Weekly Jamaican buffet a hot ticket in Falmouth

Melanie Hines prepares dumplings made with cornmeal. Melanie Hines prepares dumplings made with cornmeal. (Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe)
By Ellen Albanese
Globe Correspondent / July 21, 2010

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FALMOUTH — “What time is it?’’ Melaine Hines asks Christopher Blackwood. She is cafe manager at Coonamessett Farm and he is the chef. In a tiny kitchen below the farm’s store, she’s kneading dough for dumplings and he’s chopping a mountain of onions, garlic, and cabbage for a stir-fry. “Twenty of,’’ he replies.

It’s 5:40 p.m. on a Wednesday evening recently. In less than half an hour, 300 people will descend on the farm for the weekly Jamaican Buffet and Grill. All will be served about 20 dishes prepared on grills and in a kitchen barely big enough to hold the four or five people cooking and watching the clock. Still, everyone is surprisingly mellow.

What grew out of a brainstorming session five years ago on ways to bring more revenue to the family farm is today one of the hottest meal tickets in Falmouth. And the credit, says farm owner Ron Smolowitz, goes to Coonamessett’s Jamaican staff.

Jamaican-born Hines is one of them. She left her island for the first time in 1995 at the age of 23 to work at a Nantucket resort for the summer. She joined Coonamessett Farm five years ago. Today she and her family live year round in Falmouth. Her husband, Raymond, mans the grills at the farm buffets, and their three daughters often help out as runners between kitchen and patio, where guests eat. In the offseason, Hines tends to greenhouse plants and cleans and prepares wool from the farm’s sheep and alpacas.

Depending on the size of the crowd, tables are set on the porch, across the lawn, sometimes in the fields. Regulars bring wine, stemware, drink setups, ice buckets, and appetizers. Kids are welcome, and long tables are often filled with extended families. To complete the island ambience, Vernon Parris, another Jamaican farm employee, plays a steel drum and sings.

Menu items all come from family recipes, Melaine Hines says, though some have been modified to accommodate American tastes and markets. Jerk pork and chicken are staples. “In Jamaica,’’ she says, “we would use whole chickens, bones and all,’’ but the farm uses boneless chicken breasts. The cooks also make steamed callaloo and red beans and rice. Side dishes change weekly, depending on what’s in season. Batata pudding — batata is a red- or brown-skinned, dry white potato — has the density of a pudding-cake and the spiciness of gingerbread.

But the overall menu is authentic. Raymond Hines brought callaloo seeds from Jamaica, and the spinach-like green has thrived on the farm. Ginger beer is homemade with fresh ginger root. Other drinks might be lemonade or cucumber juice, a surprisingly sweet, minty drink. And as for the festival dumplings, similar to fried dough but made with cornmeal, “I’m just thinking about them and I’m gaining weight,’’ says Melaine.

Blackwood, the chef, learned to cook from his mother. He makes his own jerk seasoning with onions, garlic, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomato, pepper, thyme, and his “secret ingredient,’’ pimento, dried berries of an evergreen tree that he cracks with the flat of a knife to release their clove-like flavor. In order for the jerk seasoning to penetrate the meat, he says, marinate it for at least a day and preferably two.

At one table, Sally and Chip Chandler sit with Charlotte Cogswell and Chip Ryther, all Falmouth residents, and regulars. “We get two meals a week here in the summer,’’ says Chip Chandler. He and his wife also come for a vegetarian buffet Friday nights. Cogswell said she likes the music and family atmosphere.

Hines gets a kick out of watching guests discover the dishes she was raised on. “When I walk out here and see people are having a good time and really enjoying the food, that makes me feel good.’’

Coonamessett Farm, 277 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth, 508-563-2560, Jamaican Buffet and Grill Wednesdays 5-8 p.m. through Sept. 1; Fridays 5-8 p.m. Sept 10 to Oct. 1. Adults $19.95, children ages 5-11 $10.95; children under 5 free. Vegetarian buffet runs Fridays 5-8 p.m. through Sept. 3. Adults $18.95, children 5-11 $9.95; under 5 free.