In early December of 2019, Doreen Williams received a phone call at her home in east London. It was from a friend who wanted details about her upcoming 80th birthday party.
“Are you ready for your big bash?” the friend asked.
“My dear, I don’t know anything,” Miss Doreen chuckled. “My children told me not to get involved. They said they will handle everything. All I have to do is show up in Montserrat.”
Eventually, Miss Doreen did have to get involved. A Montserrat party is not complete without goat water — and that was her specialty. On Monday morning, December 23, 2019, she entered the kitchen at the Montserrat home of her son Franklyn, donned an apron and began preparing the national dish for her party that evening.
More than 100 guests arrived for the semi-formal celebration at the Vue Pointe Hotel. Miss Doreen’s children were there. Her brother Fred “Christo” Christopher flew in from Florida, and her brother Carlton — despite being visually impaired — made the trip from St. Thomas. Her sisters Ann, Eileen, Veronica and Agnes were present. There were countless grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Escorted by Franklyn, Miss Doreen entered the banquet room at about 8:30 p.m. to a standing ovation as the song She’s Royal blared over the speakers. She wore a gleaming smile and a shimmering purple-sequined dress, looking beautiful and at least 10 years younger than her 80 years. Later in the evening she posed for countless photos. She was like a celebrity surrounded by paparazzi. For three hours she was serenaded and celebrated.
It was a birthday party to remember.
And sadly it turned out to be Miss Doreen’s final one.
On April 13, 2020, Doreen Williams – who overcame adversity to become her family’s matriarch and a culinary icon in Montserrat – passed away in London from effects of a stroke.
The fact that her illness and death occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse. Due to travel restrictions, two of her children were unable to attend her funeral on May 18. Attendance at the service and burial was restricted due to social-distancing rules, shutting out hundreds of family and friends who wanted to pay respects in person.
But the legacy of Doreen Williams — better known as “Miss Doreen” or “Tanty Doreen” — was already complete.
A TIME OF STRUGGLE
Doreen Albertha Christopher was born Saturday, December 23, 1939. She was the fifth of 12 children born to Thomas and Mabel Christopher of Cork Hill. Mr. Christopher was a laborer and land overseer. He was also a local preacher in the Methodist church. Mrs. Christopher, the former Mabel Dyer, was a housewife.
Miss Doreen grew up in a one-bedroom house with her parents, 11 siblings and a male cousin. With more than a dozen mouths to feed, each day was an adventure. Saltfish, mackerel and red herring were often the main course and had to be stretched to accommodate the family. Some days dinner consisted only of ground provisions.
In May of 1948 when Doreen was 8 years old her father took a job as an overseer at Roaches Estate in extremely rural southeastern Montserrat and moved the family there. Doreen and three siblings – Ann, Christo and Carlton – would walk several miles barefoot through rough terrain each day to attend Bethel Primary School. The trek was so long and arduous that they often arrived at school in the middle of recess. When they reached home after school it would already be dusk.
There was no running water in Roaches Estate. The closest water source was about a mile away in Roaches Mountain. But there were lots of cows around. In fact, milk was more abundant than water.
“We used to cook with milk instead of water a lot of times,” says Christo, who is one year older than Miss Doreen.
After two years in Roaches the family returned to Cork Hill when Mr. Christopher’s assignment was over.
Miss Doreen attended St. Mary’s School and Wesley School, both in Plymouth, then Bethel School during the family’s sojourn to Roaches. She also attended Salem Primary while living for a while with her maternal aunt, Teen Dyer-Ponde. She did not attend secondary school, and any other opportunity to further her education took a hit when she became a mother at 17.
MOTHERHOOD AND BUSINESS
On September 21, 1960, Miss Doreen married Richard Williams, a laborer and taxi driver from nearby St. George’s Hill. They had six children: Anita, Edith, Melorie, Franklyn, Shaaron and Veron.
At 27, Miss Doreen had a full house. Although she could have been content being a housewife, she always had an independent streak. “She always liked to have her own money,” brother Christo says.
