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January 7, 2021

In this issue: Remembering Joe Neal | The Taste of Yaad | Media Sommelier

THE FIRST DAY of the new year brought the news of the death of Joe Neal, Nevada’s first Black state senator, at age 85. The first Monday of the new year also brought news of MGM Resorts offering $11 billion to take over the British gaming company Entain. If you heard thunder overhead, it was Neal, reacting.

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Joe Neal was, hands down, the most liberal member of the Nevada Legislature for the 32 years he served in Carson City. When the state senate numbered 20, the Democrat learned his nickname was "Ol’ Nineteen-to-One." He didn’t mind being the lone dissenter, but he also knew how to get things done, and he did.

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Neal was born in a sharecropping family in Louisiana in 1935 and first came to Las Vegas after graduating from high school. He served in the military and graduated from Southern University in Louisiana before returning to Las Vegas in the early 1960s. He ended up spending many years as a compliance officer at REECO, a Nevada Test Site contractor. He also immersed himself in the fight for civil rights being waged by a cadre of shrewd leaders, especially in Southern Nevada. He ran unsuccessfully for the Nevada Legislature twice before, in 1971, lobbying for a reapportionment that would create districts where Black candidates would have a chance. He then won his state Senate race.

Neal had no problem with taking unpopular stands. His reaction to MGM’s recent bid can be imagined because he was long the Legislature’s only advocate of raising taxes on gambling revenue. He dissented from most Nevada leaders — especially his fellow Democrats — on the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain as well; his Test Site experience influenced his thinking, as did the idea that the repository would generate money and jobs. In that way, Neal was very much an old-fashioned New Deal Democrat, believing strongly in more and better-paying work for Nevadans, but also a 1960s-style civil rights advocate who had no sympathy with the ideas behind the Reagan Revolution.

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Those rights went beyond the Black community. He backed the Equal Rights Amendment, which went down to defeat in Nevada in the 1970s, until its approval in the 2019 session. He pushed through the first legislation to restore the rights of ex-felons, and others ultimately followed suit. It took him many years of pushing before Nevada finally joined in celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday in 1983, but he and his allies succeeded.

Neal also deserves to be remembered for something that might be expected of a liberal, but not necessarily of one known mainly for his advocacy of civil rights and economic opportunity. In November 1980, a fire at the MGM Grand (now Bally’s) killed 87. Neal chaired the state Senate committee that would address fire codes and similar issues, and the resort industry balked at doing much. Then, in February, a fire at the top of the Las Vegas Hilton (now the Westgate) killed eight. Working with other lawmakers, Neal put together legislation that made Nevada a model for fire safety in its hotels, from inspections to sprinklers.

All of which leads to two points. One is that Neal made Nevada a better place, and tried to make it an even better place than that. Whether he was right in his approach or views, his motives were clear: a more equal and just society for all.

The other point is that he understood how to play the game. He kept his elbows sharp to use when necessary, whether at the Legislature or in West Las Vegas politics (and don’t assume the Black community or the civil rights warriors were and are always united — far from it). But he also could cut a deal. That was brought home to a naïve historian who was interviewing a onetime legislative colleague of Neal’s, Hal Smith, a Henderson Republican and longtime businessman. Smith recalled Friday afternoons in Carson City when the Southern Nevada delegation wanted to get home. Jack Jeffrey, a Henderson Democrat and a longtime floor leader, had a large Cadillac, and Smith said the first six to pile in with him went home together. He laughed and said, “When you have to drive 400 miles with Joe Neal sitting in your lap, you learn to compromise.”

Neal learned, all right. And he taught. He was a pioneer in other ways. In 2002, he became the first Black major party nominee for governor. One of his key campaign issues was to raise the tax on gambling revenue, which he had long advocated, through a legislative vote or ballot initiative, to fund the social programs he felt Nevada desperately needed. On the one hand, many other Democrats had little to no inclination to support someone so obviously to the left and not leagued with them against Yucca Mountain. On the other hand, Republican Kenny Guinn was running for a second term and had the support of all of the state’s financial powers. It was an opportunity for Democrats — both voters and the party establishment — to stake out different ground. They chose not to take it, and Neal, predictably, lost.

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Neal lived to see John L. Smith publish his biography, entitled with one of his nicknames: The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice. No dispute there: He fought hard and long.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.

