‘That’s how we lived’

An interview with John Jefferson Sr.

John Jefferson Sr. demonstrating the cooking skills he has honed over many years.

A man who grew up in 1920s Cayman couldn’t hold back the tears, recalling fond memories of the island in days gone by.

“It was the most beautiful and happiest time of my life,” said 92-year-old John Jefferson Sr., born 12 Aug., 1927, in West Bay.

Jefferson dropped into Compass Media, wanting to share his story of living in Cayman many years ago, which included becoming a Christian at 8 years old; hunting turtles near Swan Island when the Germans were sinking British ships; becoming a Legislative Assembly member; and wowing people with Chef John’s succulent barbecue chicken and pork ribs, which he credits on good service, the visitor’s stamp of approval and his secret recipe.

Jefferson, who resides in West Bay, still has that special bond and love for a place in which he spent his formative years.

He remembers his mother and father being Christians and joining them at early morning prayer meetings. At age 8, Jefferson became a Christian and a member of the West Bay Wesleyan Christian Church.

“It was a beautiful time in the prayer meetings as the elderly in the community gathered to pray,” he said. “They made me a part of the congregation and groomed me until I became a song leader at age 16. It was the happiest time in my life,” Jefferson said.

The choir singing was like an explosion taking place ‘…such a joyful time’, he said. “Church was very important in Cayman society those days,” he added.

Jefferson’s father George and mother Ethelyn had seven children. Theirs was a happy home. Jefferson’s father was a sea captain and his mother a housekeeper, taking care of the children.

Jefferson had seven children of his own with his first wife Norma. They were John, Norma Jean, George, John Paul, Robert, Sarah and Betty. He married Merline in later years.

Jefferson said they were poor, growing up those days. When his mother ran out of sugar, cornmeal or flour, she would send him over the neighbour’s house to borrow some.

“That’s how we lived,” he said.

“We didn’t have anything else but each other and there was unity among our people even though there were no great things like we have today, but we were a happy people,” he said.

Word of mouth was just as good as money those days, he said.

“We didn’t need no banks – a mouth-to-mouth agreement was quite sufficient and everybody was in unison,” he said.

Jefferson thinks sometimes we’re not happy now like then, but he is still grateful for what we do have.

“I hope this generation realises that what we’re enjoying today is the price that was paid for by the older generation,” he said.

Jefferson is also praying for leadership in the government.

“Our leaders have a tremendous responsibility for a land we never had and in relation to what we are facing. I am glad that we were living in a free land in a world that is filled with turmoil and grief,” he said.

Christianity, he said was one of the greatest things that made us what we are.

“My grandfather was a fisherman and farmer and never said ‘no’ to those that came seeking help,” he said. Jefferson served eight years in the Legislative Assembly. During his time there, he was instrumental in establishing government’s Planning Department.

For his expertise as a chef, Jefferson credits American chef Gibbons while working at the Weather Bureau compound on Swan Island, and his love of books for his cooking knowledge.

With cooking experience that spans over 70 years, Jefferson started as executive chef in 1966 at the old Galleon Beach hotel. His ribs and chicken were the popular finger-licking outdoor food and big seller at that time.

After 20 years of preparing Chef John’s specialty, Jefferson tried his hand at selling insurance, but not for very long.

He also opened a modern fast-food restaurant in the old Pagoda restaurant that was once located on West Bay Road.

When that failed, he went back into barbecuing in his district of West Bay.

A reverend in the church today, Jefferson said it’s been a happy time, all because God has blessed him. He’s hardly been ill, still on his feet and not finished yet.

“When I get a stroke on the beach, I’m going to call the master to pick me up,” he said.

His greatest wish is to see us unite as a people.

“Since we are one of the freest counties in the world, I want to see us continue to grow better in relationships and as we deal with business, and that the government continues to look out for our people.

“God put us where we are and don’t you forget God,” he said.

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