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Food - The Atlanta Caribbean Jerk Festival celebrates its 10th year

History, highlights, and tips from the annual jerk cook-off's 2014 winner

Glen Simmonds is the executive director and co-founder of the annual Atlanta Caribbean Jerk Festival, which returns for a 10th year this Saturday in Decatur. A native of Saint Ann Parish in Jamaica, Simmonds shares his birthplace with Bob Marley and famed Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey. Simmonds and his friend Lloyd Roberts founded the festival in 2006 as a way to celebrate Caribbean culture and cuisine in a family friendly atmosphere. "I recall as a child watching my mother, aunts, and grandmothers create all kinds of tasty dishes, which led to my interest in the culinary world," he says. For Simmonds, jerk cuisine is uniquely Jamaican, and it reflects the country's cultural heritage and history.

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Last year, nearly 20,000 people attended the Atlanta Caribbean Jerk Festival. Although the event becomes more sophisticated each year to accommodate growing crowds, Simmonds's most memorable moment is a simple one: listening to the Jamaican band Third World perform in 2011 while sipping a Red Stripe and eating jerk chicken. This year's festival highlights include a dominos tournament, food tastings of authentic Caribbean products and dishes, craft vendors, kids' activities, and live music by international reggae star Maxi Priest and soca music queen Alison Hinds. The festival also hosts an annual cook-off competition. This year five chefs will vie for the title of Atlanta's Top Jerk Chef.

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Jerk is a way of seasoning that has roots in Jamaica. Although most commonly associated with chicken, meats such as pork, ribs, crab, lobster, and fish can also be jerked. Typical seasonings include allspice (pimento) and scotch bonnet peppers (habañero). The meat is marinated with the spice mixture through jerking, poking holes in the meat so the rub permeates the surface and slowly smoking it over pimento wood. When done correctly, the jerk method results in tender juicy meat with crispy skin and a smoky flavor. At this weekend's cook-off competition, each chef's take on jerk will be judged on taste, texture, presentation, and creativity.

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Chef Donald Roberts won the competition in 2014. When Roberts was young, his dad would take him to Old Harbour in southern Jamaica to eat jerk. "I was as excited as a kid at an ice cream shop," he says. But when he revisited the stands as an adult decades later, he found that most restaurants weren't preparing jerk the traditional way anymore. Roberts began experimenting with jerk in his own backyard to try and recreate the authentic jerk flavor store-bought sauces and rubs lacked.

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What started as a hobby became a full-time passion project for Roberts. After receiving validation from his Jamaican friends and family, Roberts opened his Stone Mountain restaurant Juci Jerk in 2012. Since then he has served thousands of people, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. For Roberts, the biggest compliment is when diners say his food reminds them of home.

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Most Jamaican families have their own jerk recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation. While Roberts won't reveal his secret formula, he advises home cooks to begin with a simple rub using garlic, onions, cinnamon, brown sugar, thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and of course allspice and scotch bonnet pepper. "You need to play around with the proportions of the seasonings 'til it favors your individual palate," he says.

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When it comes to preparing jerk chicken, there are no strict rules. You can use white or dark meat with or without bones, Roberts says. Just make sure to marinate overnight in the refrigerator so the meat can absorb the spices. When ready to cook, heat up a charcoal grill or smoker and cook the meat on slow indirect heat 'til it's brown on the outside and moist on the inside. Serve it right off the grill with sides of rice, peas, and fried plantains.

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