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JerkFest goes to Vermont

Celebrating sustainability, Caribbean culture

Martin Desmarais
JerkFest goes to Vermont
Attendees enjoy some food at the 2014 Boston JerkFest. (Photo: Photo: Marceline V Photography)

Nicola Williams and her Williams Agency, a marketing and event planning agency focused on food, culture and arts, has 20 years of success with events in and around Boston. Now, Williams is heading north with plans to put on Vermont’s first Caribbean foodie festival this summer.

Set for Killington Resort in Killington, Vermont, from July 31 to August 1, the Vermont JerkFest & Reggae Festival will celebrate all things spicy and jerk hot, featuring local Jamaican jerk spiced food, spirits, craft beer and entertainment.

Williams hopes that the Vermont JerkFest can build on the success of the Boston JerkFest, which the Williams Agency has put on for the last two summers and will do so again this summer on June 26 and June 27 in the South End. Last year, the event attracted 4,000 people. This year Williams expects 5,000.

She says the Vermont JerkFest can come close to those numbers even though it is the first year.

At the heart of the JerkFest is the Jamaican hot and spicy seasoning, jerk, which is used in a rub to marinate and cook all sorts of meat from chicken to goat to shellfish, but the festival is really a cultural celebration of all things Caribbean, including a focus on locally produced food, the importance of sustainable agriculture and a strong connection between people and the land they live on.

For Williams, who is Jamaican, these environmentally aware attitudes are at the heart of her culture and are what really bring people together to celebrate at events such as the Boston JerkFest.

While the Boston event may be able to draw on a large Caribbean population in the city, Williams sees a prevailing attitude in Vermont about preserving the environment and the importance of the local farming industry that could attract attendees.

Many local Vermonters may have little experience with Jamaican or Caribbean culture, but the similar, earth-oriented values — celebrated at the JerkFest — should provide an immediate connection.

“Vermont reminds me of Jamaica in many ways with the connection to the land, to the mountains, to farms. Vermonters are also like Jamaicans and very down to earth and hard-working,” Williams said. “Those are some of the attributes that attracted me to Vermont.”

There is also hope that the Vermont JerkFest, especially since it is being held at Killington Resort, which can handle a large influx of visitors with its hotels, will attract travelers from the large Caribbean communities in Boston, Hartford and New York, as well as from Canadian cities including Montreal and Toronto.

“We very confident that it is going to be a great event and we are going to reach all sorts of people,” Williams said. “It is not just for one community, everybody is invited to come and we expect many people of different nationalities and backgrounds to attend.”

The Vermont JerkFest will kick off Friday July 31 with a Rum & Brew Tasting session featuring local craft beer, cider and mead and plenty of rum varieties. It will end the night of Saturday Aug. 1 with the Killington Jerk Jam, featuring reggae bands.

Local support

In between, on top of jerk food of every imagination, there will also be “Spice Lane,” which will showcase local specialty products, including hot sauces, desserts and cheeses; “Jerk Cook-Off” competition and “Seafood Throwdown” competition; as well as chef demos, a children’s activity zone and a culture stage promoting traditional and folkloric traditions of the Caribbean.

Mike Solimano, president of Killington Ski Resort, said he is very excited to have the event coming to Killington. According to Solimano, the decision to open up the resort to the Vermont Jerkfest was a result of the resort’s goal to continue to grow the number of events offered during the summer months.

The town has seemingly rolled out the red carpet for the JerkFest as well.

“The whole town is a partner for us as well,” Williams said. “They have really embraced and welcomed us.”

Williams started the Cambridge-based Williams Agency in 1995 and has been an organizing force behind the largely successful, decades-running, Cambridge Carnival International event, which has drawn as many as 100,000 to the day-long, fall event celebrating many African-rooted cultures with music, a parade and food. The agency also organizes other food and cultural festivals such as the Boston Local Food Festival, Hyper-Local Brewfest and Local Craft Brewfest.

Williams has always balanced her background in marketing, brand development, advertising, public relations and event promotions with her love of food, cultural events and the diversity that such celebrations often promote.

It became a great market niche for her agency as it has grown along with the explosion of the foodie culture around Boston and the clamor to support locally produced agriculture products.

“The local food movement is very much part of our values and we have been part of that movement from the start,” Williams said.

In expanding to Vermont with the JerkFest concept, Williams is drawing on the vast experience of Jamaica Awareness, a Florida-based Caribbean cultural promotion organization, which organizes food and ethnic festivals all across the country, including the Miami Reggae Festival. Williams called Jamaica Awareness and its executive director Sydney Roberts and “ideal partner” in the organizing and promotion of the Vermont JerkFest.

It all cooks up to have Williams expecting to taste success with the new Vermont event.

“I am looking forward to a spicy summer,” she said.