How we eat now: Jo and Leisa Creed
Jo and Leisa Creed, 53, are Food Technology teachers who came to the UK from their hometown of St Catherine, Jamaica in 2003. They now run Penny Pinchers’ Paradise joleisa.com, a cooking and lifestyle blog that showcases their mouth-watering and affordable dishes. But with many of their followers’ livelihoods under threat during the pandemic, making healthy meals on a budget has never been more important.
The inseparable twins, who live together with Jo’s son Romario, 21, and Leisa’s daughter Shalee, 19, have 60 years combined teaching experience – and have been sharing their wisdom on frugal living and eating with their legion of fans.
“Miss Lou’s memory lives on through our cooking”
None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the inspiration their grandmother, Iris Green – known to all as Miss Lou – gave them. Jo says, ‘Miss Lou was the queen of frugal cooking, and we learned to cook with her, mostly outdoors as electricity was scarce. Without a fridge to keep things from going off, she taught us how to preserve food and avoid waste.’
From the age of seven, Jo and Leisa learned to cure everything from fish to beef, preserve vegetables and make fruit jams. ‘Before lockdown, we didn’t have a pantry like Miss Lou,’ says Leisa. ‘When we realised it might last months, we cleared the junk from a small side room, painted it with old pots of paint, added shelves and moved an old freezer in there. Miss Lou always said, “You must have something left over for rainy days,” and we very much felt her presence with us as the kids pitched in to help create our lockdown pantry.’
The sisters share cooking responsibilities, bringing to life the recipes they learned from Miss Lou, as well as techniques for making salted fish, beef and mackerel, candied fruit, cake, jam and vegetable preserves. ‘We strongly believe in avoiding food waste,’ Jo says. ‘Anything we can’t use goes into our compost bin. Just like Miss Lou, we use it to grow more vegetables.’
The sisters do most of the cooking in their home in Birmingham, a different world from the bustling Caribbean home the ladies grew up in. ‘We were expected to cook meals from the age of 12 and often made Sunday dinner,’ says Jo. ‘Jamaican rice and peas, served with a whole chicken we’d slaughtered ourselves, cooked with spring onion, thyme, garlic, lots of pepper and chilli. I still have the cuts on my hand from smashing up coconuts. We never had to buy lemons, bananas or coconuts – we just picked them off the trees in our yard. It’s very different for our children but they’re a different generation and this, a different time. We look back on those hot days fondly.’
“Back in St Catherine, sharing food with neighbours meant nobody would go hungry in hard times. The favour would always be returned”
Every few years, Jo and Leisa’s mum Zerena, 74, who now lives in Florida, will see her grandchildren, though they talk on the phone from time to time. ‘Unlike our childhood when Miss Lou was just a few steps away in our shared yard, our children’s grandmother is a whole ocean away,’ Jo says. ‘We felt so close to Miss Lou and I wish our kids had that too, but it’s how life turned out.’
Leisa and Jo came to the UK after a British recruitment drive for teachers from Jamaica, and taught secondary school food technology until 2017. By then, their frugal living blog was building momentum. Jo explains, ‘We share everything we learned in Jamaica with our followers, including buying food in bulk whenever possible, and freezing or preserving fresh produce. Freeze berries when they’re in season and cheaper so you have them later in the year for smoothies. Flavoured oils are expensive, so we usually buy garlic and chilli, cook, use or store what we need and make our own garlic or chilli oil.’
Thinking back to the country of their birth, Jo says, ‘Everybody had orange trees in Jamaica and we never wasted the peel. It’s a tradition to make Christmas cake in Jamaica using homemade candied peels from any citrus fruit peel, dry cherries, ginger and papaya. You can also use the zest all year round for other cooking if you preserve it.
