Indigenous·Black Prairies

Identity on a plate: Caterer embraces her Anishinaabe-Jamaican roots through food

Melissa Brown is an Ojibway-Jamaican woman who fell in love with cooking at the age of four. Now the small business owner blends the two cultures into a unique cooking style and is giving customers a taste of something new.

Melissa Brown combines her 2 cultures to create something new

Melissa Brown is the owner of Winnipeg catering company Brownee's Urban Bistro. Her bannock is a hit among Black and Indigenous communities in Winnipeg. (John Einarson/CBC)

This story is part of the Black on the Prairies project, a collection of articles, personal essays, images and more, exploring the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Enter the Black on the Prairies project here.

Melissa Brown fell in love with cooking at the age of four. Now the Anishinaabe-Jamaican small business owner blends her two cultures into a unique cooking style, giving customers a taste of something new.

Brown was raised by a single mother who is Anishinaabe from Red Lake, Ont. Her mother grew up in the bush with no running water and often cooked over the fire.

"My mom would cook a lot of stews, a lot of meats, fish, just stuff she was familiar with growing up. You know, nothing too extravagant," said Brown.

Brown's father is Jamaican and met her mother while living in Winnipeg in the 1980s.

While Brown said her relationship with her father growing up was "sporadic" and "inconsistent," she travelled with him to Jamaica for a month when she was 12. That is when she was introduced to a whole new culture and a new way of looking at food.

"It was definitely a culture shock," said Brown.

"Their way of life, their openness — they're very outspoken. You'd see people dancing on the street, music playing loud."

While in Jamaica she was introduced to jerk chicken, plantains and breadfruit cooked on an open fire.

It wasn't until she took a break from university that she was able to start experimenting with her cooking style.

"That year I started cooking and I started studying more of Indigenous cultural foods, because I had a year to do nothing," said Brown.

"That's when I delved into Jamaican foods and Indigenous food and I fell in love with my passion for cooking."

Winnipeg’s Melissa Brown grew up without strong connections to some parts of her Ojibwe and Jamaican identities. When she rediscovered her lifelong passion for cooking, Melissa inadvertently found the vehicle she needed to reconcile her two ancestries.

Today she caters in Winnipeg. She said that her plates — and especially her bannock — are a hit with the Indigenous and Black communities.

Brown grew up in Winnipeg's west end. She said her mom spoke Anishinaabemowin and was shy in comparison with the family she met in Jamaica.

Brown was raised culturally as an Anishinaabekwe and had some difficulty connecting to her Jamaican identity.

"All my friends were Indigenous and if they weren't, they were half-Black, half-Native like me,"  said Brown. "There were a lot of us growing up in the west end, but we all saw each other as Indigenous because our mothers were."

She said it took a while for her to feel proud of being an Indigenous woman, because she was constantly reminded of all of the troubles that Indigenous people face.

Melissa Brown has studied Indigenous and Jamaican cuisine and combines them in her catering. She said she is grateful to have the support of her community in Winnipeg. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

She said learning about cooking has helped her develop an appreciation for her unique roots.

"The more I became educated, the more I started to find my culture with the cooking."

Now a mother of three, she dreams of opening a kitchen co-op and is passing down teachings to her sons.

"I'm just trying to raise them to be prideful in who they are."

The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.



Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1