CAHUITA, Limón – Make no mistake. Edith Brown has a heart of gold – but she is tough enough to stop even the most hyperactive kid in his tracks just by looking at him. It’s a skill the longtime Caribbean restaurateur – widely known as Miss Edith – has employed effectively over the past 12 years to rein in the legions of giggling, chattering children who attend her cooking classes.
Several days a week, local children fill her custom-made classroom/kitchen just down the road from her famous namesake restaurant in this southern Caribbean beach town. They come to class prepared with hands washed, sporting chef hats and white T-shirts printed with Brown’s objective: “Rescate de valores culturales y afrocaribeños” – “Recovery of cultural and Afro-Caribbean values.”
The younger ones knead dough for coconut bread. Although they receive enough assistance to justify the argument that they aren’t actually the ones doing the cooking, they know far more about baking than the average 3- to 6-year-old covered in flour.
The older group, consisting of kids age 7 to 12, seems to know exactly what they are doing, however. They slice vegetables with what they’d like to think are expert hands and throw ingredients into giant pots on the stove, crafting tasty Caribbean cuisine such as meatballs seasoned with coconut milk.
In fact, much of what Brown and her students cook contains coconut milk. It’s a traditional ingredient in Caribbean food, and Brown believes it can change the youth of Cahuita.
“I rescue these kids,” she says, pointing to the youngsters surrounding her.
What she is rescuing them from is a gradual extinction of Caribbean culture, she says. Like Miss Edith, the children are all Cahuita natives with deep Caribbean roots – roots that Miss Edith believes are slowly being forgotten.
Although Costa Ricans living on the country’s east coast celebrate occasional Caribbean holidays, like the Carnival now under way in the port city of Limón, Brown insists this is not enough.
“You have to live doing Caribbean things more than just once a year,” she says.
To Brown, Costa Rican Caribbean culture is embodied perfectly in the region’s food. Her creations are made from locally harvested fruits and vegetables, including the mountains of coconuts she uses. In her opinion, Cahuita’s children don’t know the value of nature and their community.
“Take for example a hungry child,” Brown says. “What is this child going to ask for? A hamburger. Kids don’t want rice and beans anymore. They ask for Coke. We drink lemonade and pineapple juice, and we use all the fruits that are in this area. The children don’t know the worth of these things.”
Re-instilling these values in a bunch of raucous kids requires a certain level of order in the classroom. Although this crowd is more adept in the kitchen than most college students, there’s something unnerving about children wielding knives and stirring boiling water. This is where Brown’s signature stare comes into play; she gives it sternly and without mercy whenever the rambunctious youths threaten to get out of hand. But it takes mere seconds for her severity to melt back into a wide smile. It’s impossible to stay upset with them, she says.
“I just love working with kids.”
She never seems to tire of them, and she wishes that more could come to her classes. Brown’s reward is being able to see her pupils sitting under a tree after class, happily eating traditional Caribbean food they made themselves.
All of Cahuita knows who Brown is and what she does – she has lived there for all of her 59 years, after all – and she sends invitations to the homes of all the kids in town. But of the 200 or so children in Cahuita, fewer than 100 attend her cooking classes, she says. The per-class price tag of ₡500 ($1), just enough to buy ingredients, is an adequate deterrent for many mothers to keep their children out of her classroom. This poverty is an unfortunate reality for Brown.
“I want to see happy children,” she says. “I don’t want to see them out in the streets looking for trouble.”
Brown is no stranger to economic struggle. During the low season, things slow way down in Cahuita. Fewer tourists mean less money, so during the high season Brown has to work extra hard. She does exactly that, cooking and selling food like a madwoman to earn money for ovens, uniforms and other supplies for her classes. And her efforts don’t stop there. As if she weren’t already making a big enough impact on the youth of Cahuita, Brown is president of the local school board.
Brown opened Miss Edith’s restaurant in 1982. She started with only one wobbly table and a borrowed camping stove, but she has built the restaurant into a Cahuita institution, renowned for its creative and delicious Caribbean cuisine and Creole combinations.
Brown offers cooking classes for adults as well. She teaches groups of two to 20 people. Those interested can call her at 2755-0248.