A First-Generation American Gains Insight into Her Heritage at NC Jerk Fest, a Celebration of Caribbean Food | Food Feature | Indy Week
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A First-Generation American Gains Insight into Her Heritage at NC Jerk Fest, a Celebration of Caribbean Food 

Jerk chicken at Mum's Jamaican Restaurant in Raleigh

Photo by Alex Boerner

Jerk chicken at Mum's Jamaican Restaurant in Raleigh

The fourth-annual North Carolina Jerk Fest, which came to West Point on the Eno on Saturday, September 23, felt like all the Caribbean cookouts and festivals I'd ever been to, rolled into one. Children were running around, screaming and dancing. People of all hues lounged at tables or on picnic blankets, clustering in the shade of trees. One vendor was selling coconuts with bendy straws, and, in true island fashion, no one seemed particularly concerned with the time.

I'm Grenadian and Guyanese; my parents came to the United States as teenagers. Though I've lived in Durham for several years, this was my first Jerk Fest. Organized by local charity CaribSplash, it starts with a 5K race in the morning, followed by a daylong celebration of Caribbean food, music, and culture. Most of the vendors are local, though the busiest, with a line fifty people long at one point, came from Baltimore. Cooking demonstrations abound, as do Caribbean folks with their countries' colors on full display.

Sherine Lewis of Mum's Jamaican Restaurant in Raleigh was one of the vendors. Lewis is Jamaican, and she learned to cook jerk chicken, oxtail, and more from her grandmother.

"When she was teaching me, to be honest, I wasn't really into it," she says. "But now I'm glad that she taught me how to do it, because it's been really beneficial to me and my family." Mum's won the jerk competition at Jerk Fest in 2015. Lewis's grandmother's recipe, a blend of eighteen spices with chicken cooked over a charcoal grill, has held steady over the years.

"Basically, the recipe is the same. The food is so good that you don't really want to change anything," Lewis says. "You might add something and create something different, but you're not going to change how jerk chicken is prepared overall."

I was always nervous about going to Jerk Fest. Part of it was the worry that I would have to go alone (festivals are awkward when you're introverted and by yourself), and part of it was crippling imposter syndrome. I was born into this culture, but I know next to nothing about it. Is cluelessness all over my face? Can everyone see that I don't know if I belong here? What if people figure out that I have no idea jerk is a cooking process, not just a spice?

Spoiler alert: people did find out, because I told on my damn self. (The chef I was talking to at the time was very kind about it.)

As a first-generation American, I spend a lot of time thinking about my identity and how people perceive it. Maybe it's getting older and discovering the full depths of my blackness, or maybe it's a side effect of living in Trump's America. Maybe it's my perceived duty to radically challenge the mainstream's narratives about immigrants and first-generation children. But over the last year, I've been voraciously diving into my family's heritage, trying figure out who I am and where I come from. It's a heavy, self-imposed crusade that's almost become an obsession.

Because I'm an immigrant kid, people assume that I know stuff about my parents' home countries: recipes, politics, geography, folklore, dialects. Much like a tropical storm over the Atlantic, imposter syndrome moves in fast and hard when such questions come up. Am I a "good enough" immigrant kid; am I representing us well? Do I know enough about either of these cultures to say, Yep, I'm Guyanese and Grenadian?

My dad is from the island of Grenada (no, not Granada—that's a city in Spain, and if one more person tries to correct me, we will fight). My mom is from Guyana (no, not Guinea—that's a country in West Africa; previously stated conditions apply). My parents arrived in New York, got educated, worked hard, met each other, and eventually created a middle-class life in the suburbs of Atlanta so their three children could grow up to be great, too.

But I do wish my siblings and I had a deeper connection with the countries and cultures in which my parents grew up. All four of my grandparents are still alive, but since three live in their home countries, I don't know them well at all. I think I've always been secretly jealous of people like Lewis, who learned to cook from their grandparents and got to spend so much time with them.

My parents cooked for us at home, of course. We ate rice with nearly every meal. Fried plantains (pronounced plan-TINS) are still a major source of comfort for me. That smoky, savory, sweet smell of frying plantains and vegetable oil follows you around for hours, and will always remind me of my parents' kitchen.

We went to cookouts when aunties, uncles, and cousins from the island or South America visited the U.S. They dragged us to Caribbean food festivals in Atlanta and New York, something I wish I'd appreciated more when I was a snotty teenager.

And when no one felt like cooking, we'd get takeout (roti, curried chicken and goat, and sorrel for Dad, because the rest of us couldn't tolerate the bitterness) from a local Trinidadian roti shop.

I didn't expect it, but, standing under a tree at Jerk Fest, sweating through my cotton shirt, I understood why my parents used to take us to festivals like this. As I get older and realize that my parents are just people who are doing their best, maybe this was their way of giving us a peek into who they are, who we are, and where we're from.

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