Root Cause
The Walrus|January/February 2021
Why my mother’s cassava pie is more than a comfort food
STEPHANIE WONG KEN

THE WORD HURRICANE, I learned this past spring, comes from Khurasan, the Taíno word for the violent storms believed to have been created by a goddess and her two accomplices. Every year, the Taíno, an Indigenous people in what is now Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, weathered the destructive phenomena with a mixture of fear and respect. As I read further about Taíno survival practices, I was startled by their method of evading another devastating force — enslavement at the hands of Christopher Columbus, whose ships arrived on the shores of what is now Jamaica in 1494. Some Taíno killed themselves by ingesting cassava root, which, when eaten raw in large enough quantities, can produce deadly levels of cyanide. Suicide by cassava poisoning.

It took me a moment to process this history of food so familiar to me. In my half­Jamaican family, cassava — a white-fleshed fibrous tuber with thick brown skin — is not a poison. It’s the main ingredient in a fluffy dessert pie. It’s the fried slices we eat with a garlic­andvinegar sauce. It’s essential family food to celebrate a milestone or mourn a death or acknowledge gathering at the same table. It’s also the texture I crave when I’m feeling stressed or anxious, which right now is all the time.

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