared. Paul was still holding his cell phone staring at the ad instead of taking a photo – it happened to me too. I shouted at him, “Paul, tek di picture!”

That night, I sent out an email to my friends. We were going to Hell’s Kitchen for dinner the following evening. Let’s meet in Times Square, I said, so we can catch the ad together. Despite the rain, I hustled to the spot we had agreed on but they didn’t make it. Their loss, but I’ll try again. (Seeing it is such a joy, it’s like watching Usain (Bolt) or any of our athletes win. It fills me with tremendous pride, a pride we all share. It’s a Jamaican thing, an island thing. You understand?)

I have no idea how long the Rick’s Cafe ad is running but if you’re ever in Times Square and would like to see it, head for 43rd and Broadway. If you stand at the northeast corner and look up at the billboard above Europa, you’ll see it. It seems to run every hour on the half hour. At least that’s when I’ve seen it.

Happy Birthday, Rick’s Café! You’re aging gracefully and still managing to maintain your wild side. Here’s to another 40 years of providing us the best vantage point to enjoy the most spectacular sunsets in Negril.

Rick’s Cafe is located on West End Road in Negril, Jamaica. 876-957-0380

Yummy Yellow Yam

Traveling through Jamaica’s rural areas is something I look forward with as much anticipation and excitement as a child waiting for a birthday or Christmas. It’s always a treat because I never know what I’ll see.

Several months ago, I was driving with three of my neighbors from Clarendon on the south central coast back to Montego Bay on the north west coast. Our trip took us through parts of Trelawny, St. Ann and Manchester – all well-known for different types of produce.

This particular Friday afternoon was bathed in the warm, golden glow of the setting sun as, at almost every turn, we saw farmers bringing their produce on donkeys and in small carts from the fields to the side of the road. Pickup trucks would take it the rest of the way to market.

Yummy Yellow Yam
Bringing yams from the field

There were mounds of yellow yams, mostly. But there were also otaheiti apples, Scotch Bonnet peppers, scallion, and thyme.

Most times we’d slow down just long enough for someone to stick their head out the window and ask, “How much a pound is the yellow yam?” or “Do you have any sweet peppers?”

Usually, price dictated whether we’d stop but when we saw this man with his son, something about him made us decide to buy. As soon as we found a good spot to park, all four of us jumped out of the car and ran across the road to choose a piece of yellow yam.

Yummy Yellow Yam
Yams for the market

They were weighing and sorting the freshly dug yam, the soil stubbornly clinging to each piece. They looked so delicious, it was difficult to know which to choose. So we let him decide.

Jamaica grows about eighteen varieties of yams, including yellow yam, St. Vincent, white, Lucy, and Negro. Yellow yam is by far the most popular. Trelawny, the parish we were in when we stopped to buy, accounts for up to 60% of the yams grown in Jamaica and almost half of what is exported — mostly to supply the growing demand in West Indian communities in the UK, US and Canada. (I was surprised to discover that Amazon sells yellow yam. [simpleazon-link asin=”B00I12V9IQ” locale=”us”]Roundleaf Yellow Yam imported from Jamaica (5 lb)[/simpleazon-link])

Yam adds potassium, protein, vitamins and folic acid to the diet and because it is packed with soluble fiber, it is suitable even for young children. Yams are also great for people with diabetes as it slows down the release of sugar into the cells.

Yams are denser in texture than the potato and can be eaten boiled (and mashed with butter, my favorite) or roasted. One of the things I look forward to on road trips is buying roasted yellow yam and saltfish from roadside vendors.

Most Jamaicans love yellow yam and have it at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is even the title of a popular folk song, When wi roas di yellow yam. Take a listen here.

When Olympic champion, Usain Bolt, won gold in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, his father was reported as saying his speed was due to his diet, specifically the yellow yam. Not surprising as Bolt is from yam country, Trelawny.

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Expedia Brings Concierge Service to Montego Bay

I don’t remember using Expedia, the online booking agency, to buy airline tickets though I’ve used it to compare prices. This time they had the best price on a nonstop ticket to Montego Bay. That clinched it.

A few days after I’d completed my purchase, I received an email from Expedia introducing my personal Jamaica concierge. Although I didn’t need the complimentary concierge service, which is provided by an Expedia Local Expert®, I was intrigued.

Expedia Concierge ServiceWhen I called the toll-free number in the email, Dania, Expedia’s Concierge’s distinctive Jamaican voice greeted me. Dania explained that she could assist me to book a transfer to my hotel and pre-book any activities I was interested in but since I didn’t need her expertise, I chatted with her instead.

Expedia, she explained, had partnered with Jamaica Tours, a local company, to launch the service, which started last August. According to its website, Expedia Concierge Service is provided by “knowledgeable” local experts in several locations including Hawaii, Mexico, and Las Vegas, Orlando and New York.

Jamaica Tours Limited, a 50 year old company, is the island’s largest ground tour operator and destination management company.

