Sitting down with the enticing aromas of baking breads wafting about her and sipping some of her own exquisite freshly made lemonade is a rare occurrence for North Side stalwart Zelmalee Francis Ebanks – sitting down idly, that is.
This modest 66-year-old, who is the matriarch of a family well-known for its farming prowess and efforts toward whistling duck conservation, is used to making every hour of every day work for her. Yet Mrs. Ebanks, who recently earned the Cayman Islands Certificate and Badge of Honour for her years of service in both education and culinary culture, still finds time for family.
She spends a large chunk of every Friday prepping for dishes that go on sale the next day at the Market at the Grounds, according to news release issued by the Cayman Islands Government Information Service. Then, the retired educator and thriving culinary entrepreneur is up at 1am on Saturdays to cook and take her signature Caymanian fare to Lower Valley.
Far from being overwhelmed by the sheer number of dishes she prepares, including conch, beef, Cayman rabbit and pork, Mrs. Ebanks, better known as “Miss Lee-Lee”, notes that she had stopped serving fish and fritters for a while, but ”I plan to start serving that dish again,” she comments.
So what concessions does she make to acknowledge that she is a senior citizen now and has had a brush with heart disease?
“I do more managing of the business,” she concedes.
Two helpers assist with the cooking, which include baked goods such as exotic mango bread, traditional Caymanian heavy cakes, jams, jellies and other preserves, all under the Cayman Exotics label.
Additionally, fresh fruit juices and smoothies are available from the family’s Willie’s Fresh Fruit and Juices outlet in Red Bay. Besides these two locations, they also sell during the market at Camana Bay on Wednesdays, where they offer local fruits, vegetables, tubers, preserves and baked goods, including coconut drops and tarts, plantain tarts, cookies, peppermint candy and fresh fruit smoothies.
Blessed with a marriage now spanning 43 years, it is clear that she and her husband, William Ebanks, – a second-generation career-farmer, pig and chicken breeder and a legend in the Caymanian agricultural landscape – still inspire each other. Certainly they have made a remarkable success of their joint farming business.
She is proud that her husband, better known as “Mr. Willie”, still takes time off from his busy days to teach about farming and agriculture to the countless students who visit their 50-acre farm on field trips.
Yet it was her frugality that prompted them to venture into Cayman Exotics. The farm produces a rich bounty of seasonal fruit that she couldn’t bear to see going to waste. Soon her jams and preserves began to grace local markets and supermarket shelves.
While she undoubtedly enjoys the life that she and her husband have built, Mrs. Ebanks’ first love when it came to careers was education. This eldest daughter of six children went off to Jamaica to study education on a government scholarship.
She returned to be a teacher in Cayman Brac, then for 16 years at the North Side school, where she taught all ages in all subjects. After that, she moved to East End Primary, where she became the principal and continued to teach for another 16 years.
Juggling career, family and the demands of her emerging business, Mrs. Ebanks also found time to continue her learning, earning a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Miami.
During this time, she recalls having to attend five parent teacher associations regularly when her oldest child was in high school, the next in middle school and the two youngest in primary school. Losing their youngest son at 17 shook the family to the core, but also brought them even closer.
Now her sights are set on another accomplishment – to write a Caymanian cookbook that combines her recipes with those of her inspiration, her “Aunt Phyllis”, whom Mrs. Ebanks credits with creating many new dishes that she often got to test-taste. Explaining her wish to share her own culinary expertise, she quips, “Once a teacher, always a teacher.”