It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the morning of Barack Obama's second inauguration, and four members of the planning committee for Hartford's Taste of the Caribbean and Jerk Festival sat down to draw up the agenda for this year's event, slated for Aug. 3. The festival, now in its eighth year, draws food vendors from Boston, New York and even Miami to what is now one of the most lively food events in the Northeast. It helps keep Hartford on the map and rounds out the city's trifecta of distinction: Insurance capital, state capital, and New England's capital of West Indian cuisine.
The place where committee members had chosen to meet was Island Vibes, a Jamaican restaurant at 675 Blue Hills Avenue, in the heart of the third largest West Indian community in the United States. Out of all the jerk joints in all of Hartford -- and there are a lot of them -- the fact that the committee picked this particular spot was a ringing endorsement. As West Indian restaurants are universally casual and inexpensive, what sets one apart from the rest? Three members of the group spoke up, taking rapid turns: "It's amazing cooking and the atmosphere is beautiful. The owner is fantastic. Very relaxing, very comfortable, great food."
What, then, makes for great West Indian food? Melinda DeBeatham chimed in, "The ingredients, the spices, the seasonings. That's what it's all about."
"The timing of the cooking," said Maxine Victor.
"You have to marinate your food in advance," said Elorie Stevens. "You have to marinate everything and let it soak in, overnight, and that's what gives it the flavor."
"If you can't marinate it or cook it well, you come to Island Vibes and you buy it," said DeBeatham. They all agreed.
But West Indian food isn't just about the how. To outsiders, it's more about the what (Ackee? Oxtail? Jerk?). Jamaican patties, beef patties in particular, have become a favorite in neighborhood delis and convenience stores around the country. Apparently, islanders invented this precursor to the hot pocket. But there's so much more: Jerk chicken and pork, oxtail, curry goat, and the more authentic a restaurant gets, the more specialized the menu items become.
For example, Mama's Place on Albany Avenue boasts cow foot, an island delicacy. Owner Shirley Cross explained how she prepares it: "You pressure cook it, and season it with onion, black pepper, and celery." While hers is not the only place that serves cow foot, out of the dozen or so competing options on this street, Mama's may just have the cutest interior, with rows of retro booths with red vinyl benches. Having any seating at all is not a given in a West Indian restaurant, as take-out is the most popular format among Jamaican diners. A common layout for Jamaican restaurants both here and on the island is to have a narrow counter at the street-side window, set at standing height, possibly with bar stools.
But the favorite food among locals throughout the state appears to be oxtail. "That's the tail of a cow, my favorite meat," said Pauline Brown, the owner of Tropical Delights, a take-out place in New Haven. As opposed to the "jerk" style, which ranges from mildly to frighteningly spicy, oxtail is usually prepared in a brown sauce.
"Oxtail is our number-one dish, oxtail with brown sauce," confirms Jermaine Edwards of Pattie Palace in Middletown. "Brown sauce is sweet. If you want spicy, you order jerk chicken or jerk pork, but if you want something sweet, you order the stewed chicken or the oxtail. That's with the brown sauce."
Given the care required to prepare some of these dishes, it's understandable why there are so many restaurants that cater almost exclusively to island transplants. Most people simply don't have the time to cook it right. Effie Allen, of Green Island Chicken & Grill in Danbury, explains the art of the oxtail: "It has to be cooked for a while. If you want to pressure cook it, you could, but you would lose some of the flavor. It takes a long time to cook. It's braised, like on the fire. Then in the end you put on the sauce."
Curry is another major flavor grouping, and one of many that distinguishes the former English colonies of the Caribbean (the West Indies) from the Spanish ones, as the flavor was spread from India throughout the British Empire. The signature curry dish is goat, which was a traditional meal for special occasions involving large groups, according to Sean Francis, publisher of the Caribbean American News. He wrote, "Curry goat was once Jamaica's most famous authentic dish, cooked on the weekends and at all gathering festive events, i.e. Nine-Nights, also known as 'Dead Yard,' an extended wake that lasts for several days, with roots in African tradition."
"Jerk" is the Caribbean flavor that is really catching fire in Connecticut, with jerk chicken becoming a gimmicky pizza topping and now one of the sauce options at chicken-wing places. "Jerk Chicken is probably my favorite and most recognizable Jamaican dish," wrote Francis. According to him, 'jerk' comes from an Indian word, charqui, meaning 'dried meat'. Jerk is also the most common seasoning of those meat patties.
The western hemisphere's biggest purveyor of jerk-flavored foods has to be Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery, founded by Lowell Hawthorne. In spite of its word origins, jerk is anything but dry. According to Golden Krust company literature, "Jerk cooking refers to the process of slow-cooking/smoking over a low flame, traditionally over a slow-burning and smoky pimento wood pit covered with banana or coconut fronds. The origin of 'jerk' is a testimony to our rich historical past. It is believed that the process of slow-cooking heavily seasoned meats over a smoky pit of burning pimento logs originated in Jamaica with the Arawak Indians and was further perfected by the Maroons (runaway slaves) who added their own traditional African technique of slow-roasting whole pigs."
Hartford's Golden Krust bakery lends an enticing smell to the corner of Albany Avenue and Woodland Street, but in spite of the Bronx-based company boasting scores of storefronts in some eight states, Hartford has just the one store, so saturated is the area with competition from the mom-and-pops. However, Golden Krust's stiffest competition comes from Scott's Jamaican Bakery, with three Hartford locations and an industrial bakery on Windsor street churning out patties by the truckload.
Two other Hartford eateries that have become household names are the Jerk Pit and Dunn's River Restaurant. The Jerk Pit is open until 5 a.m. on weekends, so this has become a go-to spot for late night revellers throughout the region. "Don't come at 4 a.m. unless you want to stand in line," laughed Beverley Henriques, the Jerk Pit's founder.
Dunn's River has become the reliable standby for people who want to introduce their friends to Jamaican cooking. "I like the service, and I always have meetings there," said writer Vangella "Vjange Hazle" Buchanan, self-appointed ambassador of all things Jamaican and author of several books set in Jamaica, including My Father and Other Disasters. "West Indian food is a smorgasbord of different cultures that entice and satisfy the palette," said the Montego Bay native, who admits that a lot of it is too spicy for her taste and often orders the fried chicken when at Dunn's River.
There is something to be said about playing it safe. Just munching on a veggie pattie, the spiciness can creep up on you even after you have taken your last bite, demanding a sip of ginger beer... or an entire bottle. Then there's the issue of finding the place you're looking for, which can take the would-be diner to one dead end after another if relying on an internet directory. Hartford diners who find that their target destination has gone out of business since they left the house can always go to the place on the next block. And pickings in New Haven and elsewhere are far more slim. The Elm City's best bet right now is Island Spice on Winthrop Avenue at Whalley, and what's particularly interesting about the place is the breakfast menu. It features peanut, plantain or cornmeal porridges, among other things, including green banana with ackee. Ackee, unfamiliar on the mainland, requires a skilled Jamaican chef.
"Authentic" is the highest word of praise for any West Indian restaurateur. If you go out for Chinese food, you don't come home with the impression that you've been to Beijing; however, if your itinerary includes Jamaican food in Connecticut, you really are getting as close as you can without buying a plane ticket. But don't expect it to feel like the inside a of Bob Marley record. Marley was a Rastafarian, and Rastafarians are vegetarians. While Rastafarian food can be had in Hartford, that's a whole 'nother menu.