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Introducing The Hottest Event in NYC, The Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival

By David Boegaard

If you've never had Jerk chicken, you've never been to Jamaica. A rich and delicious mix of spices and peppers applied to meats, the best Jerk is totally unique to both Jamaica and the individual chef. Even today, to try a variety of the finest Jerk recipes, one needs to go to Jamaica. Jamaica, Queens, that is.

The Queens neighborhood hosts an annual Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival each summer. With more than 30 stands, each selling their home-grown version of the best Jerk in the world, plenty to drink, and an events stage with live music all day, the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival is a treat for all the senses.

"Jerking" is the name for a process of seasoning meats, where typically a variety of local spices are dry rubbed (or occasionally marinated) into meat before barbecuing. Typically Jerk is spicy hot, but richly flavorful. On the island of Jamaica, an oil barrel cut in half the long way, with hinges attached to the long edge, has become the tool most used for perfect Jerk. But while the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival keeps to the flavor tradition, nobody is required to barbecue over the barrel.

With the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival already having gone on for 5 years, in NYC, it's becoming a local tradition. The Festival first started with the success of an affiliated Festival in Sunrise, South Florida, which has been going on for 14 years now. Thinking that a similar festival would go over well in this area, Queens based VP Records partnered with the organizers to bring the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival to New York. And they were right, says Richard Lue, Director of Business Development for the Grace Jamaica Jerk Festival. "The NY festival has attracted up to 16,000 patrons." That's a serious party.

But the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival isn't just for Caribbean people. It's a culinary and cultural experience for everyone. "There is a big Caribbean population in this area," notes Lue, "but New York is a very culturally diverse area where the general population is used trying and experience different elements, especially the food."

In order to get the best Jerk vendors for the festival, the organizers host a competition each year.

"We have a celebrity competition and there is also a segment where the participating food vendors submit dishes to be judged," says Lue. That process ensures that festival-goers only get the finest Jerk preparations.

At the Festival itself, the competition continues. Each contestant is judged for the prize, though the standards are necessarily subjective. Ultimately, the winner is whichever vendor created the most delicious and interesting interpretation of the idea of "Jerk." Jamaicans traditionally Jerked mostly chicken or pork, and that's what most of the vendors choose, too. But any Jerked protein is welcomed. Lue emphasizes that the competition is heated. "We advise the competitors to bring their 'A' game."

But people don't just come to the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival to eat Jerk, they come to have a great time. The main stage has a long list of famous performers to suit the young and old. A number of smaller stages host other musicians, as well as dance, poetry, and other performances meant to highlight the cultural richness of the Caribbian community.

Outside of performances, there are lots of great things to do. There's a dedicated space just for kids to play safely. And there are lots of booths set up to display a variety of arts and crafts and cooking exhibitions and competitions. "We encourage people to come for the food and stay for the fun," says Lue.

So if you have the good fortune to be in the New York City area next summer, pick up a ticket to the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival. It's an experience that you're not likely to get on this side of the Caribbean Ocean, and one you'll remember forever for the kind people and amazing food, suggests Lue. "It's one big family reunion and outing."

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