Read and hear more

  • In the August 2014 issue of Desert Companion, Joe Neal recalls fighting for civil rights in the South as a young lawyer. He knew how to defend himself, both in and out of the courtroom. (Scroll down for Neal's part of the feature.)
  • At KNPR's State of Nevada, listen to John L. Smith's reflections on Joe Neal's legacy as a Nevada lawmaker. "No one was really all that interested in seeing Black and brown faces at the Legislature. Joe Neal changed that in the state Senate forever when he was elected," Smith says.
  • Listen to an interview with John L. Smith about his biography of Neal, The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal's Lifelong Fight for Social Justice. “I don’t think there is any question that a fair accounting of his career shows emphatically that Joe Neal, beginning in the early 1970s, demanded a focus on the community that was unprecedented in those times in politics,” Smith says.

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ONE OF THE FEW bright spots for the culinary scene in 2020 has been how chefs are innovating to serve their dishes and connect with diners in the new normal. Ryan and Shanice DiMaria’s Yaad Patty is almost exclusively sold through social media. (At least until they get their mobile trailer up and running.)

With that description, it sounds like the kind of niche, makeshift business you might find in New York City or Portland, Los Angeles, or Austin. But this is another culinary gem right here in Las Vegas. The story begins in Michigan, where DiMaria, now 29, was working in a hotel kitchen. A college student from Jamaica named Shanice, now 27, was on an educational exchange that placed her at the same hotel. You can imagine what happened next.

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In 2015, the couple, now married, moved to Las Vegas, where Shanice could advance her career as a computer programmer while her husband began working in some of the best restaurants in the city, namely Shawn McClain’s Sage and Libertine Social (two casualties of the pandemic) and James Trees’ Esther’s Kitchen.

But Ryan always wanted his own business, and Shanice missed the taste of home. So Yaad Patty was born. “We came here and saw a few Jamaican restaurants and a Jamaican food truck,” says Shanice, who grew up in Trewlany, a parish (think government municipality, not church) on the northwest side of the island. “I was so excited because I saw they had patties and I tried them. They were alright, but it just wasn’t right. There was something wrong. Either the dough wasn’t right or the flavor of the meat inside wasn't right or the texture of the meat, it just wasn't right. No matter where I went, I just couldn't get it how I got it back home in Jamaica.”

That’s not to say that the DiMarias cracked the patty code right away. “It took at least a year-and-a-half to get it right,” Ryan says.

The stakes were higher than you might think. While Jamaican patties might not be mainstream in Las Vegas, they’re beloved by many expat Jamaicans, not to mention people who grew up with them in cities like New York or Miami. “Growing up, patties are a go-to meal,” Shanice sa

ys. “In Jamaica, there wasn’t any fast food per se, like you know how you have Burger King or KFC as your own? In Jamaica, our fast food is patties. For regular, day-to-day Jamaicans, there are patty shops. You can get patties really quickly. They are so delicious  and so filling. Everybody loves patties.” (For the record, more patties and less KFC sounds damn good.)

But the dough, the dough, the dough. That was the main problem the couple ran into when trying to recreate the flavors of Shanice’s youth. At their best, Jamaican patties offer a flaky crust that envelopes a bold filling like beef with a hint of Scotch bonnet peppers or curried chicken. It might look simple, but executing the pocket is hard.

“There are a lot of layers involved with the dough,” Ryan explains. “That's what gives it the flakiness and the crunch, and the method of how it's made is what brings it together. Getting the dough worked down to get the nice flakiness but not have it be too tough or too chewy or too crispy—”

Shanice interjects: “First it was too greasy, another time it was too thin. We kept at it and kept developing it and it improved and improved.” Patty achievement unlocked. Along with the traditional beef and curried chicken patties, Yaad Patty also offers two vegan options — one with Beyond Meat and Scotch bonnet, and the other with a vegetable medley that includes spinach, peas, carrots, and collard greens.

After getting the patties right, the couple felt the next step was jerk chicken, which features spices imported from Jamaica and, just as important, the cooking method known as “jerk,” which required Ryan to rig up a homemade, traditional-style jerk vessel. It is through the jerk technique (the chef creates holes in the protein so the flavor can run deep) and the spice blend redolent of Scotch bonnet peppers, brown sugar, ginger, clove, and allspice that the sweet, smoky heat of jerk shines through. Not only is the food tasty, but it’s also affordable. You can get an entire jerk chicken, four patties of your choice, plus slaw and dinner rolls for $32. And, get this, he delivers to your door.