Although I didn’t need Expedia’s Concierge Service this time, I’m happy to learn that they offers it. There’s a lot of information about local attractions online, for example, but when you’re traveling to an unfamiliar destination, it’s helpful and reassuring to have someone who knows the scene help you find what you need so you can hit the ground running when you arrive.

Have you used a concierge service during your travels?

Jackass Corn

I heard about jackass corn when I was younger but I don’t remember seeing let alone trying it. Lacking any context, I imagined it was a variety of corn – one that jackasses liked to eat. I know that’s pretty literal but what else could I think?

I hadn’t thought of or heard about jackass corn until sometime last year when my friend, Sandra, and I walked into 14 Parish Restaurant, a small take out spot in Hackensack, NJ. The typical assortment of sweets  – rock buns, gizzadas, grater cakes – sat on display in a glass case on the counter but there was one item I didn’t recognize. Curious, I asked what it was.

Jackass Corn
J

I chided the young cashier for not knowing and he went back to the kitchen to ask.

“It’s jackass corn,” he said when he returned, his face still wearing a puzzled look.

Jackass (or donkey) corn is a hard biscuit made of flour, water, coconut milk, and nutmeg. It is rolled flat, cut into rectangles and baked. According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, it’s called jackass corn because when you eat it, it sounds like the sound a donkey makes when it’s eating corn.

Jackass Corn


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Ingredients
  1. 1 cup all-purpose flour
  2. 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  3. 1 cup sugar
  4. 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  5. 1/4 teaspoon salt
  6. 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
  7. 3 tablespoons water
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 375F. In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, sugar, nutmeg and salt. Stir in the coconut. Add the water and mix, forming a very stiff dough that will not crumble.
  2. Roll out the dough on a floured board to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut the dough into small rectangles. Place the pieces onto a greased cookie sheet and prick each one with a fork. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes, or until brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a plate to cool.
Adapted from Lucinda's Authentic Jamaican Kitchen
Adapted from Lucinda's Authentic Jamaican Kitchen
InsideJourneys https://insidejourneys.com/

Jackass corn used to be a popular snack enjoyed by school children as well as adults. It fell out of favor perhaps because it’s likely seen as irrelevant, or unsophisticated next to prepared snacks like potato chips and Cheese Trix.

But one of the unforeseen and unintended impacts of migration is that Jamaicans, like other immigrant communities, cling to the traditions that keep them connected to home. One of the many food items they hold on to is jackass corn, which explains why it would be available for sale in a small restaurant in New Jersey.

As I expected, the owner said he sells mostly to people of a certain age. Since I’d never tried them, I handed over $2 for two biscuits which came wrapped tightly in plastic. My aunt couldn’t believe it when I told her what I had found.

I couldn’t bring myself to eat my treat right away and kept the jackass corn for almost a week before finally ripping off the plastic. I tried the first one.  It was slightly sweet, with a hint of nutmeg, crisp but not as hard as I expected. I made a cup of tea, fresh mint, and had the second one. You can also have jackass corn on its own as a snack.

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For more recipes, check out Lucinda Scala Quinn’s cookbook, Lucinda’s Authentic Jamaican Kitchen

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Knutsford Express Went Above and Beyond For Me

I was exhausted when I got home. We had spent a long and exhilarating day driving more than 200 miles to visit heritage sites in St. Catherine, Jamaica and all I could think of was crawling into bed and getting some sleep.

I was about to turn off the lights when I remembered that I still hadn’t booked my ticket on the Knutsford Express for my trip to Falmouth the next morning. I logged on quickly and was thrilled to see that a bus was leaving Montego Bay at 7:30 a.m. I could sleep a little longer, I thought, as I completed the purchase.

I was ready before my 7:15 pickup but as I closed the gate to my house, I panicked. The bus was leaving at 7:30, I should be at the station at 7:15. I called Eton, my taxi driver.

I’ll be right there, he said. I’m only a few minutes away.

Eton drove like a bat out of hell, collapsing the trip to less than 10 minutes. Thankfully, of seven traffic lights only one was red.

Knutsford Express
Andre Johnson

Walking up to the Knutsford Express counter at 7:25, I told the agent that I had a ticket for the 7:30 bus to Falmouth.

“There isn’t a 7:30 bus to Falmouth,” she said. “The bus left at 7:00 a.m. and there isn’t another one till 9.”

“But I have a ticket,” I protested.

She peered at her computer screen and said to no one in particular, “The computer messed up,” picked up a phone and walked away from the counter.

On any other day, the 9:00 would have been fine. But this was the first day of a three-day historic preservation seminar I helped Falmouth Heritage Renewal to organize. I couldn’t afford to be late.

I pulled out my phone and punched in Eton’s number.

“Yes, Miss,” he said.

By the time I put my phone back in my bag, the agent returned.

“The Negril driver will take you to Falmouth,” she said.

I was stunned. The least I expected was that they’d give me a complimentary ticket but to take me to Falmouth? Wow, that was going above and beyond.

Before I could cancel my taxi, a tall young man with an engaging smile approached.

“Are you the person going to Falmouth?”

