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.
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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