And the name Yaad Patty? Shanice explains, " Yaad means home, pretty much. If I see another Jamaican here, I'll say, ‘Hey, are you a yaad girl?’ ‘Oh, you're a yaadie.’ So yaad in Jamaican means home.”

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1. AS I WRITE THIS, the nation’s Capitol is being invaded by pro-Trump extremists. It’s hard to look away from the crazy images spilling into my social media feeds long enough to type a whole sentence. But you know who doesn’t have time for Twitter, though? Las Vegas funeral-home workers. COVID-19, apparently, has them so busy they’re using refrigerated trucks to accommodate excess capacity. This grim news — along with L.A. County’s current advice to paramedics — has me thinking about the piece of pandemic journalism that’s marked me the most deeply: The New Yorker’s feature, “ April 15, 2020: A Coronavirus Chronicle.” In chilling detail, more than two dozen correspondents related scenes unfolding over 24 hours at the height of the pandemic’s siege of the city. It’s stark and — apologies — breathtaking, in the gut-punch sense of the word. And I fear it’s what Las Vegans should prepare for, as our neighbors in Los Angeles are finding themselves in scenes similar to those described by New Yorkers, eight long months ago.

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2. Speaking of breath and L.A., kudos to the Los Angeles Times’ Kiera Feldman for pulling off an amazing feat of investigative reporting while her newspaper (along with the rest of the news business) struggles to stay afloat. “ We Are Slowly Being Poisoned” reveals not only why the air inside planes smells funny, but also how (surprisingly frequent) acute instances of the phenomenon are sickening passengers and airline workers alike. In classic “sunshine-is-the-best-disinfectant” style, the piece shows how those in power know about the problem but refuse to do anything about it… so they can keep making money off those sickened. And the straightforward readability of the story belies the countless hours of work that go into spelling out a complicated subject accurately and completely. If you want to make sure reporters like Feldman can keep doing work such as this, then you won’t mind stopping by the subscription page while you’re on the Times’ website.

3. Returning to COVID for a moment, here’s some news that, while not “good” per se, at least warms the heart. In Popular Science’s “Meet the nurse who’s running a Texas COVID-19 clinic all her own,” writer Tara Santora introduces readers to Elizabeth Ellis, who, like many rural nurses, is her region’s literal lifeline, filling all the basic healthcare needs of patients within 40 minutes of her tiny clinic. Check out her average day: “During the pandemic, Ellis has been seeing patients for their routine health needs in the morning. In the late afternoon, she moves outdoors to screen COVID-19 cases. Patients with virus-like symptoms drive up to the clinic’s parking lot … Before and after the clinic hours, she pays house calls to patients who are too sick to leave or who don’t have transportation.” Meanwhile, Ellis struggles with all the usual problems of rural healthcare (and lost her own mother to COVID-19). But! The community and government rally around her to keep the clinic open. It’s that pulling together thing we had hoped would be the pandemic’s silver lining. Remember?

4. It’s been a couple months since Black Mountain Institute released the first episode of its Black Mountain Radio podcast, “ Land Acknowledgement.” But since a second one hasn’t come out yet, I’m taking advantage of the lag to pitch it as a recent release. The show’s creators describe it as an “artist-driven, community-focused audio project broadcast from Las Vegas to the world.” Episode 1 reflects this, comprising five separate pieces of varying lengths and styles centered on what it means to be “from here.” There’s a reported essay by Soni Brown, an oral history by Layla Muhammad, an essay from The Believer, a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca, and a Q&A called “5x5” that locals will find particularly satisfying. The pieces don’t depend on each other to make sense, but as a whole they paint a rich picture of the complicated relationship many people have with their Las Vegan identity.

5. Getting excited about movies has been a struggle for me this year, because I’m one of those cinema romantics who considers the theater experience an intrinsic part of film’s artistic value. That said, I was stoked to see director Steve McQueen’s latest work released on Prime Video, because it meant I would watch something I otherwise might not have due to its serial nature. Called Small Axe, it’s a TV anomaly — an anthology of five individual feature-length films. Each one tells a distinct story drawn from the real experiences of people in London’s West Indian community between 1969 and 1982. The series ranges in genre, from courtroom drama ( Mangrove), to love story ( Red, White, and Blue), to coming-of-age tale ( Education), but all are lessons in England’s 1970s civil rights history. Each one stands on its own, and the entire collection is excellent. So, watch the whole thing. What else have you got to look at … your Twitter feed? Heidi Kyser


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Photos and art: Joe Neal by Christopher Smith; DiMarias and patty dishes by Christopher Smith

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