Vegetable Brains

The title of this blog may lead you to assume that I am going to discuss South Florida drivers or even leaders on Wall Street, in banking, or financial systems. However, my real purpose is to introduce you to an unusual fruit that grows in our back yard. We purchased the innocent looking sapling from a tropical plant sale many years ago. Newly transported from northern climes, we had embraced the romance of growing everything tropical. Heralding from Jamaica, the ackee tree fit in nicely. After several years, it began to produce bright red pear-shaped fruit.

Now, in the natural world, red means danger—think blood, fire, and stop! Yet, we do eat red fruit such as tomatoes, apples, and red peppers, so last year I decided to harvest the ackee for our table. After taking to a few Jamaican friends, I learned that ackee, nicknamed “vegetable brains,” has a tough outer skin that needs to split open on the tree before removing the brains—err, fruit.

I watched, waited, and meanwhile did a little online research. Ackee’s scientific name, Blighia sapida, was given in honor of Captain William Bligh, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. Remember Mutiny on the Bounty? Captain Bligh brought the fruit to England from Jamaica. Supposedly, ackee first came to Jamaica from West Africa on slave ships, brought no doubt by those fine upstanding slave traders. I also learned that every part of the fruit is POISONOUS—not just a little bit poisonous, but deadly poisonous. Could there have been another reason for the Bounty’s mutiny? Can you trust a slave trader?

Not to be a wimp, I carefully collected the tree ripe opened fruit and removed the shiny black seed bearing the arils, the edible part that resembles brains. I meticulously cleaned the fruit brains and washed them numerous times whereupon I put them in the refrigerator where they stayed. Weeks later, I had to throw them out because they had spoiled. Oh well, I reasoned (secretly relieved), I will try again next year.

This year the tree bore again and I began dutifully collecting, cleaning, washing, and storing it in the fridge. That is, at least what I could collect. Competition, in the form of two grey squirrels, vied for our fruit. At first, they took large bites out of the sides of the unripe fruit.

Note large bites out of unripe ackee
Note large bites out of unripe ackee

We waited for them to die. They did not. Instead, they perfected their thievery by cutting through the stems, thus dropping the fruit to the ground for later retrieval. Those two little darlings (my husband calls them rats with bushy tails) managed to eat or destroy at least half of the crop.

Not to be outdone by rodents, I was motivated to cook and eat whatever ackee I could salvage. I found an authentic recipe from Jamaica Travel and Culture.com and an Americanized version on Get Jamaica.com. I tweaked the recipes a bit based on ingredients at hand and came up with two delicious meals, one for breakfast, and the other for lunch. We found ackee to be delightfully delicate in flavor and miraculously, my husband and I are still alive. So are the squirrels. Go figure!

Note: The United States lifted a long-standing ban against importing canned ackee in 2000. One of Jamaica’s major exports, you can find it in Caribbean markets. You will probably never have the opportunity to prepare fresh ackee, but if you do please inform yourself and observe every caution. Eating ackee that has not opened naturally, overripe fruit, or even small portions of the pink inner husk, or pith, can cause acute hypoglycin A toxicity (hypoglycemia). That said, ackee is high in protein, fat (the good kind), calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin C. Research is underway with the hope of finding other biologically active components in ackee, which may be of value in the treatment of disease.

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12 thoughts on “Vegetable Brains

  1. Wow Karen, you never cease to amaze me. I’m Jamaican and you just gave me lesson on the Ackee, the Jamaican national dish! Beautifully written, thank you.

  2. Hey Karen:
    I have the same problem, but my squirrels are either greedier or greater in number. The last couple of seasons, I’m lucky to get three pieces of fruit, maybe enough for one meal. Have you heard any advice on how you could actually keep the squirrels away from the ackee. I have no problem sharing, but they’re taking too big a cut.

    • All squirrels are greedy when it comes to tree-ripened fruit. Of course that’s a human’s perspective, not a squirrel’s. I’ve heard that water based hot pepper spray works, but who’s willing to risk life and limb to apply it to ripening fruit? Not I.

  3. Yes, the squirrels will try to beat you to the crop of ackees. Did you know that after cleaning and washing the ackees you can freeze them. When you are ready to use, just thaw and fix with your onion, garlic, tomatoes, sweet peppers, thyme, pepper and of course Jamaicans like to use cod fish. Since I don’t use fish or any other meat kind I use a vegetarian substitute. Ackees are delicious. Enjoy

    • Thank you, Sislyn for your comment. I didn’t know you could freeze them without cooking them first. They sure are a culinary treasure.

  4. Wow, am I glad I researched this fruit first before trying it. There’s a tree growing in the backyard of my cousin in law’s soon to be home. Thanks for the info, it was a great eye opener.

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