Boston’s ties to Jamaica go back lot further back than the Fenway fans who serenaded right fielder Shane Victorino with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” before every at-bat last fall.
Some historians believe the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain was named after the rum distilled here from Jamaican cane sugar, and the island’s signature jerk seasoning traces its roots to the beach-side pork and chicken stands that sprung up after trade with the Boston Fruit Company sparked an economic boom on Jamaica’s north coast.
So it’s no surprise that the second annual Boston JerkFest brought a diverse crowd to the Franklin Institute of Technology campus to celebrate all things Caribbean, with two sessions featuring food and cocktail demonstrations, spice and craft vendors, live music, and more. But it wasn’t any sense of shared history with Jamaica that brought Jen Cheng and Richie Huynh to the festival.
“We love food, so,” Cheng said, after finishing up the first plate in a quest to pick a favorite from about a dozen food vendors serving up plantain chips, grilled corn, Caribbean beef stew, and even spicy cheesecake. Other festival goers discovered that coconut water tastes even better when you plunge a straw right into a whole coconut, instead of an adult juice box from the supermarket.
But this was JerkFest, after all, so every food vendor offered at least one dish featuring the seasoning blend comprised of ingredients native to the island: pulverized pimento (allspice), scotch bonnet peppers, onion, garlic, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg, and up to 30 more ingredients, depending on the jerk master.
Local chefs from Boston’s Flames Restaurant, Somerville’s Jamaican Mi Crazy food truck, Weymouth catering service Stir It Up and more lined up alongside Finga Lickin’ Jamaican Jerk Spot from Queens, New York, which drew the longest lines with their jerked meats smoked on-site in converted oil drums.
But it’s just not in the spirit of a Caribbean festival to complain about waiting in line, and any annoyance disappeared when a smiling chef handed you a plate.
Christina Soares of Roxbury and Sacha Knight of Dorchester, who have vacationed in Jamaica and attended last year’s JerkFest, said there’s more to the island’s appeal than complex flavors.
“It’s more than the food, it’s the service,” Soares said. “It’s just so friendly. They really make you feel like you’re at home.”
Jerk is a balanced heat that builds with each bite, especially if you followed up your meal with a series of hot sauce samples from the festival’s Spice Row. Making guests feel at home surely requires offering a cold beverage to anyone who seems to have exceeded his recommended daily allowance of Scoville units.
Milk would be a good choice.
Or, for Jeremy Cross from Battle Road Beer, their Barrett’s Farmhouse Ale – a saison featuring hints of clove to balance the heat. Cross poured samples alongside Battle Road co-founder Scott Houghton from the Ipswich brewery’s station in JerkFest’s two-story Rum & Brew tasting section. The two jumped at the chance to pair their offerings with Jamaican barbecue.
“We’re foodies as much as we are beer geeks,” Cross said. “Jerk is a unique combination of spices that you really don’t find anywhere else. It’s got a good kick, but there’s also the sweetness of the cinnamon.”
Caribbean brands like Mount Gay and Gosling’s served up samples alongside a wide range of local breweries and distilleries, which is how you might end up drinking a cocktail made with, say, GrandTen vodka (South Boston), Downeast Cider (Charlestown) and St. Elder elderflower liqueur (Somerville).
Rum & Brew expanded to two floors for this year’s festival, and a downstairs stage featured local reggae acts the Duppy Conquerors and Hot Like Fire (celebrating their 25th anniversary) leading festival goers in a lot of enthusiastic head-nodding, if not a full-on dance party.
Back outside, Nadine Nelson of Global Local Gourmet and Sean O’Brien of Cuisine en Locale faced off in the early session’s Jerk Seafood Throwdown, organized by the North American Marine Alliance. The secret ingredient: A local – whole – squid.
Nelson started shaking her head.
“I was really pissed! I was expecting a whole fish,” she said. “I mean, I love squid, but my fishmonger cleans it for me.”
So, the audience were treated to a quick lesson in cleaning and prepping squid (you can use the backbone like a pen!) before Nelson introduced the squid, a Cape Cod native, to her jerk rub that was “straight from Jamaica.” The finished dish, Jerk Calamari Two Ways, won over a panel of judges who declared Nelson the winner.
“You can’t get these ingredients anywhere else,” Nelson said. “The white cinnamon, the pimento, all these wild things that grow in the bush in Jamaica.”
A chef, writer, and cooking instructor, Nelson traces her ancestry to the Jamaican Maroons who fought to escape slavery and establish free communities in Jamaica’s mountainous inner region. She grew up idolizing Queen Nanny, the 18th-century rebel leader and Jamaican national hero who mysteriously caught British bullets with her bare hands and, some say, her buttocks. Jerked meats helped sustain the Maroons through decades of fighting, and their descendants still practice the seasoning and smoking techniques in the jerk capital of the world, a beach just outside Port Antonio.
Its name? Boston Beach.