I don't know how the late reggae legend Bob Marley felt about American football, but this year he shares his birthday—February 6—with the Super Bowl. In any case, the world's most famous Rastafari, who would have been 66 on Sunday, wouldn't have chowed down on ribs or wings during the game. Marley's spiritual beliefs led him to follow a vegetarian diet emphasizing "Ital" foods.
That's not short for Italian, as I thought the first time I saw the word; Ital (rhymes with, and is derived from, "vital") refers to a loose set of guidelines for a healthy lifestyle in accordance with Rastafari values. As with kosher and halal dietary laws, Ital food adheres to the Old Testament rejection of pork and shellfish. Many Rastas avoid meat entirely, and others make an exception for small fish. As Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy and Creative African-American Cuisine, explains in the headnote for his Roasted Root Vegetable Ital Stew, "'Ital' is employed throughout Rastafari jargon as a way to emphasize the oneness and unity of life. Ital food promotes a healthy mind, body, spirit, and environment. It is as fresh as possible, free from additives, preservatives, and other chemicals; and in most cases dairy free."
It's also frequently delicious, as I discovered on a trip to Negril, Jamaica in the early 1990s. Although I made a lot of dumb decisions in college (like driving a beat-up car with a rag stuffed into the fuel tank because the gas cap had been lost), one of the smarter ones I made was getting a job at a corporate travel agency. My tasks were menial and the pay was minimal, but after a year I was allowed to get a travel agent ID, which qualified me for discounts. This meant I was able to take a vacation to Jamaica with my equally poor boyfriend (he worked his way through college as a classical music buyer for a record store) for hardly any money at all. I was a vegetarian at the time, and I was in food heaven.
Although Rastas are a minority in Jamaica (Christianity is the dominant religion), their presence, and the abundance of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables, means good vegetarian food is easy to find on the island. Callaloo (a leafy green similar to spinach), coconut milk, tamarind, allspice and fiery scotch bonnet peppers all appear frequently on menus.
During my visit, one of my boyfriend's contacts from the record store introduced us to a Rastafari named Loppy (my best guess at the spelling) who sold reggae mix tapes at a Negril flea market. Loppy took us to a vegetarian restaurant, where I had the best "shepherdess" pie I ever tasted—it was made with lentils instead of meat and was flavored with tangy tamarind and spices.
To try some Jamaican Ital dishes yourself, check out the recipes at EarthCultureRoots.com or Ital-Recipes.com. Vegan Soul Kitchen also offers a couple of Jamaican recipes, including the stew above.
As a bonus, for each of his recipes Terry includes a suggested soundtrack, and for the Ital stew he recommends "Don't Cry" by Dezarie from FZA. Or you could always go with "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" by the Jamaican band Black Uhuru.