Downtown Durham is going to be a festive place again this coming Saturday. Last weekend was CenterFest; this weekend, the Bull City sees its first-ever Jerk Fest.
Jerk, that is, in the culinary sense.
“The idea behind it is that jerk is so unique,” said Dwayne Francis, founder CaribSplash ( caribsplash.org), the nonprofit sponsoring the North Carolina Jerk Fest, 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. Saturday at CCB Plaza.
Centerpiece of the event is a jerk cookoff, a contest for amateurs along with some pros such as Jimmie Jackson, who has won major jerk-cooking contests in Atlanta and south Florida.
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“We have chefs from Jamaica,” Francis said. “We have local chefs ... who have a really good following as far as doing festivals and barbecue here.
“We have Pluto (Richards), he’s a native of Chapel Hill, Jamaican guy, and then we have the local restaurants.”
Jerk is a Caribbean cooking style that originated as a way of preserving meat, according to Francis. Like barbecue, jerk is cooked over a slow, smoky wood fire – traditionally, wood from a pimento tree.
It’s usually associated with chicken, but any kind of meat will do – or vegetables or fruit – that is treated in a marinade traditionally including pimento, also known as allspice, along with a chef’s own mix, then cooked at a temperature that may vary chef to chef, Francis said.
“So every jerk restaurant that you go to is going to give you a completely different take on it,” he said.
Along with the cooking contest, Jerk Fest has a jerk wings eating competition, with no water allowed between bites; a domino tournament, played by Jamaican partner-style rules bit.ly/1sf1APq); a “VIP wine tasting” (individual admission $85, couples $150); a kids’ zone with a bounce house and a variety of races.
Events start with a 5K run at 8 a.m.
“After that, go clean up and come back,” Francis said. “Jerk is healthy.”
“I truly hope these folks have a good festival. They seemed to have put a lot of work in it,” said Durham Police Lt. Jerry Yount, who posted a festival announcement on the downtown Partners Against Crime email list.
Jerk Fest organizers have had several meetings to coordinate with police, “and they seemed to be very well organized,” Yount said. “It looks to be a great festival and a lot of fun.”
Besides fun, the event is meant to raise money for a Caribbean Cultural Center of Excellence that Francis and the other organizers hope to establish – an after-school program that exposes children to Caribbean history and culture.
Francis said the organizers hope to make Jerk Fest an annual Durham event and are already planning for 2015 – maybe in the summer, maybe indoors.
“This is the first year,” Francis said. “We’ll see what works.”