Shakirah Simley: Preserving Food, Seeking Justice

by Sarah Henry on September 21, 2010 · 35 comments

in farmers' markets,food businesses,food security,fruit,urban farming

Photo: Michael Bonacore

One aspect of the food-writing world I don’t care for so much: It’s a mostly white crowd. The homogeneity doesn’t sit well with me and, I feel, is reflected in the stories I read. Where are the pieces on (and by) people representing voices from this country’s diverse ethnic communities?

So when I heard Shakirah Simley at a Kitchen Table Talks in San Francisco, I was instantly drawn to her. It’s hard not to notice this tall African-American with a cool sense of style, a sweet smile, and an impassioned, intelligent, and articulate point of view.

What a breath of fresh air. I wanted to know more about this recent transplant who started her own socially conscious artisanal jam company, Slow Jams. Her goals: To source from local farms, urban gardens, and backyards and make quality products accessible to all.

Clearly, she’s now on the media radar. A couple of months after that event, Simley and her metrosexual boyfriend Philip Clark were featured in a San Francisco story on reinvention. (When I met the 25-year-old jammer, though, I realized that she’s not really reinventing herself — which seems like a middle-aged notion anyway. This gal is just getting started.)

Then she showed up in Grist’s New Agtivist interview series, which profiles folks working to change what’s wrong with the U.S. food system. (The new column is the brainchild of the environmental site’s deputy food editor Bonnie Azab Powell.)

It was in that Q&A that I learned Simley had won a Fulbright scholarship to attend the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the culinary institute in Italy founded by Slow Food leader Carlo Petroni. In keeping with her social justice mindset, Simley plans to study who has a seat at the Slow Food table, and who is excluded based on class or race.

I wanted to learn more about this community canner who works full-time for the public health non-profit Prevention Institute, an organization based in Oakland that addresses health disparities and food inequities.

So we got together for a chat near her workplace. In true multitasking, small-business, start-up manner, Simley showed up lugging heavy boxes full of glass jars destined for the post office before she headed home to San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

The oldest of four children, Simley was the cook at home in Harlem, she tells me, while her single mom worked full-time studying to become a social worker. Growing up in a low-income neighborhood, she found it tough to get fresh and affordable produce (let alone local or organic), sowing the seeds for her interest in food security issues.

Her social activism began in earnest when she went to the University of Pennsylvania, studied cultural anthropology and urban studies, and headed up an effort to reform Penn’s curriculum to include a cross-cultural analysis requirement. She also launched a unionization and fair wage campaign with Jobs with Justice on behalf of security guards at both Penn and Temple University.

After college, she returned to New York where she served as a Human Rights Fellow and volunteered as a cooking instructor with Just Food, teaching families about eating in a local and sustainabl way. Then she and her beau decided to leave the Big Apple and give it a go in the Bay Area. That was just two years ago.

Simley taught herself to can through trial and error and decided to start a food business from scratch. She developed her own line of gourmet jams, which feature flavor pairings such as Strawberry Lavender and Vanilla Peach Conserve.

No fan of traditional condiments like mustard, mayo, and ketchup, she also makes savory preserves such as Onion Fennel Bacon Relish and Hot Pepper Jelly.

Simley’s soft launch at the first two San Francisco Underground Farmers Markets were a big hit; she sold out.

Earlier this year, Simley was accepted into La Cocina‘s incubator program in San Francisco. The non-profit organization offers business guidance and access to a commercial kitchen to female food entrepreneurs for up to five years. La Cocina provides a place for predominantly low-income Spanish speakers and other women of color to turn their home-based businesses into thriving enterprises.

Simley says the women she meets through La Cocina offer her encouragement for her own budding business. She’s particularly inspired by the efforts of  immigrant breadwinners in the program who sell authentic ethnic street eats and support their families.

She’s determined to make her business culturally accessible and relevant, without compromising quality. Simley’s done the math; she knows that’s a tall order but she’s determined to try. Her preserves (available online) have recently found a place on the shelf at Bi-Rite Market, the San Francisco gourmet grocer. The fact that, for now, her small batch jams retail for $10 a pop is something she knows is out of reach of many folks.

She’s also got stiff local competition, from the likes of veteran jam maker June Taylor, newcomer Rachel Saunders from Blue Chair, and La Cocina graduate Carolina Braunschweig of cmbsweets. “Starting a business is terrifying,” she says. “Every day I ask myself, “How am I going to do this?’ But I just stay focused on my mission and keep going.” She plans to manage the business from afar when she heads to Italy next year to study and is currently looking for someone to run the day-to-day operations while she’s abroad.

Photo: Philip Clark

Simley’s idealism and entrepreneurial spirit places her among the new generation of artisanal food purveyors with limited resources but endless energy and enthusiasm for their new businesses.

As for the recent flurry of media attention — you can get a peek at her in action in the kitchen in recently uploaded videos on CHOW — she stays grounded by remembering her mother’s words of wisdom: “Never forget where you come from and stay humble.”

In my mind, Shakirah Simley is one to watch.

What say you?

