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 prefer to be hidden within the kitchen,” Mr. Burke mentioned, 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 by way of the H-2B visa program, which offers international staff with a pathway towards momentary nonagricultural jobs. A modest variety of seasonal staff have turn out to be everlasting residents or residents. This summer season, as worldwide journey resumes and the home labor market stays robust, Jamaicans are once more staffing kitchens of conventional Cape seafood eating places, superb eating locations, resorts and inns.
And with their components 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 consists of flaky, golden patties, vibrant jerk rubbed-meats and turmeric-rich curries, buzzing with allspice.
“It’s like a cultural alternate by way of meals,” mentioned Byron Crooks, an H-2B visa holder from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, who’s working as a chef at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer season. “Different individuals get to know us — how we speak, how we snicker, how we’ve got conversations by way of meals.”
A shared historical past of bananas
The variety of Jamaicans working in the USA on the H-2B program elevated by 84 p.c up to now 10 years, to eight,950 in 2021 from 4,874 in 2011, in accordance with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Companies company. Trying additional again and regionally, 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 season of 2000, 500 Jamaicans have 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 prepare dinner, and he finally labored in cruise ship kitchens and at resorts. After one yr as a seasonal employee, Mr. Burke obtained a inexperienced card and labored as a prepare 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 shortly turned widespread for its jerk; as for sides, Chef Shrimpy’s banana fritters are beloved. Used nearly like a garnish, one fritter crowns every order and tastes like calmly fried morsels of candy banana bread.
Throughout his childhood, Mr. Burke’s mom sometimes ready these on Sundays. “When poor moms and dads didn’t have sugar, they might crush banana and put just a little flour in it in order that they might create one thing candy for us,” he mentioned. “I want that she made them each 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 determine accommodations 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 workers makes jerk pork and a Caribbean seafood bowl alongside fried codfish sandwiches and clam chowder.
“Collaboration within the kitchen results in extra numerous and well-rounded meals, so I’ve all the time inspired that,” mentioned 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 because of 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 advised doing jerk pork, and Mr. Hay beloved the thought.
Within the earlier days, Mr. Bowlin and others would deliver up kilos of allspice and jerk seasoning of their baggage, to “make the jerk simply fly off the menu,” he mentioned, 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 components native to the Cape when he arrived for his first summer season in 1996.
“Again then, it was a really small, tight neighborhood,” he mentioned. “Now, even in winter, you’re seeing much more Jamaicans, and so they’re not simply visiting right here. They dwell right here, they’ve households, they’ve homes, they’ve companies.”
Motel rooms for staff
Up Route 6 in Provincetown, Natessa Brown feeds native Jamaicans and the broader Provincetown neighborhood ackee and salt fish, curry lobster and jerk rooster at her laid-back restaurant, Irie Eats. She, like many restaurant homeowners, confronted a difficult time throughout the pandemic.
“Despite the fact that Covid hit us actually onerous for 2 years, the locals we’ve got in P-City supported their native companies,” Ms. Brown mentioned.
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 actually seen the Jamaican neighborhood thrive,” she mentioned, “however they’ve additionally struggled tremendously.”
A scarcity of reasonably priced housing has emerged as a severe consequence of the pandemic, one which disproportionately impacts communities of coloration. 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 throughout the pandemic exacerbated the problem.
Whereas Ms. Vargas Wallace is buoyed by vacationers who help minority-owned companies — those that “are intentional about their pockets activism,” she mentioned — the scarcity of reasonably priced housing dangers pricing out the very enterprise homeowners and staff who cater to guests.
Consequently, many enterprise homeowners who take part within the H-2B program purchase motels, multifamily properties 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 provides 10 rooms to his seasonal workers. “Any enterprise that’s right here has some sort of housing to outlive,” he mentioned.
One other difficulty is the annual cap on the variety of seasonal staff, which this yr is 33,000 nationally for beneficiaries from all international locations. Counting on recruiters and private connections to search out workers, Mr. Hay has employed Jamaican staff for 20 years, however due to the cap and that lottery-based system, “even when we’ve got any individual that’s a relative or a pal, we will’t essentially get them within the nation,” Mr. Hay mentioned.
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 season, as certainly one 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 attempt to make it as genuine as potential,” Mr. Crooks mentioned. “All of the cooks right here mainly discovered to prepare dinner from our grandparents.”