A Jamaican Chef’s Journey Home

Mayukh Sen (The New Yorker) writes about Jamaican chef Norma Shirley: “Norma Shirley immigrated to the U.S. and tried to make it as a restaurateur. Then she became an icon by cooking for her own people.”

In the spring of 1979, the Jamaican chef Norma Shirley was fantasizing about a different future. Forty years old at the time, she had begun attracting national attention as the chef and owner of the Station Restaurant, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She characterized her style as “New England food with Jamaican flair,” serving dishes like meat patties in pastry shells and curried shrimp on toast. But she told the magazine Essence, “It’s my dream to open another restaurant in Jamaica where Blacks would be the majority clientele.”

Shirley eventually achieved her dream many times over, but she travelled a circuitous path to get there. Born Norma Elise Smith in 1938, among the yawning hills of Saint James Parish, in the island’s northwest, Shirley belonged to a multicultural family. Her maternal grandfather was Scottish, while other family members wed people of Chinese, East Indian, Italian, and Jewish ancestry. These relatives brought their influences to the kitchen table. Norma would later remark that eating with them made her feel like Alice tumbling into Wonderland. She became a nurse and, while working at the University of the West Indies Medical School, in Kingston, met Michael Shirley, a British doctor-in-training, whom she married in 1965. They went to live in Europe, where Shirley cultivated a passion for hosting dinner parties and a disdain for mass-produced foods. The couple had a son, Delius, in 1969, and soon after Michael’s work brought the family to the U.S., first to New York City and then, in 1976, to the Massachusetts Berkshires.

It was there that Shirley left her work in nursing and started a small culinary operation of her own, filling picnic baskets with her cooking and selling them out of her home. She bought peaches from the farmers’ market and wine glasses from Bloomingdale’s. She filled the baskets with prosciutto-and-mushroom-stuffed chicken breasts, caviar and egg folded into French bread, and chocolate mousse. Her menus reflected her love for the cuisine of Western Europe, but there were signs of where her cooking would head in years to come. When she expanded the picnic business to include dinner baskets, she served chicken flavored with a jolt of Pickapeppa sauce, a beloved Jamaican condiment with a faint hum of spice. A piece in the local paper, from 1977, makes it clear how much Shirley stood out in her predominantly white New England surroundings: “If the person who answers has a British accent with a special little lilt to it, don’t hang up. That’s a real Jamaican you are hearing.”

Shirley’s marriage eventually fell apart, and in the early eighties she decamped to New York City, hoping to open a new restaurant of her own. But she quickly learned that aspiring restaurateurs were just a “dime a dozen” in New York, as she would later say. She had trouble finding investors, and ended up working as a caterer and food stylist for Condé Nast, feeding photographers and arranging shoots at GourmetVogue, and Vanity Fair. She would bring her food to the company headquarters early in the morning, and often adorned her spreads with fresh flowers.

After a few years on that job, Shirley hankered to go back home. Delius was by then at boarding school in Massachusetts, and her life had begun to feel lonely. A brief visit back to Jamaica, in 1985, inspired her to make the leap. She returned to Kingston and, dipping into a pool of ten thousand dollars in personal savings, launched a restaurant she called Norma’s on Belmont Road. She wanted her fellow-Jamaicans to find creativity in indigenous ingredients that she felt were underrated. “Our food is excellent, it’s superb, but it’s not always presented as nice as it should be,” she would later say. The restaurant was just a stone’s toss from Embassy Row, which attracted the city’s upper and middle classes. But some patrons didn’t immediately take to her remixing and restyling of familiar island foods. What was, say, jackfruit—whose yellow lobes were typically carved and eaten on their own—doing in a salad? “They didn’t understand,” she recalled. She found more luck reaching Jamaican businesspeople who, like her, had lived abroad and then returned home. Those diners appreciated preparations like her curried lobster with a flambé of mango, and her roast pork loin with prunes and tangerine marmalade.

Cheerfully perfectionistic, with a penchant for patterned headbands, Shirley went on to open restaurants in cities across the country: Norma’s on the Terrace, in Kingston; Norma’s at the Marina, in Port Antonio; and Norma’s on the Beach, in Negril. She served Cornish hen with slabs of fried breadfruit, red-pea bisque with a shock of brandy, and cheesecake laced with raisins and rum. Soon, observers back in America were taking notice, too. In November of 1992, the Vogue writer Richard Alleman referred to Shirley as “the Julia Child of Jamaica,” in a piece recommending Norma at the Wharf House, which Shirley had recently opened in a town near Montego Bay. There, in a converted eighteenth-century sugar warehouse, Shirley offered dishes like her own rendition of fricasseed chicken, a Jamaican standby, bathed in chicken stock, ketchup, and Pickapeppa sauce. She served it with rice, straight from the skillet.

Some named Shirley’s approach “nouvelle Jamaican”; the scholar Jessica B. Harris called her a “culinary ambassador,” cooking Creole food that “hints at the way of the future.” But the American press latched on to the Julia Child comparison. The James Beard Foundation referred to Shirley in such terms, in 1995, when it asked her to host the organization’s first Jamaican meal. Shirley came to wear that and other grand appellations with a smidge of hesitation. “Oh, God, no. . . . I don’t see myself as the Grand Dame of Caribbean cooking,” she told a Jamaican newspaper in the last decade of her life. (She died in 2010.) Shirley also resisted the narrative that she was “elevating” Jamaican cuisine above its working-class associations. Back then, and even today, Jamaican food is often equated with cheap food, a cuisine not to be taken seriously. Shirley believed that it had inherent worth, and that even her fellow-Jamaicans sometimes needed a reminder. It is a paradox of her career that her departure from the U.S., and her return to Jamaica, was what caused the American food world to appreciate her gifts. Impressing tourists was never Shirley’s chief aim, however. “I’m coming into my country now to try and help my people,” she once said. “That’s how I looked at it.” She went home for a reason. [. . .]

[Illustration above by Cindy Echevarria.]

See full article and recipe for fricasseed chicken at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/kitchen-notes/a-jamaican-chefs-journey-home

One thought on “A Jamaican Chef’s Journey Home

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s