Grandma's jerk recipe a hot favourite in US

Observer senior reporter

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

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This week Beverley Johnson will pack her culinary equipment and cache of jerk sauces for another appearance at the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival in Queens, New York. The owner of Bev's Jerk Center in Decatur, Georgia, she is a self-described walking restaurant.

The 54-year-old Johnson is one of the leading foot soldiers for jerked food in the United States. She has represented the spicy recipe at conferences in New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington DC.

“I want to show everyone that Jamaican food is clean, fun and great to eat,” she told the Jamaica Observer.

Johnson, who is from Lluidas Vale, St Catherine, has operated Bev's Jerk Center in Decatur for the past 23 years. Previously, she ran a store in Brooklyn, New York, for 18 years.

Jerked meat, a peppery favourite among Jamaicans for years, dominated menus at both establishments. She has seen her clientele evolve from Jamaicans and West Indians to American celebrities like R Kelly and Erykah Badu.

At every food show she attends, Johnson takes visitors to her booth through the history of jerk.

“I cook on spot so people can see how we prepare the food. The lines at my booth are always long…I see people faint in my lines,” she boasted.

There was a time when Beverley Johnson was a student of jerk. She used to accompany her grandmother, Viola Smith, to the market where she sold jerked chicken and pork, using a home-made concoction Johnson utilises to this day.

Viola Smith's recipe was a mix of escallion, pimento leaves and seeds, Scotch bonnet pepper, and bird pepper. Johnson said it was a winning combination wherever they went in Jamaica and inspired her to go into the food business when she migrated to the United States in 1982.

She spent 10 years as a cook in a Jamaican restaurant in Utica before branching out and starting the first Bev's in 1992. Her methods at work and at festivals are similar.

“I do home-cooked food, jus' like how my grandmother use to do it. Going on the road yuh have to be prepared — like Jerk Fest this week, my chicken season already,” she said.

The gallery on Bev's Jerk Center's website is proof that policy is effective. Some of the biggest names in Jamaican entertainment, including Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, Spragga Benz and Shabba Ranks, have dined there.

Jerk's growing appeal among celebrities and high-profile chefs has seen the food gain mainstream acceptance. That prompted her move to Decatur, a historic city with strong ties to the American Civil War, a population of less than 25,000.

She manages Bev's Jerk Center with a six-member team. Though the working man's food she watched her grandmother prepare weekly is now savoured by everyone from Barack Obama to Beyonce, for Johnson, a mother of four children, the work continues.

“Yuh have a lotta people out there doing jerk but not all of dem is good. The good thing is, some years ago nobody know 'bout it, now everybody getting to know the food,” she said.

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