As a little girl growing up in Jamaica, Patrice Gilman dreamed that one day, she would cook just like Gladys, her grandmother. Everyone around downtown Kingston knew Gladys, and the little restaurant she owned in the area called Southside. Her dish of tripe and beans was famous, and fed famous athletes and hungry kids alike.
Gilman was fascinated by watching her grandmother manage the little kitchen, cooking all on her own, darting between pots of goat or chicken or fish bubbling on any of a dozen wood-fired stoves. Every morning, Gladys rose before the sun to start making lunch, and every day she was sold out of food not long after noon.
Still, she always had a little something for the kids who hung around, the ones who didn’t have enough.
"She was a one-woman show," Gilman says. "She would feed the whole community. She had nine children, and raised many more children that weren’t her own. She passed away about 13 years ago, but her spirit lives on so strongly in our family’s heart."
Now, many years later and about 4,000 kilometres away, Gilman finds herself carrying on her grandmother’s legacy. Because three weeks ago, she and fellow chef Deidré Coleman opened the doors to their own restaurant at 726 Sargent Ave., Gladys Caribbean Kitchen, an endeavour that has already knit them closer with their community.
"It’s almost like fate," Gilman says. "There’s always somebody at the door needing just a conversation, needing to feel human. I always try to offer some food. Food is just the universal language that anyone loves. I never let anyone go without.
"It’s kind of eerie, thinking about, ‘Wow this is what my grandmother used to do,’" she adds. "Now I’m right here, doing the same thing."
Now, Gilman and Coleman are looking forward to getting to know even more Winnipeggers. On Aug. 28, they will be dishing out food at Black History Manitoba’s second annual block party, joining at least 27 other Black-owned businesses and organizations eager to show off their work, and their passion.
This year’s block party, which is hosted by the Zueike clothing store at 45 Trottier Bay, is looking to build on the success of last year’s event, which saw more than 300 people come out. There will be live DJs, food from Africa and the Caribbean, wares from clothing to cosmetics, and information about Black-led social efforts.
To organizer Nadia Thompson, chair of Black History Manitoba, the block party marks a chance to celebrate the energy of the city’s growing Black community, while supporting local businesses. It is also, crucially, a chance to spread education and build even stronger bridges between communities.
"I think the fact that Black history, especially Black Canadian history, has been left out of our education system here in Canada, has a huge downside in how we learn about each other and the community itself," Thompson says. "The more people talk about it, the more people ask questions, the better it is.
"We use (events like this) to get ‘em in the door, and start having those conversations."
Because the Black community is growing, and that can be seen in the block party’s vendors itself. Last year, the event had 22 vendors; this year, 28 are signed up, including several businesses that launched just in the last 12 months. Among those fresh faces on the scene is Gladys Caribbean Kitchen.
In a way, the restaurant’s story shows the vitality of the local Black community. Although Gilman had trained as a chef, after moving to Manitoba in 2014 she took a job as a support worker for people with disabilities. As she met more folks from the local Black community, she found herself making fast friends from all over the world.
"It’s such a warm community, and people are always searching for that familiarity," Gilman says, noting that she counts amongst her friends people from Nigeria, Ethiopia and all across the Caribbean. "As much as we’re from different parts of the world, our similarities are so much greater than our differences."
That community soon brought her closer to her childhood dream when she met Deidré Coleman.
Like Gilman, Coleman is also a professionally trained chef who grew up in Jamaica. Remarkably, although they are not related, they soon learned they both had a grandmother named Gladys; when the two decided to follow their dream and open a restaurant together, that made choosing a name a no-brainer.
At Gladys Caribbean Kitchen, the pair revel in the flavours of their Jamaican upbringing. They’re "not shy" on the seasoning, Gilman says with a laugh, and they enjoy pairing traditional Jamaican ingredients, such as oxtail or goat, with Manitoban twists: one of their most popular menu items is a jerk chicken poutine.
So far, Gilman says, the community — not just the Caribbean community, not just the Black community, but the city as a whole — has turned out with incredible support. Already, the restaurant has been doing brisk business: as soon as it opens at 11 a.m. the SkipTheDishes orders start pouring in, Gilman says joyfully.
Now, she can’t wait to get out to the block party, and give more people a taste of her grandmother’s legacy.
"I’m just so excited to bring the flavours to the people," she says. "I just finished writing the menu as to what we’ll be taking there. We are thinking about bringing some fresh juices to the event, some juices I grew up on. I have a whole list of things that hopefully people will love."
The second annual Black History Manitoba and Zueike block party is set for Aug. 28 at 45 Trottier Bay, from noon to 6 p.m. For more information, follow @BHMWinnipeg or @Zueike on Instagram, or visit Black History Manitoba Celebration Committee on Facebook.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.