In 1960, William H. Bramble — Montserrat’s first Chief Minister and a Cork Hill resident — constructed about 10 two-bedroom homes for needy families in the village. The scheme, located just south of Cork Hill center, was called “Site”. Miss Doreen and Richard were awarded one of the homes. It was not a turn-key property by any means. As part of the self-help project, residents assisted in the construction of their homes.
To make ends meet in the early days, Miss Doreen sold homemade ice cream. Later on she was hired by businessman and politician Johnny Dublin to help run his small food shop in Cork Hill. She sold meat patties, ice cream and even doughnuts, a rare treat in Montserrat at the time. When Dublin opened Letts Ice Cream in Plymouth, Miss Doreen got a job as a cook at the Emerald Isle Hotel, later renamed the Montserrat Springs Hotel. It was there where her cooking skills evolved as she learned to prepare an array of entrees and desserts.
Miss Doreen decided to open her own business near the same spot as Dublin’s former shop in Cork Hill. It was called the Snackette. In 1974 the Williams family purchased the land where the Snackette was located and made plans to expand to a restaurant. Around 1976 they began laying the foundation. For assistance, they called a “maroon” — an old African and Caribbean tradition where men in the area provided voluntary labor, often in exchange for a meal.
In 1978 the first floor was finally completed. By this time the restaurant was renamed the Golden Apple. Why that name? Miss Doreen’s uncle, George Huggins, who lived nearby, had a golden apple tree in his yard. Villagers found the fruit fascinating because it is not indigenous to Montserrat. Huggins’ wife Annie convinced Miss Doreen to name her business the Golden Apple. Later on a golden apple tree was planted next to the restaurant.
Once completed, the restaurant featured a dining room, bar, plus a games area with a pool table, dartboard and TV. The next step was to add a top floor that would serve as the family’s living quarters. That took some time to complete, and some in the village derisively dubbed the building “The Dungeon”.
Even while running the business, Miss Doreen accepted side jobs. She catered weddings, church socials and other events and also cooked and baked for expatriates and tourists. In the late 1970s she was the caterer for the canteen at Radio Antilles. On a typical day she would rise early, prepare a portion of food for her own restaurant, another portion for the canteen, then drive six miles to Radio Antilles in O’Garro’s with food in tow. Her children would sell food to customers at the restaurant in Cork Hill while she served at Antilles.
“My mom was a hustler,” says Anita Benjamin, her eldest child. “She was a very hard worker. She was also very frugal. Even though she wasn’t a professional seamstress she would make our school clothes.”
In 1980, Richard Williams passed away at age 50. Miss Doreen suddenly became a widow at 40, assuming the full onus of taking care of her family. “After my dad passed, my mom became even more motivated,” says Benjamin, who says her mother completed the upstairs in 1985 and also expanded the restaurant downstairs.
The Golden Apple’s peak in the mid-to-late 1980s coincided with a flurry of tourism in Montserrat that was fueled partially by Air Studios, the world-class recording facility built by former Beatles producer Sir George Martin. The studio was just a couple miles away in Waterworks, and many famous performers dropped by the Golden Apple, including Jimmy Buffett, who penned the prophetic lyrics, I don’t know where I’m gonna go when the volcano blow. Actor Judd Hirsch of Taxi fame stopped by. So did calypso legends King Obstinate, Mighty Swallow and Short Shirt from Antigua. Whenever he visited Montserrat, the irrepressible King Obstinate would always make a grand entrance to the Golden Apple: “Doreen, me reach!”
“The Golden Apple was a fun place in those days,” recalls Daphne Christopher-Taylor, Miss Doreen’s niece and Montserrat’s Festival Queen in 1983. “I loved the pool table. I became a pool shark. I became really good and I used to win a lot. Sometimes my aunt would say, ‘OK, let some of the customers play.’ “
Friday and Saturday nights were busiest. Patrons ate, drank, slammed dominoes and played billiards while watching Dallas and Falcon Crest. Young men traveled from Salem, St. Peters and even farther villages to the Golden Apple. They were lured by the food, ambience and the fact Miss Doreen had attractive daughters and nieces. The Golden Apple was also known for its delicious hamburgers. But goat water was the signature dish. Miss Doreen inherited her goat water skill from her mom Mabel, who was once considered Cork Hill’s top goat water cook.
