The lunch menu at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul looks similar to any other high school’s—full of things like corn dogs and pizza, those few cafeteria staples that satisfy both the kids’ appetites and the state’s nutritional requirements.
Except Wednesdays are different. Just before noon, the aroma of garlic, ginger, turmeric, and thyme starts wafting down the hall, through the gym, up the stairs, into the classrooms, tempting between 100 and 150 students and teachers to a menu that looks straight out of a seaside shack on a windswept Caribbean island.
“We’re the only school in the state to have Caribbean Wednesdays,” beams Sharon Richards-Noel, the chef behind the longtime St. Paul enterprise West Indies Soul Food. “The kids love it spicy. When I first started I was doing jambalaya, and they were like, The kids won’t eat that. Oh they love it. They love ranch and they love spice. Ranch goes on everything, and everything I cook, it’s Where’s the hot sauce? and I’m like, It don’t need hot sauce! But they love it. Some of them call me Auntie. Thank you, Auntie.”
Before she brought her curries to the cafeteria, Sharon had been spreading the love of island food around the Twin Cities for decades—in a restaurant at University and Dale, and later at Midtown Global Market; from her bright orange food truck at community events like Grand Old Days and Festival of Nations; through her catering business, and at the Minnesota State Fair serving jerk-spiced pork chops-on-a-stick in the International Bazaar.
But years before any of that, an eight-year-old Sharon walked into her mother’s kitchen in Trinidad. Surrounded by her aunties, who were all speaking in patois that she couldn’t understand, she sauntered in, wearing her mother’s high heels, trying to reach the stove and help with the cooking. She’d watch her mom sell homemade coconut fudge from her corner store. She’d watch her aunties make tooloom, a kind of molasses coconut cake. She helped raise chickens and turkeys, but wouldn’t (and still won’t) eat the goats.
“My dad was a butcher,” she says. “He’d take a big pork shank or pork shoulder, and take it to one of his friends, and they’d inject it with stuff, and cure it, and that was ham. That was bomb. I miss Trinidad. I try to go home twice a year and eat my food.”
What food was that? At breakfast, it was most definitely doubles of curried chickpeas wrapped in roti. Later in the day, in the sun and the swelter, she’d happen upon a sno-cone vendor—she’d have cherry, with sweetened condensed milk drizzled on top.
“When I came here, I needed food food. So now on Saturdays, when I’m home, I cook. I make food food.”
– Sharon Richards-Noel
“On a Saturday, we’d get dasheen bush [taro leaves], cook them with coconut milk and seasoning, cut up some pig tail, boil it a little so it’s nice and tender, and with rice? Woo!” She slaps her hands together and smiles at the memory. “When I came here, I needed food food. So now on Saturdays, when I’m home, I cook. I make food food.”
Food food? She repeats the phrase often as she makes curry chicken for our lunch. Food food. The food that’s more than food. What else is it? A lot of things. Ingenuity. Remembrance. Tradition. Patience. Nourishment. Love. Soul.
Sharon had just finished high school in Trinidad when she was convinced by her sister, who was attending St. Kate’s, that St. Paul was the place to be. Sharon had only ever seen snow on television—surely a town full of it must be some kind of wonderland. Instead, she arrived in a land of biting cold and terrible Chinese food, a land so very far away, both geographically and metaphorically, from the days of running down the hill to see a line of people at the overflowing storm drain and washing her hair in the tepid Caribbean rain.
But she put up with the cold. She improvised workarounds for the Caribbean ingredients she couldn’t find. She went through the culinary program at Saint Paul College, and began a years-long quest to bring food food to St. Paul.
“When I first opened [West Indies Soul Food] on Dale and University, I was a little nervous, ‘cause that was the hood, that’s where the drug dealers were at,” she recalls. “You don’t want to have a restaurant there. But that was my best restaurant. I had the drug dealers in there. They wouldn’t even be cursing, they’d eat the food and say, ‘Okay, Auntie, see you next time.’ We’d have legislators from the state come in, all these people with money and class, sitting down, them and the drug dealers, sitting down, eating. That was my best restaurant.”
In that restaurant, she was helped by her son Emanual, her oldest son, high-spirited and fun-loving. He’d clean the restaurant. He fed homeless people with the restaurant’s leftovers. One time he ran away from home for a couple days, and he came back with another guy, and he told this guy to take the bed. “I’m happy with the way I raised my kids,” Sharon says. “I raised them to understand that whatever you have, there’s someone out there that has less, so share what you have. Always make your home open to other people.”
