How food has helped strengthen Austin’s Caribbean community


Even though Elisse Jean-Pierre grew up in Florida in the early 1990s, she was surrounded by Haitian culture.

Her dad, who was born in Haiti, made sure to bring as many cultural elements of his home country as he could to her childhood in the U.S. A big part of that was joining and then leading a group of Caribbean expats in their city.

About that same time, Austin’s Caribbean community was growing, in part thanks to the tech industry and nearby Fort Hood. Dale Robertson, who was born in Trinidad and raised in the Virgin Islands and Houston, moved to Austin in the early 1980s to attend the University of Texas, where he joined a budding Caribbean student group.

As those students graduated and starting planting roots here, they hosted potlucks, parties and other activities to foster a sense of connection. Some of the members started a book club, which continues to this day.

Eventually, that group became the TransCaribbean Network, and for members like Robertson, it became not only a way for them to stay connected to cultures that they knew but also to introduce those flavors and sounds to their children, who were growing up in the U.S.

“I wanted to get them accustomed to the cuisine and fall in love with it to help develop their identity,” he says.

But when Jean-Pierre, who spent many of her childhood years in a similar community in Tampa, moved to Austin two years ago for a job at Dell, the TCN, as it was known, had become somewhat dormant.

Almost immediately, Jean-Pierre craved the food, music and entertainment of the Caribbean. She started to meet other young Austinites with ties to the Caribbean, and three of them, including Stacy Robinson and Karen Jordan, started dreaming up a nonprofit that would bring the many vibrant elements of Caribbean culture to Austin.

They found out about the TransCaribbean Network and reached out to Robertson and his fellow leaders in the group to get the blessing to start a new group, the Austin Caribbean Cultural Exchange.

“They said they had a new idea for a new organization, and I said, ‘You’re what we’ve been waiting for!’” Robertson says. “We were excited to finally pass the torch.”

In May 2015, the Austin Caribbean Cultural Exchange hosted its first potluck, followed by dance classes, family activities and a live music event during South by Southwest earlier this year. “We wanted to revive the community,” Jean-Pierre says. “A lot of them from the older organization are still friends, but the people who are moving here didn’t have those connections.”

Strengthening the social ties is one of the group’s major goals, but another is education. Even people who were born and raised in the Caribbean might know a lot about the specific place they come from but not about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the countries and cultures are different.

At the group’s summer potluck in June at Beverly S. Sheffield Northwest District Park, you didn’t have to look much further than the potluck table to understand the diversity within the Caribbean community and how the food, language, fashion, dance and music reflect how the islands were settled, colonized and influenced by trade routes.

Some of the dishes, including a stewed greens dish called callaloo, had roots in Africa, while others hinted at a connection to Spanish-speaking Latin countries. Others, such as a gumbolike curry, tasted like something you might get in New Orleans.

Many members of the original TCN group were there, including Raul Daniels, who took the mic toward the end of the event to share the story of how their group had morphed into this new one and how happy it made him to see a new generation so enthusiastic about spreading the love for Caribbean culture.

Even 30 years ago, food was a rallying point for Robertson and his crew. “Whether we were meeting as a committee or as a larger group, food was central,” Robertson says. “It was exciting to see what other people would make, to see how many curries you’d get, made with goat, chicken, beef or different ingredients.”

Robertson remembers friends making homemade mango chutney, rum punch, Jamaican patties (a hand pie filled with ground beef), pelau (a rice dish similar to paella) and, of course, jerk chicken. He liked to make sorrel, a type of hibiscus tea with ginger, and his sister was known for her curry-filled roti, which shows the East Indian influence on the region’s cuisine.

After seeing how enthusiastic people were about Caribbean food, several members of the original group started a restaurant called Calabash Cafe, which was open for a few years on Manor Road. Several other Caribbean restaurants and food trucks have opened and closed over the years. Today, you can find Caribbean food at Habana on South Congress and Tony’s Jamaican Food Truck, which serves oxtails, jerk chicken, beef patties and more at 1200 E. 11th St. Also of note: For 25 years, the Flamingo Cantina downtown has been a center of all things reggae and Jamaican culture in Austin.

Robertson says he’s pleased that Jean-Pierre and others have revived the group. “They have more experience with social media and can engage with the new generation,” he says, especially as they develop even more events that are open to the public. “They are in the process of taking the Caribbean experience to the next level.”

Jean-Pierre says that even though there might only be 1,000 Caribbean people in Austin, the popularity of Caribbean culture is growing, and this group can help foster that love.

“There’s a need for it because the Caribbean population in Austin isn’t that big, so it’s something new to do and things that Caribbean people are used to, which aren’t that easy to find,” Jean-Pierre says. “It’s a home away from home for everybody who lived there at some point.”

