Smoke rises from grills, many of them charcoal-fueled, illegal and loaded with jerk chicken — the spiced, smoky favorite of the borough’s large Jamaican community.
Jerk is Jamaica to the bone, aromatic and smoky, sweet but insistently hot. All of its traditional ingredients grow in the island’s lush green interior: fresh ginger, thyme and scallions; Scotch bonnet peppers; and the sweet wood of the allspice tree, which burns to a fragrant smoke.
“It’s not a sauce, it’s a procedure,” Jerome Williams, a Jamaican-born Brooklyn resident, said on a recent Sunday in Prospect Park, where families arrive as early as 6 a.m. for lakeside grilling spots, a few of which are actually authorized by the parks department. “It has to be hot, but it cannot only be hot, or you get no joy from it.”
Done right, jerk is one of the great barbecue traditions of the world, up there with Texas brisket and Chinese char siu. Its components are a thick brown paste flecked with chilies, meat (usually pork or chicken, occasionally goat or fish) and smoke, from a tightly covered charcoal grill, that slowly soaks into the food.
Boston Bay, on Jamaica’s east coast, has become the island’s most famous destination for jerk. The beach is lined with stalls selling jerk, and the sweet and starchy foods that go well with it: “rice and peas,” rice cooked in coconut milk with small red beans; sweet potatoes roasted in charcoal; and “festival,” a missile of sweet fried dough that resembles an oversize hush puppy.
“People drive all the way from Kingston for Boston jerk,” Mr. Williams said. That’s a four-hour journey of hairpin turns over the Blue Mountains, where allspice trees grow wild.
Purists say allspice smoke is a defining element of jerk. The entire tree, which Jamaicans call pimento, is used: the crushed berries are rubbed into the skin; the wood burns hot and slow; the green leaves are tossed on the fire, releasing a sweet smoke that flavors the meat with a warm, woody pepperiness.
Last year, because of the efforts of Gary Feblowitz, a jerk-obsessed cinematographer for television documentaries, pimento wood for grilling became available in the United States. It took him five years to clear red tape in the United States and Jamaica.
Jerk is so ingrained in Jamaican cooks that the notion of getting a recipe is entertaining, something like asking a Midwesterner for a hamburger recipe.
“Go around the corner to the cellphone store, the music store — you will always find someone to tell you how to do it,” Mr. Williams said, gesturing toward Flatbush Avenue, the main artery of West Indian Brooklyn.
Ms. Reid, of Islands restaurant, bakes her jerk, as her mother did before her. “I think men like messing around with hot coals,” she said, proving that some gender-culinary stereotypes transcend geography. “Women just want to get a good dinner on the table.”
To find good jerk in New York, one place to look is near hospitals (serving the many Jamaicans who work in health care), busy subway stops, or better yet, both.
Yvonne’s Jamaican food truck, which parks on East 71st Street near New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center on the Upper East Side, sells jerk pork only on Tuesdays and Fridays, and jerk chicken only on Wednesdays, but a fiery sauce of chopped Scotch bonnets pickled in vinegar every day of the week. The sauce is available by the shot and, alarmingly, by the quart. (Most local jerk is made mild, with hot sauce glugged on afterward at the customer’s request.)
“Jamaicans and Trinidadians like heat,” said Tamika Macintosh, a nurse’s assistant and an Yvonne’s regular. “The other West Indians can’t take it.”
Alternatively, follow the smoke. Some fancy West Indian restaurants make very good jerk rubs, but they are too mindful of the law to put a charcoal grill out on the sidewalk. You have to seek out the renegades.
“If the smoke is so thick outside on the sidewalk that you can’t see to put the quarter in the parking meter, that’s a good sign,” Mr. Williams said.
“We get tickets, sure,” said Desmond Mailer, the manager of McKenzie’s on Utica Avenue in Flatbush, where smoke billows from blackened oil drums 16 hours a day. “But you know, cops like jerk, too.”