Blessings in disguise can appear in, well, lots of disguises. When one arrives on the island of Jamaica, you might be more likely to recognize, then seize upon it. Gary Feblowitz and a group of friends were on a scuba diving trip to the island when disaster struck: ear drum injuries meant they had to remain on solid ground, and would be unable to fly for two weeks. Oh, darn. They called their jobs with the news, rented a car, and began traversing the entire island. They became obsessed with jerk, and all of the subtle differences they encountered, all over different parts of the island. When the ears healed, he armed himself with all the sauces and spices, and set off back home to re-create the delicious cooking he fell in love with. Of course, he couldn't do it.
"We went back, and eventually I noticed everyone was cooking over these little sticks." He asked a Jamaican friend if maybe he could get some. He went back home, and waited. And waited some more. After about a year, a package arrived. Feblowitz says the Pimento wood looked like fireplace logs, and he didn't know what to do with them. So he tossed them in the woodchopper and gave them a whirl.
"It was very strong, like mesquite, but not as irritating." He figured out how to tame the strength, and realizing he had cracked the code to his authentic Jamaican crave, decided to go into business. It took him about five years of wrangling with both U.S. and Jamaican governments to start importing the distinctive smelling Pimento wood from the tree of the same name (also known as allspice). Now, he's got clientele coming from all over the world. "We're all united by this one thing. It's like reggae. Very unique, and capable of uniting people all over the world."
An early an longstanding customer is Tim McKee, who was in the process of opening Smalley's Caribbean BBQ in 2006. Feblowitz got a call from the acclaimed chef. "I knew who he was, that's for sure."
McKee asked where he was located. "I said, Tim — we're right here in Minnetonka! Tim said, 'You've got to be shitting me.'"
Feblowitz wasn't shitting, and thought he would prove it by bringing some true jerk chicken over to La Belle Vie.
"The whole crew comes out of the kitchen looking like ZZ Top, and starts huddling around the chicken. Whispering and nibbling, nibbling and whispering." This was the ingredient necessary to McKee's (and partner Sean Smalley's) success as a true Caribbean BBQ restaurant — one of the great BBQ traditions of the world.
McKee and Smalley also set out on a tour of the island, organized by Feblowitz, to do their own R&D. There they finagled (in exchange of hundred dollar bills) sauce recipes out of the finest jerk masters on the island. So you know what this means — if you can't go to Jamaica, you can go to Stillwater. The true flavor of the island is there.
Feblowitz also calls out little-known gem Milton's in Crystal, where they make very good use of his product. Burnsville's (and soon-to-be Nicollet Avenue's) Pimento Jamaican Kitchen also uses the wood for their own Jerk. Feblowitz says he and his partner and fiancée Jodi Schoenauer are the only legit dealers of the product in the U.S. — they've even been featured in the New York Times for their importing efforts.
"Once you’ve had the smoke, it’s hard to give it up," Julia Moskin, who wrote the article and began experimenting with jerk in her own home kitchen.
Of course, the smoke from Pimento Wood is as important to jerk as any smoke is important to any BBQ tradition. Feblowitz says he recently did an 18-hour smoke — he's diehard and doesn't wait until summer to cook jerk. There are "a few other diehards like me," but for the most part, this is his slow season. He's got hundreds of clients, he says probably at least 500, though the numbers vary. They're all united by the jerk.
Pimento Wood "Secret" Jerk Chicken Recipe
1.5 C scallions or leeks both white and green parts
2 to 5 Habanero or Scotch bonnet chilis, seeded, minced
3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled, minced
2 T allspice berries crushed or 2 T fresh pimento
6 pimento leaves
2 T fresh thyme leaves or 1 t dried thyme
1/4 C cider vinegar or white vinegar
4 T soy sauce
2 T lemon or lime juice
1 T dark molasses or 1 T dark brown sugar
1 T fresh ginger, peeled, minced or 1 t ground ginger
2 t freshly ground cinnamon (approx. 1 stick)
2 t freshly ground nutmeg
2 T black pepper, ground
2 oz. dark rum
2 whole chickens halved
2 limes, halved
The key to great jerk is fresh seasonings. If you can, use a mill to grind whole spices into your recipe.
In a blender combine oil, scallions, chilis, garlic, allspice, pimento leaves, and thyme. Then add vinegar, soy sauce, lemon or lime juice, molasses or brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, and rum. Whirl until very smooth. Pour marinade into jar or plastic container and keep refrigerated until ready to use. Makes about two cups. Rub the chicken with lime and salt. Then add the rub. Allow to sit in the refrigerator overnight.
In order to cook the jerk, follow the directions from the Pimento Wood website here.