Jamaican Jerk Festival: The Secret’s in the Sauce

Boston Jerk City's booth at the Jamaican Jerk Festival. Photo by Alex Christodoulides.

Boston Jerk City's booth at the Jamaican Jerk Festival. Photo by Alex Christodoulides.

In spite of temperatures soaring near 100 degrees, Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, Queens, was packed with Caribbean-food lovers late last month. Between thumping reggae music and the fragrant charcoal smoke drifting out of the park, Grace Foods’ Jamaican Jerk Festival had a strong appeal in one way or another to hundreds of people within earshot or sniffing range.

The July 24 party drew about two dozen food vendors—all offering richly spiced, marinated and charcoal-grilled meats and traditional sides—plus several others selling fruit ices, root wines and other Caribbean standbys.

Cooks worked up a sweat tending huge grills, while women served up half-pound and one-pound portions of jerk chicken and pork, curried goat and fish, callaloo (a Caribbean green, leafy vegetable) and ackee (a pear-shaped fruit often used in Caribbean cooking) over rice or roasted yams.

At Jaro Jerk Seasoning & Co.’s stall, the staff handed out free sample bites of jerk pork to the curious. Some vendors were wary of discussing their recipes, but not Jaro. The ingredients of their bottled jerk seasoning and marinade were listed on the stall’s banner: scallions, hot pepper, salt, dried pimento, black pepper, nutmeg, natural flavor, onions, garlic, honey, ginger, clove, soy sauce, annatto extract, spice, bay leaf, brown sugar and two preservatives.

But when asked to reveal his ingredients, Uri McPhil, from Roast N Jerk Central in eastern Queens, hesitated visibly before he said quietly, “Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, ginger, bay leaf, green onions.”

While by no means the full ingredient list, it highlights the huge difference between jerk and what most Americans know as barbecue. There is little to no oil, and any sweetener used is less intense by virtue of smaller amounts.

McPhil’s jerk chicken, which he hacked into small pieces with a machete before serving, was saturated with flavor and fall-off-the-bone tender. The juicy meat had a gorgeous caramel color with nicely charred bits.

Nearby, at Boston Jerk City’s stand, the jerk pork also got the machete treatment. They were more reticent about their recipe, but the brown sauce squirted over the meat tasted distinctly of Scotch bonnet, pimento and cinnamon.

The jerk recipes varied from one stand to the next. They also depend on the meat, McPhil noted, with different mixtures of spices and seasonings for pork and chicken.

While some of the jerk meat could have been marinated longer or in a spicier rub, it was all—across the board—juicy, rich and delicious.

Each stand served side dishes along with the meat, but none of the callaloo, ackee or rice got the charcoal-kissed love that the meat did. The yams, another option, were roasted on the grills with their skins on then peeled before serving—but it was clear that the meat was the star of this show.

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