In the spring of 1979, Jamaican chef Norma Shirley was fantasizing about another future. Forty years by then, she had started to gain national attention as the chef and owner of Station Restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She called her style âNew England food with a Jamaican twist,â serving dishes like meat patties in pastry shells and curried shrimp on toast. But she told the magazine Gasoline, “It is my dream to open another restaurant in Jamaica where blacks would be the majority clientele.”
Shirley eventually made her dream come true several times, but she took a roundabout path to get there. Born Norma Elise Smith in 1938, among the gaping hills of Saint James Parish in the northwest of the island, Shirley belonged to a multicultural family. Her maternal grandfather was Scottish, while other family members married people of Chinese, East Indian, Italian and Jewish descent. These parents brought their influences to the kitchen table. Norma would later notice that eating with them made her feel like Alice was falling in Wonderland. She became a nurse and, while working at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of the West Indies, in Kingston, met Michael Shirley, a British doctor in training, whom she married in 1965. They moved to Europe, where Shirley cultivates a passion for hosting dinner parties and a disdain for mass produced food. The couple had a son, Delius, in 1969, and soon after Michael’s job brought the family to the United States, first to New York City and then, in 1976, to the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
It was there that Shirley quit her job as a nurse and started her own small culinary business, filling picnic baskets with her kitchen and selling them outside her home. She bought peaches at the farmer’s market and wine glasses at Bloomingdale’s. She filled the baskets with chicken breasts stuffed with prosciutto and mushrooms, caviar and eggs folded in French bread and chocolate mousse. His menus reflected his love for Western European cuisine, but there were signs of the direction his cuisine would take in the years to come. When she expanded the picnic activity to include baskets for dinner, she served flavored chicken with a touch of Pickapeppa sauce, a beloved Jamaican condiment with a slight buzz of spice. A local newspaper article from 1977 clearly shows how Shirley stands out in her predominantly white New England environment: âIf the person answering has a British accent with a little special accent, don’t hang up. It’s a real Jamaican you hear.
Shirley’s marriage finally fell apart, and in the early 1980s, she decamped to New York City, hoping to open her own restaurant. But she quickly learned that aspiring restaurateurs were just a “dime a dozen” in New York City, as she would later say. She struggled to find investors and ended up working as a caterer and food stylist for CondÃ© Nast, feeding photographers and organizing shoots in Gourmet, Vogue, and Vanity Show. She brought her food to company headquarters early in the morning and often decorated her spreads with fresh flowers.
After a few years in this position, Shirley wanted to go home. Delius was then in a boarding school in Massachusetts, and his life had started to feel lonely. A brief return to Jamaica in 1985 prompted her to take the plunge. She returned to Kingston and, drawing from a stash of ten thousand dollars in personal savings, started a restaurant she called Norma’s on Belmont Road. She wanted her fellow Jamaicans to find creativity in the indigenous ingredients she felt were underestimated. âOur food is great, it’s great, but it’s not always presented as beautiful as it should be,â she said later. The restaurant was only a stone’s throw from Embassy Row, which attracted the upper and middle classes to the city. But some customers didn’t immediately appreciate his remix and restyling of familiar island dishes. What did, say, the jackfruit, whose yellow lobes were usually carved and eaten alone, in a salad? âThey didn’t understand,â she recalls. She was more fortunate to reach Jamaican businessmen who, like her, had lived abroad and then returned home. These guests enjoyed preparations such as its curry lobster flambÃ©ed with mango, and its roasted pork tenderloin with prunes and tangerine marmalade.
Cheerfully perfectionist, with a penchant for patterned headbands, Shirley has opened restaurants in towns across the country: Norma’s on the Terrace, in Kingston; Norma is at the marina, in Port Antonio; and Norma’s on the Beach, in Negril. She served a Cornish hen with slices of fried breadfruit, a red pea bisque with a shock of brandy, and a cheesecake topped with raisins and rum. Soon, observers back in America took note of this as well. In November 1992, the Vogue Writer Richard Alleman called Shirley the âJulia Child of Jamaica,â in an article recommending Norma to the Wharf House, which Shirley had recently opened in a town near Montego Bay. There, in an 18th-century converted sugar warehouse, Shirley came up with dishes like her own take on fricassee chicken, a Jamaican dish, drenched in chicken broth, ketchup, and Pickapeppa sauce. She served it with rice, straight from the pan.
Some have called Shirley’s approach âthe new Jamaicanâ; Academic Jessica B. Harris has called her a “culinary ambassador”, preparing Creole cuisine that “hints at the way of the future.” But the American press clung to the Julia Child comparison. The James Beard Foundation referred to Shirley in these terms in 1995 when they asked her to host the organization’s first Jamaican meal. Shirley has come to wear this and other great names with a hint of hesitation. ” Oh my God no. . . . I don’t consider myself to be the grande dame of Caribbean cuisine, âshe 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 her associations with the working class. Back then, and even today, Jamaican cuisine was often equated with cheap food, a cuisine not to be taken seriously. Shirley believed that this had intrinsic value and that even her fellow Jamaicans sometimes needed a reminder. It is a paradox of his career that his departure from the United States and his return to Jamaica made the world of American cuisine appreciate his gifts. Impressing tourists, however, has never been Shirley’s primary goal. “I enter my country now to try to help my people, âshe once said. “That’s how I looked at him.” She came home for a reason.
Adapted with permission from “Authentic Recipes from Jamaica”, copyright Â© 2005 by John DeMers. Published by Tuttle Publishing.
For 4 to 6 people
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
- 1 large chicken (about 3 lbs), cut into serving pieces
- 1 tbsp. salt
- 1 C. sugar
- 1 C. freshly ground black pepper
- 1 Scotch-bonnet pepper, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 3 spring onions, thinly sliced
- Leaves of 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1 tbsp. dried thyme
- 2 tbsp. oil
- 2 large onions, diced
- 2 cups of chicken broth or water
- 1 tbsp. Pickapeppa sauce or steak sauce
- 1 Â½ tbsp. tomato ketchup
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 3 carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 medium cho-cho (chayote) or zucchini, diced
1. Season the chicken with the salt, sugar, pepper, chili, garlic, scallion and thyme.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and brown the chicken on both sides. Add the onions and sautÃ© until lightly browned. Add the broth or water, Pickapeppa and tomato ketchup. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and cook for 15 minutes.
3. Add the vegetables and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes over medium heat, until the chicken and vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally. Serve hot with the pan juices and rice.
This is the second in a series of columns adapted from “Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America, âBy Mayukh Sen, which was released in November from WW Norton & Company.