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» BREAKING NEWS, GUEST RUNDOWNS » JAMAICAN FOOD BEGINS TO BLOSSOM IN SOUTH CAROLINA, THANKS TO GUEST WORKERS AND THE NEW YORK INFLUX!

JAMAICAN FOOD BEGINS TO BLOSSOM IN SOUTH CAROLINA, THANKS TO GUEST WORKERS AND THE NEW YORK INFLUX!

By Hanna Raskin—
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The South Carolina Reggae Jerk and Wine Festival celebrated its third year at Magnolia Plantation in August, and is the area’s second Jamaican food festival. Brad Nettles/staff The South Carolina Reggae Jerk and Wine Festival celebrated its third year at Magnolia Plantation in August, and is the area’s second Jamaican food festival.
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Eric and Lisa Smith stride into Reggae Grill on Rivers Avenue with a mix of bluster and gratitude. The couple has been harboring a hunger for jerk chicken since they retired here from Queens, N.Y., where he worked for the city and she managed a bank.

“I could not find none!” bellows Eric Smith, a barrel-chested man.

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Brad Nettles/staff
Jerk chicken is just one of the many items from Jamaican cuisine finding its way to the Lowcountry.
Enlarge Brad Nettles/staff Jerk chicken is just one of the many items from Jamaican cuisine finding its way to the Lowcountry.
“This is one of the things we were searching for,” confirms his wife, looking semi-tropical in hot pink pants. They’re not the type to take their searches online, so it took seven months before they spotted a Reggae Grill sign affixed to a truck in the middle of a Lowe’s parking lot. Lisa Smith snickers: “Now we can’t find Spanish food.”

The Smiths moved to Charleston for the warm weather and warm people, but didn’t anticipate having to give up their Jamaican food habit.

In their New York City neighborhood, there’s a Jamaican restaurant “every block, every other block,” Eric Smith says.

“Not saying they’re all good now,” Lisa Smith interjects. No, her husband agrees. Still, “You get used to the smell; you get used to the taste.”

Fortunately for the Smiths, Jamaican cuisine is starting to flourish in South Carolina, particularly in cities located in the shadow of coastal resorts that make heavy use of Jamaican seasonal labor. Over the past three years, Charleston County alone has gained two Jamaican food festivals and two Jamaican restaurants, with another two scheduled to open this year in North Charleston.

By Queens standards, the numbers are miniscule, but their meaning is significant: The first-rate plate of saucy goat curry that eaters can now score in Bluffton, Myrtle Beach and Charleston is an excellent indicator of how tastes travel, as well as the ways in which economic, demographic and legal shifts help determine what’s for dinner.

Looks can be deceiving
At the first Reggae Jerk and Wine Festival, held at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in 2014, the line for Reggae Grill’s jerk chicken and ribs stood steady at about two dozen people, no matter how much meat co-owner Devon Henderson chopped and sold.

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“We don’t do it spicy,” he boasted. “We do it moist.” According to Henderson, lesser cooks skip the overnight marinade and hide their jerk’s flaws behind a curtain of flavor-obliterating heat.

“Jerk is more than just seasoning from a shop,” organizer Lorna Shelton-Beck says sternly. “The essence of jerk is a method of cooking, cooking for hours and hours. In Jamaica, they dig a hole in the ground and cover the bottom with pimento wood; one of these years, we want to do an actual demo.”

Even modern adaptations draw a crowd, though. In its inaugural year, the festival attracted 1,500 people. “Then what happened last year, is it rained, but people came and danced in the rain,” Shelton-Beck, a native Jamaican, says. “It was awesome. You realize that jerk originated in Jamaica, but jerk is now one of its biggest exports.”

Shelton-Beck is talking generally about the unfettered spread of contemporary Jamaican popular culture, which also accounts for the reggae tunes she once heard played in a Beijing nightclub. But it’s impossible to talk about formal financial interests without noting the longstanding relationship between Charleston and the Caribbean. Charleston has been on the receiving end of Barbadian people, goods and aesthetics since long before statehood: Historians sometimes refer to Charles Towne as “a colony of a colony.”

Even now, centuries after the flow of enslaved people has ended, visitors take in Rainbow Row and conclude, as an NPR correspondent did recently, “It looks more like a remote island than a U.S. city.”

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So if the buildings and crape myrtles are the same, it stands to reason that oxtail with allspice would have made the trip, too. Yet the current Caribbean food clamor doesn’t stem from what happened centuries ago.

Glimpses of guest work
“They’re a pretty hidden population,” Cindy Hahamovitch says of participants in the H-2 visa program, which annually brings more than 100,000 people from Latin America, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia to the U.S. to pick crabs, bale straw, operate Ferris wheels and clean hotel rooms.

Hahamovitch, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, is the author of “No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History.” She describes guest workers as “exist(ing) somewhere on the spectrum between slavery and freedom,” pointing to documented instances of employers beating, raping, starving and stealing from visa holders.

As Shelton-Beck puts it, “In Jamaica, you get breaks. You get off at a decent hour. When you come here, they work these guest workers to death.”

The U.S. first started recruiting workers from Mexico and the Bahamas in 1942; Jamaica joined the program the following year. Initially, Hahamovitch says, the British Colonial Office prohibited Jamaican guest workers from taking jobs in the South.

“They were afraid of what would happen to Jamaicans who grew up in a race-blind society, encountering Jim Crow and getting themselves lynched,” she says. Ultimately, the sugar industry’s demands overwhelmed British objections. Between the 1940’s and 1990’s, tens of thousands of Jamaicans cut cane in south Florida.

