June 17, 2010

Chestnut Hill Dining Guide

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Great food from Trinidad at Calypso in Farmers Market

The Chestnut Hill Farmer’s Market is packed full of small stands and booths with an impressive variety of foods that arouse all of the senses. One can find codfish cakes, organic roasted chicken and carrots, Norwegian salmon, chicken in a lobster cream sauce, channa masala, tubbouleh, blackberry cabaret gelato, Ethiopian longberry harrar coffee and so much more.

And at the end of one of the middle aisles, there is a stand with a down home atmosphere run for the most part by family members who bring the spicy, sweet culture and cuisine from a tiny island located in the Caribbean Sea off the northeast tip of Venezuela.

Calypso offers traditional Trinidadian cuisine. Claudette Campbell, the main cook of what she says is her daughter’s “brainstorm, her baby,” left Trinidad for America from the Port of Spain when she was 16 years old to seek a better education. One might conclude that she found it, though not without struggle and hard work.

“When you graduate high school in Trinidad, especially at the top of your class,” she said last Saturday afternoon, “jobs are not as available to blacks as they are to Indians and Trinidadian whites. It was not so much discrimination based on color but more on social status. It’s about who you know.”

Campbell came to America at age 16, later earned her undergraduate degree from New York University and then became a licensed dietician through the New York Institute of Dietetics.

In the U.S., she noticed a different kind of discrimination from back home. In the 1960s, she went for a job interview at a Nabisco factory in New York. She took the aptitude test and was brought to meet the Vice President of the company.

“She said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you,’” said Campbell. “She said, ‘I never met anyone who scored as well as you on the test.’ Then she said if she hired me, she would lose an entire office. They would quit because I was black.”

But there was something special about Campbell. For whatever reason, the Nabisco supervisor called a number of other companies and eventually found Campbell a job at a motor vehicle accident indemnification company. “I made my way up from being a file clerk to the accounting office, and I ended up as an assistant to the department head within three months,” Campbell said.

Then she moved on. “I went wherever people offered me more money. I didn’t know the value then of staying in one place and building (a career). I continued to move around from place to place until I got fed up and opened my own business and expanded.”

Campbell made her own clothing to wear to work. After some time she began to make clothes for a few co-workers. Eventually she opened her own garment business that employed 10 workers in Queens, NY. She continued to grow her business and moved to a larger shop in Brooklyn.

Then more than 10 years ago her husband passed away. She moved to the Philadelphia area, where her children attended college, lived and worked. In May of 2009, Campbell opened Calypso in the Farmers Market at 8229 Germantown Ave. “My daughter went in to the market one day, and when she saw the space, she came to me and had this idea,” said Campbell. “She said, ‘Mom, we have to do this.’”

“There isn’t anything around here like this,” said her daughter, Iman Marcano-Sowell. “We went in on faith and a roti.”

A roti is a traditional Trinidadian dish. There are also the “doubles” which, for lack of a better description, are something like two tortillas filled with pumpkin, curry, chick peas and other Trinidadian spices.

Perhaps as pleasing as the authentic cooking is the respect one feels when speaking with Campbell and observing her interact with customers. While we sat talking outside of the farmer’s market, she said hello to a number of folks including the actor who played Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, who, according to Campbell, is a regular customer.

One woman sat down with us and insisted I try the creamed spinach. My stomach was already satiated with a “double” and homemade mango lemonade.

“You make me feel welcome here,” said Anna Smalley to Campbell as she sat with us at the table. “You make me feel like I’m going to my mother’s house.”

Donna DeSanctis came to Chestnut Hill Saturday afternoon from Bryn Mawr. “My friend told me the doubles are to die for, so I came to get some and to get my son a roti,” said DeSanctis.

Campbell soon learned that DeSanctis was from a small village called St. James near the Port of Spain in Trinidad. “We have so many regular customers,” said Campbell. “I am so grateful to everyone who supports me. I’ve made such acquaintances I never would have made sitting at home. And there were times when it was like, what are we doing here. But my daughter just said, ‘Keep cooking. It’s not your money.’

“I’ve always known working for a dollar. Hard work pays off. A good education will take kids farther than any amount of money. If you give them money, they squander it. If you give them education, it lasts a lifetime. I’m up at 4 a.m. brainstorming about this every day.

“Growing up in Trinidad, we didn’t have restaurants available to us like in the U.S. Everyone cooked. My dad died when I was three. My mom worked. From her I learned how to budget, clean, cook and buy. And then you take something and make it better. I am a very good cook, and my goods will show you.”

“We want to expand to 10 or 12 tables,” said Marcano-Sowell, who works as an import specialist but thinks her future may involve a bigger Calypso. “I think when you sit down in the atmosphere of a place, you absorb more of the culture. Not only through food but through visuals and sound as well. We want to transport you to Trinidad minus the airfare.”

“I’m very very happy,” said Campbell. “If life got any better, I couldn’t handle it. I’m enjoying the best days of my life. I’m really, really comfortable, honestly.”

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