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Chicagoan Danielle Tubbs didn’t set out to be a Caribbean cookie baker. Born to a Jamaican immigrant mother and African American father, Tubbs, 34, grew up in Miami surrounded by her grandma, aunts, and about 50 cousins.
“I was definitely spoiled growing up. Every meal was a good meal,” she says.
Her mom, Sora, grew up in the mountains near Kingston, Jamaica, then spent 20 years in Cleveland “and learned all the soul food recipes. [At] Thanksgiving, there’d be greens, but also callaloo,” a traditional braise of amaranth, a leafy green native to Jamaica.
From as early as she can remember, Tubbs’ mom, Aunt Sybil, and grandmother each baked specialty cakes for the community. “My mom would do a rum cake…like a pound cake with nuts on top and some good rum butter in there,” Tubbs says, and her aunt made black cake, a smooth, dark fruit cake packed with pureed dried fruits that had been soaked in buckets with dark rum and wine for two years.
Her favorite treat, her grandma’s sweet potato pudding, was made with coconut milk and ginger, plus grated Jamaican white-fleshed sweet potatoes. At holidays, she remembers, every surface in their home’s busy kitchen and dining room would be covered with cake pans and mixing bowls.
“They had me sifting dry ingredients and I hated it. I just wanted to be watching Nickelodeon,” she says.
Tubbs didn’t start baking on her own until she graduated from college with a sociology degree and moved to Chicago in 2011 to work in non-profit education. Her reluctant childhood kitchen immersion transformed into a not-so-hidden talent when her co-workers started requesting birthday cakes.
“They’d say, ‘Hey, Danielle, so-and-so really loves peanut butter and blueberries and whatever. What can you do?’ I’d do research and start Frankensteining [ingredients] together and it just became a fun hobby for me,” she recalls.
Eventually, her vegan friend asked her to make her baking more inclusive for a variety of diets. She started experimenting and creating baked goods for more restricted diets, but everything had to pass her strict taste test—hence the name of her company, Tubby’s Taste. Over time she realized that cookies made the best medium for her flavor infusions, and they were also more efficient to ship. Simultaneously, she started taking entrepreneurship classes while still working full-time.
She developed a line of soft, chewy vegan cookies in flavors that reflect her Jamaican roots. Caribbean Punch, a citrusy play on the spiced hibiscus Christmas drink called sorrel, is packed with grapefruit sugar and pineapple. Taste of Paradise, a coconut, oat, and cinnamon combo, is inspired by her grandma’s filling after-school oat shakes. Island Spice is deeply, satisfyingly infused with a big dose of ginger and molasses.
Tubbs quit her day job in 2018, and her other two “side hustles” (a nanny-share gig and a job teaching entrepreneurship to high schoolers) ended during the pandemic.
“I felt like a dynamic person that didn’t have a lot of dynamic things happening in her life,” Tubbs says.
Now her baking side hustle has become her main source of income since the pandemic, and she employs a part-time baker to crank out the cookies. “Coming from an immigrant family, this was the dream,” she says. A big break came when she was featured in an article on Black-owned vegan businesses in Veg Out in September 2020. Over 500 orders poured in after the story was published.
Tubby’s Taste cookies are now available at several Chicago farmers and independent markets and in the freezer section of local Mariano’s and Kroger’s stores. Given Tubbs’ reluctant participation in the kitchen as a child, her Miami relatives get a kick out of her successful baking venture.
“They think it’s kind of funny, but they are also like ‘Wow, you were really watching all that time!’”
Tubbs and I recently visited the Caribbean American Bakery, a Jamaican food standby in Chicago’s Rogers Park, to check out their bakery case full of authentic breads, snacks and sweets. Loaves of hardough bread were stacked high behind the counter.
“Hardough bread is so good,” says Tubbs. “I ended up having to sacrifice some of my hardough bread in elementary school because…my mom is [the] sandwich queen. So I would show up with sandwiches on this hardough bread and [other kids] would trade me Little Debbies for halves. [Hardough bread is] very dense, but it's delicious.”
Once her mom found out about the popularity of her sandwiches, she started sending two to school every day: one for Danielle, and one to share with her classmates.
Also on offer at the Caribbean American Bakery: coco bread, the soft sweet buns meant to be used as wrappers for the flaky meat patties sold at the bakery; spiced bun, a round, sweet loaf typically eaten with processed cheese from a can (available at the bakery); and bulla cake, deep brown with molasses and spice. “In my family,” says Tubbs, “we ate bulla bread with pear; ‘pear’ is what we call avocado.”
Sweets include gizzada, a coconut tart, as well as sweet and chewy coconut drops and bread pudding. The shop also stocks Jamaican staples like Ting (grapefruit soda) and Kola (champagne soda), plus the Excelsior water crackers that Tubbs grew up dipping in her sweet milky tea at grandma’s breakfast table.
Tubbs says bakeries like Caribbean American are common in Miami’s Caribbean neighborhoods and on her ancestral island. On our Saturday afternoon visit, a steady stream of customers flowed in and out, grabbing white cardboard boxes of patties and ordering jerk dinners from the kitchen pickup window.
“In Jamaica,” says Tubbs, “no one is making patties and bread at home. You go to the bakery, you go to the patty shop. The other day my Jamaican Uber driver told me about a snack shop and I left him so many bags of my cookies!”