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Later, the program was modified to include non-agricultural work. Today in South Carolina, there are possibly as many as 1,844 nonagricultural, or H2-B, guest workers, along with 3,041 H2-A guest workers picking crops such as tobacco, watermelon, peaches and corn. (It’s hard to pin down precise numbers because the Department of Labor releases statistics on how many positions it certifies, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn’t reveal how many of those certifications lead to a job offer.)

Compared with other Southern states, South Carolina is just about in the middle of the pack when it comes to reliance on nonagricultural guest workers: There are more than three times as many H2-B workers in Florida, for example (and one-third as many in Tennessee.) But South Carolina is the only state other than Florida in which waiter/waitress rates among the top five positions held by H2-B workers.

Stigma of the South
South Carolina hotels and restaurants certified to hire guest workers this year include La Carreta in Summerville, Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina in Mount Pleasant, Marriott Resorts on Hilton Head Island and Hilton Worldwide in Myrtle Beach.

Migrant worker

Migrant worker

Locally, though, the most prominent employer is Kiawah Island Inn Co. Earlier this summer, the luxury resort agreed to pay $2.3 million to settle a federal class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 240 Jamaican housekeepers, cooks and other service workers who alleged they were underpaid.

“You got to put the work out,” says Reggae Grill’s Devon Henderson, who worked at Kiawah from 2003-05. “It’s challenging.”

Before Henderson finished his last stint at Kiawah, he lined up a job at a Doubletree. “You’ve got to know what you’re going to do,” he says of the rules governing immigration. Foreigners have to marry or secure another job before their H2-B visa expire or risk deportation. “But yeah, a lot of people stay.”

That’s a break from the past, when Jamaican workers focused primarily on making enough money during their seasonal assignments to return home and support their families.

“Jamaica is paradise,” explains Shelton-Beck.

Trevor Fraser owns Caribbean American Foods, an online retailer and former publisher of a national Caribbean dining guide. He also has trouble fathoming why Jamaicans would want to resettle in the South.

“With the history and work program itself, the way Jamaicans were treated, there’s a stigma,” he says. “There’s sort of a hostility.”

Since the 1960s, when a change in laws made it easier for Jamaicans to immigrate to the U.S. than the U.K., Jamaicans seeking to start over in another country have made a beeline to New York. According to census data, Jamaicans are the third largest immigrant group in the city, with more than 160,000 Jamaicans living there.

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By contrast, there are 1,451 Jamaican households in South Carolina.

Leaving soon for NY
Jamaicans weren’t the only cultural group with a collective dream of better living conditions in New York City. Ira Gershwin’s allegiance to his birthplace aside, the lyricist was channeling the voices of African-Americans across the Lowcountry when he wrote “There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York,” for Porgy and Bess’ Sportin’ Life.

Between 1910 and 1970, more than six million black Southerners left the region for cities in the North, Midwest and West. And their paths followed a pattern: Memphians went to Chicago; Kentuckians went to Detroit and coastal Carolinians went to New York.

Since 1970, the trend has flipped. The reversal was barely perceptible at first, but by the 2000s had snowballed into what demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution described to USA Today as “a virtual evacuation from many northern areas.”

Around the same time, friends of Trevor Fraser, the Caribbean food salesman, decided to try their luck in the South. His brother went to Atlanta to open a tropical treats shop, but customers tired of mango and papaya in their ice cream after a year or so.

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“He eventually had to close,” Fraser says. Another guy, who had a restaurant in Queens, moved to North Carolina to sell Jamaican meat patties:

“He said, ‘Listen, I’m not making as much as I would like to in the Carolinas. There isn’t a Caribbean population. I get patronage from white customers, but it’s not on a regular basis.’ He’s back in New York.”

Frisco Thumbtzen, who previously ran Cajun Kountry Kitchen Cafe in North Charleston, two years ago ran headlong into the obstacles that stymied Fraser’s friends when he launched the Charleston Caribbean Creole food truck.

“Jamaican cuisine is not very well liked and not very well received here,” he says. “My truck metamorphosed: It turned and twisted, because the businessman in me came out, and that’s when the crab legs started to come, and then I took the catfish out because fried whiting was more presentable to people. I literally had to put chicken tenders on my truck.”

Redefining normal
Thumbtzen tried to adjust recipes for customers who scorned spicy food, scaling back the spice in his jerk chicken.

“I am probably one of the only chefs who talks about their food not being authentic,” he says. “I use the same ingredients; I use the same flavors, but I take out most of the heat. That’s real important.”

Still, there was no saving the conch fritters. Thumbtzen theorizes that the unfamiliar is as disagreeable to Charleston eaters as chile peppers.

It’s possible that the growth of Charleston’s Latino population has contributed to the increased tolerance for Jamaican cooking. But it’s far more likely that the surging influx of New Yorkers, decades removed from the South, is bolstering the trend.

“Pretty much everybody went to New York and now they’re coming back,” says Henderson’s co-owner Carlton Blair.

That means there’s suddenly an economic impetus for food-and-beverage professionals such as Henderson, who studied hospitality in Jamaica, to parlay their guest workmanship into a restaurant venture.

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“There was a big exodus from South Carolina, so you have a whole generation of people who got used to Jamaican food, so that became part of their normal eating,” Shelton-Beck says. People like the Smiths and people like Sharese and Edwin Kline, who arrived at Reggae Grill wearing a Yankees ballcap. The Klines — she works in human resources, he drives a taxi — moved here late last year from Manhattan.

“I have family down here,” Sharese Kline says. “My grandmother moved to New York to take care of one of her sisters. But we’re used to eating different kinds of food. We’re used to eating this, and we went months without eating Jamaican food.”

“Myself, I probably come twice a week,” Edwin Kline adds. “I’m big on their jerk chicken.”

And with that, he went back to his plate.

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