Carrying Caribbean Culture and Community Through Food by Stephanie Smith-Strickland
In 2018, McDonald’s briefly introduced a new menu item at select locations: the jerk burger. Seeing one of Jamaica’s most globally beloved culinary exports hawked via one of the largest fast food chains in the world may certainly have seemed odd to some. But to others, it was indicative of the evolution of West Indian food in mainstream cultural consciousness, and its role as a quiet tool of assimilation for often marginalized immigrant communities.
In fact, since the early 2000s, curious chefs (many of them white and with no ties to the cultures from which these foods originated), from Jamie Oliver to Gordon Ramsay, have attempted to put their own spin on the quintessential dishes ranging from jerk chicken, to rice and peas, and Trinidad’s famous roti. And while Great Britain has always been known for its love of Indian curries (a by-product of its long-time colonial interference in India), over time the Windrush Generation — West Indian immigrants who came to the U.K. en masse between the 1940s and ‘70s in search of work post World War II — and their forebearers also came to greatly influence the country’s diverse cuisine.
Yet, where the cuisine of other immigrant groups, like Chinese and Indian communities, for instance, was much quicker to hit the mainstream, West Indian food remained far more insular, and was thereby much slower to catch on outside of areas with a high concentration of immigrants. This was due to several factors including a more readily pronounced and traceable line of anti Black racism and xenophobia, much of which exploded post World War II and through what most Americans would recognize as the height of the Civil Rights era. Additionally, unlike other immigrant groups who faced less barriers around brick-and-mortar ownership, and thus intentionally opened restaurants that swiftly adapted the flavors and base ingredients of their homeland dishes to better suit the tastes of white Brits, West Indian gourmands were much more reluctant to take this route, instead fighting to preserve the authenticity of their comfort foods.
These foods became a staple of community gatherings prior to the establishment of physical restaurant locations. “Cooked Caribbean food was often in high demand late at night, as people departed some of the emerging nightclubs of the time. While opening a brick and-mortar cafe or shop was difficult, due to financial restrictions from prejudiced loaners and uncooperative landlords, many saw this concentration of Afro-Caribbean people late at night as a business opportunity and served home-cooked food out of the back of cars, or formed deals with the clubs to cook on the premises,” said food and culture writer Riaz Phillips to Vice of the slow proliferation of the cuisine.
In Belly Full, Phillips’ seminal exploration of the United Kingdom’s West Indian food scene, he estimates that some of the first food and drink establishments date back to well before the arrival of the Windrush Generation. “I was going to every library I could, looking for social history books, scouring for any mention of food and social events,” says Phillips. “The legacy of having a sit down Caribbean meal in the U.K. stretches back almost a century, with references to individuals eating rice ‘n’ peas in central London as far back as the 1920s. After the world wars, when the Caribbean population began to develop in the U.K., the basements of houses in areas like Brixton and Notting Hill provided the locale for meals and parties known as ‘shebeens.’ For years, Caribbean bakeries and takeaways dominated the restaurant enterprise in London, and it’s only in the last decade or so that places for a sit-down Caribbean dining experience have come to the fore,” he further shared with Eater London.
Phillips’ difficulty in finding physical records of the presence and impact of these once niche cuisines speaks to the attempted historical erasure of many of these resilient communities. This reality is precisely why sit-down restaurants such as the Mangrove in Notting Hill came to represent so much more than mere eateries; they were bastions of cultural identity that survived through a complicated history marred by prejudice and discrimination.
“The first notable wave of eat-in AfroCaribbean establishments emerged in the late 1960s, as youth of the Windrush Generation started to come of age. These included Trinidadian-born political activist Frank Crichlow’s Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, which opened in 1968, and Dougie’s Hideaway club and West Indian restaurant in Archway. “More than just restaurants and bars, these eateries were places of cultural importance that built strong bonds of friendship between customers,” notes Phillips.
These physical spaces become doubly important with the difficulty many Black immigrants faced in acquiring ownership (whether through leasing or outright buying) of brick-and-mortar storefronts to house their establishments. “Caribbean cafes, bars, and social clubs stepped in to offer people a taste of home as early as the late 1920s, notably the Caribbean Cafe in Cardiff and Florence Mills Social Parlour, which was opened in 1929 on Carnaby Street by a team that included Amy Ashwood— political activist and first wife of Marcus Garvey,” historian Colin Grant writes in Negro with a Hat of the smaller establishments that paved the way for the arrival of true sit-in restaurants in the ‘60s. As more sit-down restaurants opened against the backdrop of anti-immigrant sentiments and general racial unrest, many of them became centers for resistance and areas of safety and community. And, in the case of the Mangrove, they were at times also converted into after-hours spots where sound system culture and late night bashments took root, particularly in a time where the country’s nightlife scene was often divided along racial lines.
To many white Brits, West Indian immigrants were perceived merely as Black with no care to the nuance of their varied cultural identities. Places like the Mangrove — whose Trinidadian owner Frank Crichlow went on to become a lauded anti-racism activist and community figure — took care to specialize in specific delicacies that tipped a hat to the owners’ countries of origin. “A lot of people still see Caribbean food as this one entity, but we have so many different islands, and so many different foods. When you look at the distance between some of the islands, the distance between some of them is greater than the distance between England and some other European countries. While they have some similarities, there are little bits that are really specific to each place,” Philips shared of today’s still-shifting perception of Caribbean cuisine.
The arrival of food hawkers, and eventually, sit-down restaurants also played a role in creating a demand for the food products and produce needed to make the meals that reminded immigrants of home. Though the Windrush Generation is often most readily recognized as the largest influx of West Indian immigrants, many had come to the U.K. prior and were invaluable to helping build its infrastructure. Upon arrival, many found it near impossible to access the food staples they relied on to make the affordable yet filling meals they’d survived on in their home countries. Starchy, energizing imports like yam, cassava, plantain, and green bananas were virtually impossible to find due to high import costs and the tendency for food to go bad over the long journey. The presence of eateries specializing in food stuff sourced from more tropical locales created a viable demand, and with it, an industry around import that eventually allowed for greater visibility of West Indian food as a whole. In tandem, it helped empower generational immigrant businesses by giving them a baseline to grow from. As Phillips notes in his book, enduring neighborhood spots like Sunrise Bakery, Old Trafford Bakery and Horizon foods date back to the 1940s and 50s and began as post-war family businesses that helped supplement incomes. Many have since grown into massive businesses with attached factories, illustrating just how far West Indian cuisine has come globally.
Beyond that, the palates of the denizens of the U.K. have shifted as access to West Indian food became more common. There is also something to be said for the greater interest in veganism and plant-based eating, which uniquely positions traditional Caribbean Ital diets, for example, as new and “trendy”, particularly to those unfamiliar with the tenants of the Rastafarian religion, which embraced this form of eating as early as the 1930s. The current mainstream popularity of the cuisine is a result of a combination of elements. A primary factor has been a renewed desire from the children and grandchildren of the Windrush Generation to reconnect with the parts of their culture that have been subdued and changed by the need to assimilate. These young chefs are tapping back into traditional recipes and offering modern takes that incorporate current food and wellness trends. As more people discover the varied influences and flavors of West Indian food, it will become increasingly important for a new generation of legacy-keepers to continue to share its historical importance as a signifier of community and a symbolic bridge between cultures.