At the Jerk Cafe, a storefront tucked right into a strip mall within the Cape Cod village of South Yarmouth, Mass., sweet-smelling smoke greets company as quickly as they open the entrance door. So does the cafe’s proprietor, Glenroy Burke, who bounces across the wide-open kitchen stirring pots, tending the grill and plating dishes. “I don’t like to be hidden in the kitchen,” Mr. Burke stated, who’s also referred to as “Chef Shrimpy.”
For greater than three a long time, Jamaican cooks and cooks have been coming to Cape Cod via the H-2B visa program, which supplies overseas staff with a pathway towards momentary nonagricultural jobs. A modest variety of seasonal staff have turn into everlasting residents or residents. This summer time, as worldwide journey resumes and the home labor market stays robust, Jamaicans are once more staffing kitchens of conventional Cape seafood eating places, advantageous eating locations, resorts and inns.
And with their elements and cooking strategies, Jamaicans are making a mark on the area’s culinary identification, opening their very own eating places and enlivening the menus of established eateries from Hyannis to Provincetown. The style of Cape Cod, lengthy outlined by Yankee seafood favorites, now contains flaky, golden patties, vibrant jerk rubbed-meats and turmeric-rich curries, buzzing with allspice.
“It’s like a cultural exchange through food,” stated Byron Crooks, an H-2B visa holder from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, who’s working as a chef at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer time. “Other people get to understand us — how we talk, how we laugh, how we have conversations through food.”
A shared historical past of bananas
The variety of Jamaicans working in the USA on the H-2B program elevated by 84 p.c previously 10 years, to eight,950 in 2021 from 4,874 in 2011, in line with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Providers company. Wanting additional again and domestically, one Cape Cod-based immigration lawyer, Matthew Lee at Tocci & Lee, estimates — utilizing information from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce — that by the summer time of 2000, 500 Jamaicans had been engaged on the Cape, and that quantity elevated to a excessive of 1,000 earlier than the pandemic.
Mr. Burke first got here to the Cape in 1997 after connecting with an H-2B recruiter in Jamaica. He had grown up in Port Antonio, Jamaica, watching his mom cook dinner, and he finally labored in cruise ship kitchens and at resorts. After one 12 months as a seasonal employee, Mr. Burke obtained a inexperienced card and labored as a cook dinner and marine technician within the Cape cities of Harwich and Chatham. The financial alternative he discovered on the Cape motivated him to remain and pursue his dream of opening a restaurant.
Three years after gaining U.S. citizenship, Mr. Burke opened the Jerk Cafe in 2008. The restaurant rapidly grew to become common for its jerk; as for sides, Chef Shrimpy’s banana fritters are beloved. Used virtually like a garnish, one fritter crowns every order and tastes like frivolously fried morsels of candy banana bread.
Throughout his childhood, Mr. Burke’s mom sometimes ready these on Sundays. “When poor mothers and fathers didn’t have sugar, they could crush banana and put a little flour in it so that they could create something sweet for us,” he stated. “I wish that she made them every day.”
Bananas kind the spine of an older, shared historical past between Cape Cod and Jamaica. In 1870, following an opportunity touchdown in Port Antonio, a ship captain-turned-entrepreneur from Wellfleet named Lorenzo Dow Baker launched the fruit to the USA. The wealth he accrued from this contemporary banana commerce led him to ascertain motels in each Port Antonio and Wellfleet, the place he employed Jamaican staff seasonally.
Spices within the overhead
At Mac’s On the Pier in Wellfleet, a majority-Jamaican kitchen employees makes jerk pork and a Caribbean seafood bowl alongside fried codfish sandwiches and clam chowder.
“Collaboration in the kitchen leads to more diverse and well-rounded food, so I’ve always encouraged that,” stated Mac Hay, the chef and restaurateur behind the ten Mac’s Seafood eating places and seafood markets that dot the Cape.
The Jamaican-inspired dishes began showing on the menu due to Neily Bowlin, a former chef on the Pier who now manages two Mac’s Seafood markets. About 10 years in the past, Mac’s had a smoker and the restaurant was serving barbecue ribs. Mr. Bowlin steered doing jerk pork, and Mr. Hay liked the concept.
Within the earlier days, Mr. Bowlin and others would convey up kilos of allspice and jerk seasoning of their baggage, to “make the jerk just fly off the menu,” he stated, laughing.
Mr. Bowlin is initially from Black River, Jamaica, an space of the nation the place seafood cookery is a specialty — he was well-suited to work with the elements native to the Cape when he arrived for his first summer time in 1996.
“Back then, it was a very small, tight community,” he stated. “Now, even in winter, you’re seeing a lot more Jamaicans, and they’re not just visiting here. They live here, they have families, they have houses, they have businesses.”
Motel rooms for staff
Up Route 6 in Provincetown, Natessa Brown feeds native Jamaicans and the broader Provincetown group ackee and salt fish, curry lobster and jerk hen at her laid-back restaurant, Irie Eats. She, like many restaurant house owners, confronted a difficult time in the course of the pandemic.
“Even though Covid hit us really hard for two years, the locals we have in P-Town supported their local businesses,” Ms. Brown stated.
In 2020, Tara Vargas Wallace based Amplify POC Cape Cod, a racial fairness nonprofit, to help and showcase minority-owned companies on the Cape. She counts Irie Eats, together with Branches Grill and Cafe in Chatham and the Karibbean Lounge and Island Cafe & Grill in Hyannis, amongst cherished Jamaican eating places on the Cape. “I’ve really seen the Jamaican community thrive,” she stated, “but they’ve also struggled tremendously.”
A scarcity of reasonably priced housing has emerged as a severe consequence of the pandemic, one which disproportionately impacts communities of colour. Earlier than the coronavirus, the conversion of seasonal leases and different housing inventory into Airbnbs eliminated many reasonably priced long-term leases off the market; the mass exodus from city areas to the Cape in the course of the pandemic exacerbated the difficulty.
Whereas Ms. Vargas Wallace is buoyed by vacationers who help minority-owned companies — those that “are intentional about their wallet activism,” she stated — the scarcity of reasonably priced housing dangers pricing out the very enterprise house owners and staff who cater to guests.
In consequence, many enterprise house owners who take part within the H-2B program purchase motels, multifamily houses or different properties to transform into worker housing. Mr. Hay has a number of properties; a number of years in the past he purchased a motel that now gives 10 rooms to his seasonal employees. “Any business that’s here has some type of housing to survive,” he stated.
One other concern is the annual cap on the variety of seasonal staff, which this 12 months is 33,000 nationally for beneficiaries from all international locations. Counting on recruiters and private connections to seek out workers, Mr. Hay has employed Jamaican staff for twenty years, however due to the cap and that lottery-based system, “even if we have somebody that’s a relative or a friend, we can’t necessarily get them in the country,” Mr. Hay stated.
Mr. Crooks, the chef from Westmoreland Parish, noticed the pandemic as a turning level in his profession and entered the H-2B visa lottery for extra alternatives.
This summer time, as one in every of 4 cooks at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe, he makes dishes like unctuous oxtail, saturated in a wealthy, auburn gravy and studded with chunks of potato and broad beans. High quality is significant.
“We try to make it as authentic as possible,” Mr. Crooks stated. “All the chefs here basically learned to cook from our grandparents.”