June 14, 2017
Jamaican Jerk Festival Celebrates D.C.’s Love For Caribbean Food And Culture
The annual Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival comes to D.C. for the second time this year–the latest indicator that the local Jamaican food scene is growing and thriving. Producer Avery Kleinman spoke with the festival organizer, Eddy Edwards, and Maryland jerk seasoning, O’Henry Bryan, about the growing popularity of Caribbean cuisine in the region.
Producer Avery Kleinman: Eddy, the Jamaican Jerk Festival has already been happening in New York and Florida for years. Why did you decide to bring it to D.C., and what can visitors expect if they attend?
Eddy Edwards: D.C. has quite a strong Caribbean community and also a very, very multicultural population. We thought bringing it to them would be good, especially to celebrate June as Caribbean American Month. Visitors will get the complete taste of Jamaica. We have a variety of jerk in various forms as well as other Jamaican delicacies and favorites. And there’s the cultural stage. D.C. author Hyacinth Holder will present the book she wrote, “My Papa Used to Say.” It’s a book of Jamaican proverbs that we used to say back in the day. Popular chefs will be there too: Andre Fowles, who won the Chopped competition twice, as well as local chef Giovanni Merle. Fay-Ann Lyons, a famous calypso singer, will also put down the mic for a moment and showcase her culinary skills. We also have a kid’s zone with a lot of activities for the kids. And then we close the day with a concert on the main stage. You get a little taste of Jamaica.
Kleinman: O’Henry, you make and sell you own jerk seasoning, Portland’s Pride Jamaican Jerk Seasoning. It’s named after your hometown, Portland, Jamaica. How did you get into the business?
O’Henry Bryan: The first commercial sale of Jerk was in Boston, Jamaica and that’s where I grew up. As a matter of fact, there were what we call jerk shops, and there was on my family’s property. We rented the space to the jerk man and he had the jerk shop there. He would make and sell their jerk on a daily basis. Growing up I wasn’t allowed to go to the jerk shop, because my parents said the people who hung around the jerk shops didn’t amount to much. I came to America in 1983. The business started out when I brought some jerk seasoning home and it didn’t really taste like what I was used to growing up, it wasn’t that authentic. After I found out the ingredients, I put some of the stuff together and it tasted good. I gave it to friends, they liked it and the suggestion came from them to make my own. That was in 2004.
Kleinman: Jerk seasoning is one of the most popular components of Jamaican cooking. Can you describe the flavor?
Edwards: Jerk today is a way of seasoning meat and it’s also a way of cooking. The seasoning comes from a special mix of flavor: pimento, which is known as allspice, scotch bonnet peppers. It has the heat to it. Some varieties are really, really hot, but you can also find it mild. You can use it to season with a rub or marinate it. Usually the cooking is done over a charcoal grill; back in the day they’d cook it in a pit, cover it with leaves, and bake it underground. Nowadays for convenience, some folks cook in their oven.
Kleinman: We’re used to being able to order food as spicy as we like, anywhere from mild to extra hot… but just how hot is authentic jerk flavor?
Edwards: That’s a very good question. When I was growing up in Jamaica, jerk was hot. I couldn’t tolerate that heat. I couldn’t tolerate the heat that my grandfather used to bring home from the country. But as we adjust to taste, there really isn’t an authentic level of spiciness because you find now that different folks have various recipes that have merged over time. Now it’s just what you like. Like wine, it’s what you like.
Kleinman: What do you think is the reason for the growth in popularity of Jamaican food, both locally and nationally?
Edwards: It tastes good, first and foremost! I’ll tell you this, a lot of times when folks visit the island on vacation, jerk is one of the first things they will try. It’s one of our primary dishes, and after experiencing it as a visitor you want to find out where you can get it at home. Tourism is one of the main industries on the island; we have so many visitors each year and they will experience the food and want to find it back home. People are also getting more adventurous when they come to food and paying more attention. If you notice the popularity of the cooking channel, chefs are big celebrities. They’re also paying attention to health, grilling is more healthy than frying and jerk is one of those options that you have to grill and bake.
Kleinman: Eddy, are the jerk festivals you run very different between D.C., New York and Florida?
Edwards: D.C. being the newest is the smallest so far, but a number of folks are telling me that in coming years, D.C. will be the biggest. When we started in Florida, our first attendance was 4,000 people, when we started in New York it was 6,000 and when we started in D.C. our first attendance was 8,000. You can see how D.C. will become one of the biggest stars.
Kleinman: How easy was it to find food that tasted like home when you first arrived in the states?
Edwards: It was not easy. When I first moved here, I had a couple spots I liked, but a lot of times you had to find folks that were coming from the island and you had to ask them to bring stuff for you. But over time it has improved a lot. The Jamaican community has grown so much in Florida, New York and D.C., and we brought our food and music and culture.
Bryan: You can find jerk in the grocery store, most of it comes out of Jamaica, but at the same time, not all of it is original. You see ingredients in the seasoning that are not original. For example, a lot of them have sugar or soy sauce in them. The original jerk men did not use soy sauce, garlic, or sugar. The reason they did not use garlic is the sulfur in the garlic does not help it to stay as long as it would if you eliminate the garlic.
Kleinman: The jerk festival will feature not only food, but also music. In what ways do music and food intersect in Jamaican culture?
Edwards: The music is the entertainment. We love to gather around music, and whenever we gather the next thing that comes is food. We have a number of families here who are second generation. The kids have never been to the islands. Their aunties and uncles come by and tell them the stories, and when they get a chance to take the kids to a festival like the jerk festival, it plays a very important role in propagating the Jamaican culture.
Kleinman: June is Caribbean American Month. Do you think food can offer a starting point for people to explore Caribbean culture at large?
Edwards: That is another mission of the event. We want to give folks a taste, folks beyond our community, so that they can come experience that piece of Jamaica that they’ve never experienced. A lot of folks have friends from the island, coworkers, maybe friends, and they come with their Jamaican coworkers and friends, and they get to experience the culture that their friends talk so much about at lunch or on the weekends. What we find a lot of times is that we think we are different but when you get down to it we really have so much in common. Let’s celebrate what we have in common.
The Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival, D.C., will take place on Sunday June 18 at RFK Stadium. Portland’s Pride Jamaican Jerk Seasoning is available online and at many restaurants in the region. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.