By Richard Fowler | Forbes
Whether they are from the Caribbean or the African continent, Black immigrants have remarkably impacted the growth and diversity of the United States. These immigrants, many arriving in the U.S. with flavor pallets tuned to their home country, have made America’s main course options full of flavor, with staple grains, well-seasoned meats and seafood, and of course some spice.
According to Pew Research, 12% of Black people were born in foreign countries and 9% of Black America are second-generation Americans – meaning that they have at least one foreign-born parent. It is no wonder that their food, flavors, and recipes have escaped their tightly woven immigrant communities and made it into kitchens across America.
For some, it is the burst of flavor of jerk chicken, a Jamaican culinary favorite. For others, it is the heartiness of West African jollof rice. For all, it is the quest to travel with your taste buds. According to Ambassador of Jamaica to the United States Audrey Marks, this trend has become more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the return to home cooking.
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“Jamaican cuisine is very much a top five in terms of attraction and in terms of what has made Jamaica known–especially our jerk chicken,” said Marks, the 13th and current ambassador to the United States for Jamaica and the first woman to serve in her role.
“Oftentimes when people think of Jamaica, we think about the sun, the beach, the music, the culture and the beauty of the island, but as people start to explore and look for more known cuisines, Jamaica’s will fit right in,” Marks added.
Boasting more than 4.3 million visitors from the United States in 2019, Jamaica’s culture and food have put the country and its brands, flavors, and spices on the map, Ambassador Marks said.
“Between the influence of our culture, which is far bigger than the size of the country, and our robust tourism industry, there is a keen fascination with all things Jamaican, and our food is an outstanding ambassador of that—especially during this pandemic,” said, Amb. Marks, the first woman to serve in her role.
This keen search for more robust flavors has resulted in new trading companies, small businesses, trade expansion, and social media cooking celebrities.
This expansion has been led in part by GraceKennedy International Limited–one of the Caribbean’s most dynamic and largest food corporations. Starting as a trading outpost in Kingston, Jamaica more than 100 years ago, GraceKennedy’s products can be found in grocery stores worldwide.
In the United States, the company has seen an uptick in sales due in part to the global pandemic, said Don Wehby, GraceKennedy’s group chief executive officer and Jamaica’s former cabinet minister.
“We have seen elevated levels of in-home consumption and an openness to trying new foods. This has driven higher sales of our beverages, sauces and condiments and our coconut products,” Wehby said.
“Consumers are looking for ways to add variety to their cooking, and travel with their taste buds,” Wehby added. “Our Grace Jerk Seasoning and Grace Tropical Rhythms, in particular, have done well as exciting options for elevating home-cooked meals with a Caribbean flavor.”
From jerk sauces, curry seasonings, Jamaican ackee, and coconut milk to their tropical rhythm juices and chicken soup mixes, GraceKennedy continues to enlarge its U.S. footprint. With online shopping, international food stores, and large grocery chains carrying their products, GraceKennedy’s goal is to deliver the taste and experience of Jamaicans and other multicultural food products to the world, said Derrick Reckord, GraceKennedy Foods USA CEO and president. Reckord manages the U.S. market from South Florida.
“Our largest market in the U.S. is the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut Tri-State area,” Reckord said. “We are also seeing growth in Texas and Georgia, and we continue to be impressed by the accelerated growth seen in online shopping during the pandemic.”
GraceKennedy International once had a very niche entry into the United States marketplace that depended on Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean American customers. Fortunately, growth in the Jamaican immigrant population, from 530,000 new immigrants in 2000 to 760,000 new immigrants in 2019, has expanded GraceKennedy International’s brand and the emergence of new adjacent markets and ethnic groups.
“We have been attracting more mainstream consumers during this period, with notable growth in the Hispanic market,” said Reckord.