‘Miss Lou taught us to scrape away the white flesh, cut up the peel and place it in water to soak the bitter taste out. Once the peel softens, ditch the water, add sugar, some fresh water and boil until they look like candies. You can also dry the peel in the oven on a low temperature of 120C over a few hours, then pop the fruit in a processor for a fine, zesty powder. Miss Lou didn’t have an oven so she hung them in the garden for four or five days, letting the all-year-round blazing Caribbean heat do the job for her.’ Jo says, ‘Miss Lou was widowed young and had to raise 10 children with very little income. She was careful to always have something in her pantry so she could put food on the table. When she had extra meat or fish, she’d put it into a container with salt and allspice, leaving it for more than a week until it was cured.’ Their grandmother didn’t always have enough money to cook meat, but that didn’t stop her inspiring ingenuity. ‘Miss Lou would sauté vegetables in hot coconut oil and tell us the aroma that wafted from her kitchen meant the neighbours wouldn’t realise there was no meat on the table that night,’ says Jo. ‘She had a huge sense of community, but was a proud woman.’
That’s how Jo and Leisa learned the art of food swaps – watching Miss Lou wrap food or vegetables in her apron and call over the fence for her neighbour ‘Miss C.’ Back in St Catherine, sharing food with neighbours meant nobody would go hungry in hard times. The favour would always be returned.
For many years, the twins continued this tradition by maintaining an allotment – though, during lockdown, they moved the production in-house, growing potatoes, garlic, celery and corn in the garden and sharing their recipes, tips and what they learned from Miss Lou with their followers to make their own vegetable gardens at home.
Their followers love their cooking videos on Instagram, showing them how to make their own versions of Frankie and Benny’s dishes or a Nando’s fakeaway. It was something the twins first showcased when they took part in Channel 5’s Shop Smart: Save Money, going head-to-head with another food blogger to cook things as cheaply as possible. Leisa reckons they had the upper hand with their life experience. ‘I’ve lost count of the times we’ve told people they must haggle on price when buying produce in a market place,’ she says. ‘Stall holders expect you to haggle, so give it to them! We never pay what they ask.’
During lockdown, they’ve been shielding due to their diabetes. ‘Nobody expected coronavirus would happen,’ Leisa explains, ‘and food shortage was a frightening issue. Scarcity was something we grew up being mindful of and it’s a lifetime habit to always have cans as backup, buying an extra one on most weekly food shops so if you run out of money you won’t be short of food.’
Though their grandmother passed away in 2011, Jo and Leisa keep her spirit alive by teaching traditional Jamaican cooking to locals. Leisa says, ‘There is a church group club for kids called Pathfinders in our Adventist church, which is a bit like Guides or Scouts. We often cooked for them as well as holding cooking lessons to enable them to gain badges and awards. We taught different age groups everything from knife skills to cake decorating.
‘It’s really special to us to share the legacy of the culture and heritage we’ve spent a lifetime enjoying. It’s the ultimate tribute to Miss Lou.’
Our 5 favourite ingredients
This is a fruit (some class it as a vegetable) that grows on trees
in most gardens in Jamaica. When
fried with vegetables, thyme, onion and salted cod, it forms Jamaica’s national dish.
This is fish that’s preserved by salting, and it’s a good accompaniment to ackees. The fish used is usually cod, but pollock and other types are sometimes used, too.
It can be sold with or without bones.
Scotch bonnet pepper
Often said to be the spiciest pepper on the planet, this is used to flavour popular Caribbean dishes like rice and peas, and stewed meat such
as goat. It’s a vital ingredient in making jerk seasoning. It’s used in the curried goat recipe.
A herb with tiny leaves. Jamaicans love the flavour and use it in all meat dishes. It has a very distinctive flavour, and is usually added near the end of the cooking process. It’s sometimes laid out to dry so that it can be preserved and kept
in jars for later use.
This is a marinade made with thyme, Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice, onion and garlic, and used to make the famous Jamaican jerk chicken. Typically, it’s made at home, but there are more varieties available in shops now thanks to Levi Roots and others like him who have branded theirs.