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 21, 2010 at 12:20 pm

She sounds like a lady with a mission. If I didn’t live a few thousand miles away, I’d be picking up some of her Strawberry Lavender. Sounds fabulous!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Emergency Survival Kit List


talia September 21, 2010 at 4:07 pm

you can order her jams online! deelish:


Sarah Henry September 21, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Thanks, Talia, for the show of support for Shakirah — and for the reminder that her products are available over the Internet.
(There’s a link in the post, too, should people choose to check out her online store.)


Sarah Henry September 21, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Perhaps a care package is in order, Melanie?


MarthaAndMe September 21, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Sounds terrific. I love the idea of a commercial kitchen as part of an incubator program. That is so fantastic.


Sarah Henry September 21, 2010 at 5:49 pm

I agree that the commercial kitchen is crucial to the success of these start-up businesses. There are a couple of other community kitchens in the area, which work on a different model to La Cocina, but they also offer new food purveyors a well-equipped space from which to build their food enterprises.


Sheryl September 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm

A very interesting interview. Her jams – and her mission – sound wonderful and admirable.


Sarah Henry September 21, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Thanks, Sheryl, here’s hoping Shakirah inspires other women of color to follow in her footsteps in the food biz.


Sherri September 21, 2010 at 4:02 pm

I am delighted that you featured Shakirah and Slow Jams. I had seen a video package recently about her and her approach which inspired me for the first time to try my own jam. I love her dedication to the truth in food. Thank you for reminding me.
Sherri´s last [type] ..heart-healthy steak salad possible


Sarah Henry September 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm

Hi Sherri, Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts on this post and I’m curious to hear how that jam turned out.


Dianne Jacob September 22, 2010 at 6:23 am

Hey Sarah, nice profile. You must have struggled with whether to talk about the whole “white” angle of food writing. I’m glad you did, even though you certainly could have written up Simley based on her own merits.


Sarah Henry September 22, 2010 at 7:03 am

Thanks, Dianne. And you raise a good point: Simley tells me she welcomes the day when she isn’t the only (or one of very few) persons of color creating food or attending events with an edible bent.


Liz S. September 22, 2010 at 7:43 am

Thanks for profiling this amazing woman! It is so inspiring to learn about a young woman of color being involved in this food movement and making a difference. I was very moved that you addressed the race issue head on and used your pulpit to make the point. Race and food, race and politics, race and global warming…. I could go on. Those of us who care about these issues need to speak out when we can! Thanks for your important contribution!


Sarah Henry September 22, 2010 at 9:53 am

My pulpit, is that what it is;)? Jokes aside, I do appreciate your comments, Liz.

One of my goals in reporting on food is to try and tell the stories that aren’t often covered — unlike hot restaurant openings or the new star chefs — or to approach them in a fresh way, which is what I was trying to do in this post.


Alexandra September 22, 2010 at 9:25 am

I love the way LEK brings people like Simley into my life. Thanks! I will check out her Slow Jams, a great concept!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Pearls


Sarah Henry September 22, 2010 at 9:54 am

Thanks, Sandy, in the case of people like Shakirah Simley, I am happy to share.


Jane Boursaw September 22, 2010 at 9:35 am

What a lovely interview with a lovely person. I’m taking her words with me: Stay focused on your mission, keep going.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Seven Things I Learned During the ‘Community’ Set Visit


Sarah Henry September 22, 2010 at 9:58 am

This gal has a lot of wisdom for a twentysomething, that’s for sure, Jane. And she seems really grounded, which is a rare quality in one so young. And, um, lovely & sweet too, as befits a jam maker.


MyKidsEatSquid September 23, 2010 at 2:20 am

Great details in your interview–I love that she brought packages to mail on the way to the interview. Strawberry lavendar jam sounds divine–were you able to have a sample?


Sarah Henry September 23, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Nope, not that day, wasn’t yet strawberry season…but it certainly sounds good, doesn’t it?


Susan September 23, 2010 at 10:50 am

She definitely sounds like one to watch! I think it’s awesome that so many people (young, old, and of all races) are creating businesses around food and giving us an alternative to mass-produced products.


Sarah Henry September 23, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Couldn’t agree more, Susan.


Donna Hull September 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm

What an amazing woman. I’ll be putting in an order for a jar of her pepper jelly.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..Luxury on the Farm in Sonoma’s Wine Country


Sarah Henry September 23, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Enjoy, Donna.


Stephanie - Wasabimon September 24, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Oh! Someone get this girl a book deal! She’s got platform written all over her – Slow Jam: A Bad Ass Guide to Canning.
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..The Herbfarm’s 100-Mile Dinner


Sarah Henry September 24, 2010 at 11:22 pm

You’re funny, Stephanie. But I don’t think of Shakirah as “a bad ass” more like the “sweet gal’s guide to canning”;)


Betrice Ross April 3, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Hello Shakirah,
I took your Early Spring Preserving class;Canning Intensive #2 at 18 Reasons.
I wanted to known the location where you purchased your edible flowers and vegetables. Also do you teach at other locations? I enjoyed your presentation and as the only African American women in the class I felt proud because you handled yourself with knowledge, integrity and grace…Because it’s not always easy for people of color. Hope to hear from you soon.

Warmest regards,
Beatrice Ross


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