America’s immigrant population has also seen extensive growth from West African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria. According to Pew Research, Black immigration to the U.S. has more than doubled from 2000 to 2019. The number of Ghanaian immigrants has jumped from 70,000 to 190,000, and Nigerians from 130,00 to 390,000 people.
In this backdrop, Penelope and Kwamena Cudjoe emerged with goals of spreading culture through food, similar to what GraceKennedy International has espoused.
These new business owners brought the flavors of Ghana to U.S. grocery store shelves. Through their in-demand Easy Tasty Jollof product, customers can get the taste of West Africa by just adding a little bit of water, some butter and steaming for 30-35 minutes.
The Cudjoes created Easy Tasty Jollof in 2018, intending to make meals quicker for “hardworking” West African immigrants in America. Jollof Rice, one of West Africa’s most popular dishes, has origins among the Wolof ethnic group in the Senegal-Gambia region. It has since spread quickly to countries in the region, and became a staple food of choice at parties and other events.
Since launching Easy Tasty Jollof in Montgomery County, Maryland, Easy Tasty Jollof has become available in Whole Foods stores throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
“Our initial target was migrants from West Africa as our customer base to help them cut back on their cooking time, but we realized during the pandemic that we were getting more sales from African Americans, Asians, Caribbeans, and Caucasians,” said Penelope Cudjoe, Easy Tasty Jollof co-founder and CEO.
Kwamena Cudjoe, Easy Tasty Jollof vice president, echoed those sentiments.
“Since the pandemic, our sales in general both online and brick and mortar have increased tremendously due to people cooking more at home and making quick foods for the family,” he said.
The growth of West African and Jamaican cuisine in the United States also represents a clear cultural shift among the larger African-American community. With more significant calls for racial justice and equity, the emergence of Black and Afro-Caribbean centric T.V. programming and movies, greater audiences for Afrobeats and Reggae music, and the uptick in pre-pandemic international travel, the African Diaspora in America has been a driving force for greater interest in Afro-Caribbean products.
According to Instagram Jamaican food celebrity chef Typhanie Stewart, this push to explore new foods and flavors has been driven by the pandemic and people’s digital connection on social media. As someone who started her public cooking journey during the pandemic, Stewart and her Instagram handle @TyphanieCooks, has gone from zero to almost 50,000 followers in just a couple of months.
With 45% of her audience based in the U.S., Stewart’s food-based Instagram has attracted followers keen on learning about Afro-Caribbean cuisine.
“When I started my @TyphanieCooks journey during the height of the pandemic, I did not expect the response I got,” said Stewart, a Jamaican born American citizen currently living in Florida. “I got 1,000 new followers in the first month. And, I got a lot of positive feedback from Jamaican Americans missing home and folks from all across the United States.
With the pandemic serving as a backdrop for this emerging movement for the greater value of Black lives, Ambassador Marks said Afro-Caribbean food has become the main course for many Americans searching for connection and culture.
“The global popularity of Jamaican culture has also fostered positive sentiment towards our food,” Wehby said. “We do recognize that Jamaican culture, especially our music that celebrates social justice, remains popular with a wide cross-section of people globally. For example, inspiration can be drawn from words of the late, great Bob Marley: ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights! Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!”
Penelope Cudjoe spoke about how the fervor for racial justice has impacted her business.
“After the death of George Floyd, we have realized growth in support of the African diaspora community. There is now a diversity and inclusion program among big chain grocery stores. And, there are several grants available for minority businesses,” Cudjoe said.
With supply chain issues and inflation impacting America’s bottom line, Wehby, Cudjoe, and Reckord believe that their supply chain linkages will impact their bottom line. “We have been impacted by global supply chain challenges, including increased freight costs and delays in the supply of products, Reckord said.
However, with bold flavors at the forefront, Afro-Caribbean food quenches appetites across America. “Food from different cultures allows a greater appreciation of the diversity of the world. Food can be a way to bring people together, not only family but the wider family of humanity,”Ambassador Marks said.