Sharon remembers how badly Emanual wanted her to have the booth at the State Fair, and it was Emanual who answered the phone when they finally called. Emanual passed away in a car accident the spring before her first Fair, “but the blessing, though,” she says, smiling, “is he had two girls, and they come here every summer and help work the Fair.”
During the Fair a few years ago, one of the many visitors to her booth was David “TC” Ellis, the longtime Prince collaborator, founder of HSRA, and a friend of Sharon’s brother. He asked Sharon, who at the time had a great job cooking at St. Thomas, to come check out the state of their lunch program. She learned that over 86 percent of HSRA students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 30 percent are (or have recently been) homeless. She says that made it an easy decision to come aboard, and she’s since been known to throw a wrench into the school’s schedule—feeding breakfast to late comers, or keeping lunch service open late to make sure the kids are fed. “If they need a meal, I feed ‘em.”
Sharon goes into her own pocket in her duties as lunchtime facilitator—the state reimburses her $3.29 per student per meal, while her costs are closer to $5.75. But the deal is a good one: she has a rent-free kitchen, where she can prep food for her catering business, food truck, and booth at the State Fair. She’ll even hire a few kids from school to help out during the busy season.
She sautees her curry spice mixture in vegetable oil, and we can instantly imagine the torture of sitting through math class with that smell beckoning you to the kitchen. Her spice blend is a mixture of Madras curry (popular in Trinidad) with Blue Mountain curry (popular in Jamaica) and turmeric as well. “I mix ‘em. I don’t just use one curry, I use three curries. People ask, ‘How your food taste like that?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ But I do know,” she says with a wry smile. “Just kidding.”
She mixes in green beans with the spiced chicken, fluffs up some white rice, and for the first time ever, I’m eating food food in a high school.
Sharon will continue to find ways to nourish, to feed our collective soul. She hopes to direct the profits from her line of West Indies Soul Hot Sauces (barbecue, jerk, hot pepper, available at Festival Foods stores) into a foundation that teaches life skills to young kids in the community. The photo of her and Emanual on the bottles shows her in a full-throated laugh—perhaps a truer representation of her than the pictures attached to this article let on.
This is Sharon—culinary entrepreneur, beloved St. Paulite, high school lunch lady. But on that bottle, that’s Sharon Sharon—our Auntie.
Recipe for Sharon Richards-Noel’s Trinidad-Style Curry Chicken
12 chicken drumsticks
1 bunch cilantro (leaves and stems)
1 bunch scallions
Several sprigs chadon beni (culantro), to taste
A few cloves of garlic
Hot chili pepper (habanero, or similar), to taste
Fresh ginger, grated
4 tablespoons cooking oil
Vegetables of choice
Potatoes (reds or Yukon golds), peeled,chopped in 1-inch cubes
Green beans, or other, to taste
1-inch knob of ginger, grated
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup cilantro
1 hot chili pepper (habanero, or similar)
2 tablespoons curry powder (Madras curry recommended)
Long grain rice (basmati or jasmine)
Chadon beni (chopped) for garnish
Prepare the marinade by combining cilantro, chadon beni, scallions, garlic, hot pepper, and ginger in a food processor, and pulsing until well combined. Season with a healthy pinch of adobo.
Wash the drumsticks, and peel and remove their skin down to the knobs. With a cleaver, chop the very top off the drumsticks, checking to remove any little chipped bone pieces, and wash them once more. Place the drumsticks in a large bowl, rub the marinade all over, and let rest in the fridge for an hour.
Set a large skillet or heavy pot with the cooking oil over medium heat. Add a clove or so worth of minced garlic, until it just starts to brown. Add the marinated chicken and brown on all sides, in batches if necessary. Pour 1 cup of water over all the browned chicken, bring to a simmer, turn the heat to low, and simmer the chicken for 45 minutes, topping with more water if necessary.
With about 20 minutes left on the simmer, add the potatoes. Add any other choice vegetables (green beans are great) as desired as the potatoes get tender, in the last 10 or so minutes of the simmer.
When the chicken and vegetables are done simmering and the water has reduced, add the onion, rest of the garlic, ginger, cilantro, and hot pepper to a food processor and pulse until just combined (alternatively, mince them all with a knife and combine in a bowl.) Add mixture to the chicken and saute for a few minutes. Push the chicken, vegetables, and aromatics to one side of the pan, and add a little more oil (or better yet, some Golden Ray Margarine) and saute the curry powder in the oil until very fragrant, about 45 seconds. Stir it all together and season with sazón and adobo as desired.
Plate the chicken over long grain rice, spooning the sauce over the chicken, and garnishing with freshly chopped chadon beni.