Collards Callaloo

Southerners have been slow-cooking collards in fatback and with other meats for ages. This leafy green has been found throughout the world and fares particularly well in our climate. We bring some of the African and Caribbean influence by taking out the meat and preparing them callaloo style. Callaloo is a dish that we fell in love with on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, but it originates in Africa. The recipes vary regionally, but the Caribbean style we like best is traditionally prepared with either taro or amaranth greens and coconut milk, among other things. We substitute the Southern favorite, collards, in our version, but you can use any dark leafy green you can find. Kale or mustard greens would work well.

— Jason Roy and Carolyn Roy

2 bunches collards, cleaned and washed

1 onion, diced

1 sweet potato, sliced with the skin on

2 cups coconut milk

1/2 Tbsp. minced garlic

1/2 Tbsp. salt

Pepper to taste

1/2 Tbsp. curry powder

1 pinch ground allspice

1 pinch ground cinnamon

1 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 quarts water

Collards are notorious for having lots of dirt and grit, so wash ’em well! We wash ours twice. After you have the collards nice and clean, chop them into 2-inch squares. If you stack them up on each other you can slice them lengthwise and then come back and cut them the other direction.

Once you have the collards cleaned and cut, all the hard work is done! Add all of your ingredients to a large stockpot, give a quick stir, and cook over medium heat for 2 hours. Keep a lid on the pot, removing it only to stir every 15 minutes or so. If there is any kind of toughness to the greens after 2 hours, keep cooking and feel free to add more water as needed. The finished dish will be thick, tender and creamy. Serves 6.

— From “Biscuit Head: New Southern Biscuits, Breakfasts and Brunch” by Jason Roy and Carolyn Roy (Voyageur Press, $25)

Escovitch Fish

This classic Jamaican dish is topped with carrots and peppers sauteed in vinegar.

2 lbs. fish fillets

1/4 cup flour

Oil, for frying

For the escovitch sauce:

1 cup vinegar

1/4 cup coconut oil

Salt, to taste

1 tsp. sugar

1 cup julienned carrots

2 medium onions, cut into onion rings

1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into thin strips

1-2 scotch bonnet or habanero peppers, seeded and sliced

Prepare fish for frying by rinsing and patting dry the fillets and sprinkling them with salt. Lightly dust the fish with flour and fry in about 1/2 inch of oil that has been heated over medium high heat. As soon as the fish is opaque and lightly brown, remove and set aside.

In a deep saute pan, add vinegar, coconut oil, pinch of salt and sugar. Bring to a boil. Add carrots, onion rings, bell pepper and hot peppers. Simmer for a few minutes and then pour all over the fried fish.

— Richard Baptist

Jerk Chicken

Public health warning: The hot jerk seasoning is very hot! Please use sparingly if you don’t like it spicy. You can add pimento wood chips to the grill, if you can find them.

— Richard Baptist

3-4 Tbsp. wet Jamaican jerk seasoning (mild or hot; Walkerswood or Grace brand, available at Fiesta)

Hot dry jerk seasoning (optional)

2-3 Tbsp. olive oil

Pineapple jam or marmalade (optional)

3 lemons

1 whole chicken, with the back bone cut out or split along the back

Put the wet jerk seasoning in a bowl. Add ½ to 1 tsp. of the hot dry jerk seasoning, depending on how spicy and hot you want it to be. Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil to make the mixture spreadable. If you’ve made it too hot or want to add a sweet element, add pineapple jam or marmalade. The sweetness will cut the heat.

Clean the chicken by cutting the lemons in half and squeezing and rubbing them all over the chicken. Then wash the chicken off with water. (Instead of lemons, you could use white vinegar. Pour the vinegar over the chicken and then wash off with water.)

Pat the chicken dry. Score the chicken by cutting the flesh on the breast and the legs. This will allow the marinade to get into the flesh of the chicken. No need to salt the chicken because the jerk seasoning is salty enough.

Time to get your hands dirty! Rub the jerk seasoning all over the chicken, into the cuts you made in the chicken and under the skin. If you’re using the additional dry jerk seasoning, rub it on the outside of the chicken. Place the chicken in a zip-top gallon plastic bag and marinate for at least 2 hours. Overnight is preferable.

When you are ready to cook the chicken, you can put in the oven at 400 degrees for hour, turning over the chicken after 30 minutes.

The best method, however, is on the grill. Heat the grill and cook the chicken until the juices run clear, from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on how hot your grill is. Turn at least once. Remove the chicken from the grill and let rest for 15 minutes. Cut up the chicken and serve.

— Richard Baptist



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