Certain foods bring more to the table than just their good taste. Some foods evoke a range of sensory connections that tie us to experiences and memories.

For me, when I eat the foods of the Caribbean, I see again the deep blue sky over the white sands that hug the blue-green waters, I hear the happy laughter of the people who have come to love living by that warm sea, who create rich art and music out of their long-established culture.
I first experienced Caribbean life and cuisine when I was in the Navy. One of my best discoveries was the vibrant taste of street food, and jerk chicken is the street food that most re-connects me to the memories of life in the Caribbean.
JerkChicken_3Although a few restaurants in Louisville have jerk chicken on their menus, what we generally find locally pales in comparison to the dish I ate in the Islands. But happily, once a year I can find the dish made authentically enough to flood me with happy memories once more — at the Kentucky Reggae Festival.
One person responsible for cooking the 1100 pounds of supernaturally good chicken served at Reggae Fest is Harold Williams, who has lived in Louisville since he moved here in 1969. In the 1980’s he and other members of the Jamaican Association of Louisville have cooked jerk chicken for the benefit of the Louisville public, first on the Belvedere for a variety of international festivals, and for the last 18 years at the Water Tower for the Kentucky Reggae Festival.
Jerk chicken comes from the Arawak Indians use of the Jamaican “pimento,” known here as allspice, which they use to season meat (traditionally wild pig) before smoking it. For anyone who has baked Christmas cookies, the amount of allspice in jerk sauce seems unconscionable, but its place as a savory seasoning is indisputable once you taste this recipe.
A variety of other influences and additions have resulted in a mix used to marinate the meat, including the hottest chili peppers known to man (Scotch bonnet), green onions, garlic and other tropical spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg.
JerkChicken_2Jamaican Jerk Marinade:

  • 1/2 cup ground allspice
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 6 to 8 large garlic cloves
  • 4 to 6 Scotch bonnet peppers
  • 1 tablespoon ground thyme   (or 2 tablespoons thyme leaves)
  • 2 bunches green onions
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.  This sauce will keep a long time refrigerated.
To use the sauce, rub about a third into the meat (dark meat chicken is preferred but pork shoulder is an option to be explored) and refrigerate overnight. If you’re using pork shoulder, score the fat and rub it in.  Use a third (or so) of the marinade to baste the meat as it cooks. Reserve the last to serve with the meat after it has cooked.
Jerk is cooked low and slow, like traditional barbecue, not grilled like steak or chicken. Keep the heat at 250 degrees or so, and keep the top on the grill. (You can cook it in a pan in a low oven also. If you do, keep the juices from the meat, mix in more jerk seasoning and serve as “sauce” over meat and rice.)
JerkChickenIF YOU GO
The Kentucky Reggae Festival is an event fixture in Louisville during Memorial Day Weekend. Live reggae music, a Caribbean vendor market and authentic Jamaican food draw large, happy crowds year after year. And kids entertainment makes the event family friendly. Leave your pets and coolers at home but be sure to bring lawn chairs and blankets.
May 25 – 37, 2013 at the Louisville Water Tower (River Road and Zorn Ave.)
Times: Sat & Sun 2 pm -11:30 pm, Monday 1pm – 7pm
Admission: $8 before 6 pm, $11 after 6 pm, kids under 10 are free.