Miss Doreen also wasn’t afraid to venture out of her comfort zone. When her children began to visit nearby restaurant Nepco Den to purchase roti, Miss Doreen added the Indian dish to her repertoire. She prepared unique dishes such as eggplant casserole and christophine (chayote) casserole in order to diversify her menu. She also made delicious pies, especially coconut cream, blueberry and lemon meringue.
“My mom had a gift,” Franklyn Williams says.
Myrle Roach, who worked in the programming department at Radio Antilles from 1978 to ’80 during Miss Doreen’s time at the canteen, remembers her cuisine fondly.
“Her coconut cream pie was her pièce de résistance,” Roach says. “I am yet to taste one better.”
MOVE TO LONDON
The volcanic eruption in Montserrat that began in 1995 heavily impacted the Golden Apple. In the summer of 1997, Cork Hill was evacuated. Miss Doreen and much of the family relocated to England, as did more than half of Montserrat’s population. She was forced to flee the home and restaurant. She also could not collect an insurance payout because when volcanic activity started two years earlier it became virtually impossible to purchase a policy. To compound matters, vandals broke into the abandoned Golden Apple and stole equipment.
Miss Doreen took the turn of events in stride.
Said Franklyn Williams: “My mom just said, ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.’ ”
After moving to London she resumed her cooking. “We couldn’t get her out of the kitchen,” daughter Shaaron Williams-Lewis says. “I just think she really loved the fact that people enjoyed her food. And because she was such a good cook she didn’t like to eat out.”
She catered weddings, birthday parties, funeral repasts and more. She remained in high demand by transplanted Montserratians who craved her trademark goat water. And she passed on her cooking expertise to her children … though not always with perfect results.
“My mom was something else,” Shaaron says. “She could taste something and immediately tell you what ingredients are missing. One time I made Johnny cakes and she tasted one and said, ‘It’s too tough. You’re kneading the dough too much.’ ”
The move to England and the new millennium brought new challenges and also heartache to Miss Doreen. She lost her father Thomas in 2000 and elder brother Bill (Willie) in 2008. Then came the sudden death of her daughter Melorie in 2012, which sent Miss Doreen into a tailspin.
“She took it really hard,” Shaaron says. “There were a lot of pictures of Melo in my mom’s living room. After Melo died my mom never went back into that room. She used to say, ‘I’m not supposed to bury my children; my children are supposed to bury me.’ “
Around 2015, Miss Doreen began to scale back her catering jobs. The years of labor had taken a toll and she suffered severe arthritis. Although she still performed smaller jobs she finally began enjoying the fruits of her labor. She went on a Caribbean cruise. While in Puerto Rico she toured a Bacardi factory and sampled several rums, not realizing she wasn’t supposed to swallow the spirits. She returned to the ship quite tipsy as she and travel mates enjoyed a good laugh.
“We couldn’t get her out of the kitchen. I think she really loved the fact that people enjoyed her food.”Shaaron Williams-Lewis, Miss Doreen’s daughter
In 2016 she visited Cuba, and in 2018 she attended the 80th birthday party of her brother Christo in Florida. She gladly prepared the goat water for that event.
‘MOTHER TO A VILLAGE’
When asked about Miss Doreen’s legacy, family members offer differing perspectives. Her niece Daphne says her aunt’s legacy will always be her children. “They loved her to death. They would do anything for her.” Her brother Christo says he has the utmost admiration for the way Miss Doreen took care of their parents when they became elderly.
Two of her children spoke about her wider influence, especially her generosity toward the less fortunate.
“My mom has the most godchildren of anyone I know,” Shaaron says.
Added Franklyn: “My mom used to work from morning to night until her feet were swollen. I used to feel sorry for her. She used to say she wanted us to have a better life than she did. But she wasn’t just our mom, she was a mother to all the children of Cork Hill.
“She was the mother to a village.”