He led the way to his bus, a regular 40- or 50-seater. I couldn’t believe my luck. Actually, this was more than luck. This was a gift straight from the gods. How else to explain a bus that materialized right when I needed it?

I took one of the seats directly behind the driver’s and we pulled out of the station.

The first thing I asked was his name. Andre Johnson. Laughing, he added that both his names are common in Jamaica.

I told Andre my story and thanked him for agreeing to drive me to Falmouth. He said he had just come in from Negril and was about to leave when Keisha, the agent I spoke with, told him what happened. I felt even more grateful. The timing was pure serendipity.

I’ve been taking Knutsford Express to Kingston for at least five years and have always been impressed by their reliable and on-time service, friendly and efficient staff, comfortable and clean buses, even the chilled complimentary bottle of water they provide each passenger.

Now, thanks to Andre and Keisha, Knutsford’s stock has increased several fold in my book.

Andre, a 28 year old (he was impressed when I guess his age correctly) father of an adorable little girl and another child on the way, told me he’s been working with Knutsford Express for about nine months. Prior to joining the Knutsford team, he had also worked as a mechanic for a transport company.

Many of the Knutsford’s drivers, he added, are experienced auto mechanics so they know when something is wrong and can tell the company’s mechanics exactly what and where the problem is. Hearing that made me feel more confident in the company.

As we pulled into Falmouth, I asked Andre if I could take his photo for a post I planned to write about my Knutsford experience. He adjusted his tie and struck a pose.

I was smiling all day as I told almost everyone I met about my experience. Everyone was surprised at my good luck.

The next day, as I waited for my return trip to MoBay, I shared my story with Alexia, the Knutsford Express agent in Falmouth. She didn’t seem surprised by how Keisha had handled the situation, adding, “the error was ours.”

Fantastic, I though, Knutsford’s agents have the latitude to problem solve.

A lot of us, especially those Jamaicans who’ve lived elsewhere, are quick to bemoan the service we receive from many of the island’s companies. I can’t disagree: the majority of employees could use customer service training and be empowered to resolve issues as they arise.

And many local companies need to realize that bad service drives customers away. Clearly, Knutsford Express understands this and provides consistent, first-rate service. (The other company, in my experience, that also gets it is Flow.)

So I’m taking this opportunity to ‘big up’ Knutsford Express, Andre Johnson, Keisha, Alexia and the entire team for the service they provide. They really do take you from city to city in comfort and style.

The Counting House at Good Hope Plantation

Good Hope Great House, with its Counting House, came on my radar about 10 years ago when I was looking for a suitable venue for an event I was planning. Since then, I’ve visited Good Hope several times but for one reason or another, have never been able to see the interior of the Counting House. Finally, a few weeks ago, I got my chance. I was only disappointed because I didn’t get to spend the night there.

The king was in his counting house, counting out his money – Sing a Song of Sixpence

Good Hope Counting House
Good Hope Counting House

I don’t know about you but when I hear Counting House, a line from a certain English nursery rhyme comes to mind. The king in that nursery rhyme could well have been John Tharp, the owner of Good Hope Great House.

Tharp, a shrewd businessman, was the richest and largest landowner in Jamaica.

At the ripe old age of 23, he already owned Good Hope. He bought the estates that adjoined it and expanded his holdings to about 9,000 acres. Tharp also owned a plantation about 50 miles away in Water Works, Westmoreland. At his death, in 1804, his property was valued at over 4.5 million pounds.

Counting House, Good Hope
Backview of the Counting House

Apparently counting money in one’s home was believed to bring bad luck so Tharp had the Counting House built just steps from the main house. Remember, this was the 1700s. Jamaica had no paper money or banks until the 1800s. People like Tharp, had to be their own banks.

As I surveyed the room, I tried to imagine how it might have looked in Tharp’s day. Where did he have his vault?

Counting House, Good Hope Great House
Counting House
Counting House
John Tharp’s office

Was anyone else allowed in his Counting House? If only the walls could talk.

Linking up this week with Travel Photo Thursday, which Nancie at Budget Travel Sandbox organizes. Be sure to head over and check out more photos from locations around the world.

 

Cheeseberries and Wild Raspberries

I’ve been curious about cheeseberries since I saw them last summer at Holywell Recreational Park in Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow Mountains.

Cheeseberries look like orange raspberries and are about the same size but they are sweet, a bit like tangerine. They thrive in higher elevations so you’ll find them growing wild in the Blue Mountain area. As far as I’ve been able to find out, that’s where they’re mostly found.

Cheeseberries
Cheeseberries

Cheeseberries, as well as wild raspberries, are popular snacks with hikers who climb the Blue Mountains or hike any of the trails.

Wild raspberries
Wild raspberries

Cheeseberries and wild raspberries are not native to Jamaica. Interestingly, cheeseberries are listed as one of the world’s worst invasive alien species.

Wild raspberries plant
Wild raspberry plant

Would you try fruits that grow wild?

How to join the #FoodieTuesday linkup –

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