In Flatbush, Little Caribbean Food Tours Help Preserve West Indian Culture

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A report by Korsha Wilson for The Village Voice.

“I hope you wore your walking shoes,” Shelley Worrell said excitedly over her shoulder on a chilly Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn. Worrell was leading a dozen people along Nostrand Avenue, stopping at restaurants, wine shops, record stores, and bakeries for samples of local Caribbean favorites. This is the “Little Caribbean” food tour, celebrating Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, and other islands that are represented in Flatbush’s restaurants, shops, and bars owned by people of Caribbean descent. Some tour participants have come from other boroughs, some are visiting New York City for the first time, and some are from out of the country. Some hail from the West Indies themselves, while others are hoping to learn more. Over the course of the three-hour tour, they’ll try currant rolls from the famed Allan’s Bakery, which specializes in Caribbean pastries; fish cakes, tamarind sauce, and perfectly ripe dragon fruit from Labay Market; rums from St. Lucia and Haiti at Little Mo Wine Shop; and much more along a route that winds through Flatbush.

On the surface, the Little Caribbean tour is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon with live music and food and drink samples from some of the neighborhood’s West Indian restaurants, but it has a more subversive goal. In the face of increasing gentrification and erasure of Caribbean culture, the food tour is a push back, placing West Indian-owned businesses front and center in the discussion of culture in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Worrell is also the founder of CaribBeing, a mobile art installation and cultural organization that promotes Caribbean culture in New York City. Her parents immigrated to Brooklyn from Trinidad in the Sixties and Seventies. She created the tour two years ago after learning about Jane’s Walk, which uses citizen-led city walking tours all over the world to encourage conversations in communities from Melbourne to Mexico City. She wanted to bring the same concept to Flatbush to highlight the businesses that she frequented growing up. “I was born and raised in Flatbush and I wanted to share my passion for the neighborhood and introduce people to that.” The Little Caribbean food tours are a different way to immerse people in the unique and diverse Caribbean community of Flatbush.

The tour starts in front of a chain clothing store at the intersection of Flatbush and Tilden Avenues with Trinidadian corn soup from a food cart and heads toward Nostrand Avenue with stops at places like the Yoruba Book Center to listen to artists like Yasa/Masa and Arry Creed, Haitian konpa legends, on vinyl and talk about the history of music across the African diaspora.

The first tour in 2016 drew eight people and Worrell quickly realized that tourgoers were really curious about Caribbean food and culture. “People were asking, ‘Where do you get the best jerk and doubles?’” Worrell remembers. Through word of mouth, Worrell’s tour groups have grown to up to forty people, and she’s been asked to create similar tours highlighting West Indian communities in other boroughs. “I’m still surprised by the reach of these tours and the interest,” she says.

“People tend to not know so much about Caribbean food, and so it’s good that she’s doing this tour,” says Gina McCarthy, owner of Island Express, a Guyanese restaurant and bakery known for its savory meat pies and curries. “Being here is really like being in the Caribbean, and I like that people get to experience that.” During the tours McCarthy shares her family’s story of moving to the United States from Guyana and opening their business. “I thank Shelley for adding me to the tour and I’m hoping she gets bigger,” she says. “I’m excited that she chose me and my restaurant; it makes me feel special.”

This summer, Little Caribbean is touring both Nostrand Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, each route featuring six to ten local businesses with samples at each stop. Worrell is also considering adding specialized tours that focus on curry, vegan food, and rum, all of which have strong connections in the Caribbean community. “It’s important to me that these tours be really meaningful,” she says.

“People have called me an activist but I don’t know about that,” she says. “It’s cultural activism and it’s important to highlight, preserve, and protect Caribbean culture in New York City.” Little Caribbean food tours are helping to make sure that when people think of Flatbush, they think of the Caribbean families and immigrants who have called the neighborhood home for decades. “This culture cannot be displaced,” she says.

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