A celebration of Jamaican culture, fueled by Scotch bonnets
Jamaica native Nicola Williams founded Boston JerkFest — which takes place Friday and Saturday at the South End’s Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology — to combine her love of food with her Caribbean roots. “I was born in Jamaica, I’ve been in the Boston area for about 30 years so this my home, and it’s a way for me to celebrate my culture, where I am from, my music, and share the experience of Jamaica and the Caribbean,” says the event producer.
“I did some more research, and I found out that the original home of jerk is in a place called Boston Beach, in Jamaica. So that was like, ‘OK, that’s it.’ Our festival is giving homage to the Boston JerkFest that happens in Jamaica,” says Williams.
Now in its fourth year, the event has been expanded to two days (with an added festival in Brattleboro, Vt., in August) to bring even more Jamaican flavor to New England. The event includes chef demonstrations, Caribbean cocktail competitions, live music, local vendors, and a kids’ cultural area.
At the center of the extravaganza, is of course, Jamaican jerk. Williams explains that all jerk must have three base ingredients — Scotch bonnet peppers, fresh thyme, and allspice — but the blend can contain 20 or more components. “You can add all kinds of things. Some people add cinnamon, sugar, scallions . . . and you can have a dry rub or jerk that is wet.”
But Williams insists there are no substitutes for the Scotch bonnet. “ A lot of people say you can use habanero, but Scotch bonnet is really a unique pepper. Jamaicans know it, but the average person might not. It’s got to look like a bonnet, so that’s how we distinguish it. It’s a very flavorful pepper,” she says.
And according to Williams, you can jerk anything. “Last year we had a cheesecake vendor who had a jerk ganache sauce on cheesecake. You can jerk ice cream. We are trying to push the envelope with jerk, even the drinks as well.”
When it comes to jerking meat, she says the method is as important as the ingredients. “We can’t do it like we do in Jamaica, where we dig a pit, put a metal galvanized steel pan over it and grill it in the ground — can’t do that. So [the vendors] come up with their own drums, very innovative kind of replacements. They are smoky, but once you taste [the jerk], it’s tender, it’s juicy, it’s hot. It’s just right.”
This year the featured meat in the jerk cook-off is Vermont Chevon goat; the local fish for a seafood throwdown will remain a mystery until the morning of the event. “We partner with an organization called Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, and they are advocates for local fisherfolk and their livelihood,” Williams says.
Keeping things local is very important to Williams, who produces about five events a year, including the Hyper-Local Craft Brewfest and the Boston Local Food Festival, and is a board member of the Sustainable Business Network.
Williams says she has repeat attendees from as far away as Montreal, and even Japan, for the JerkFest. “They were like, ‘Can you save a ticket for me?’ And I said, ‘Sure we can save a ticket. You are coming all the way from Tokyo!’”
Boston JerkFest, June 24-25, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, 41 Berkeley St., Boston, www.bostonjerkfest.com