By Nigel Spence
Fall. September. Yes, it’s here — the beautiful time of the year when the leaves change their colors, summer changes to fall and the sun is still warm — but not so intense that you can’t enjoy it. You can shut down the air conditioners, sleep with your windows open, as the mornings and evenings are marked with the breeze that smells like autumn and eventually, the holidays.
As a Jamaican, I am certainly no fan of the frigid air that’s sure to arrive in a few short weeks. As a matter of fact, just the thought of it makes me absolutely miserable. However, there is one last “end of summer” celebration that happens this time of year that keeps the heat burning inside of me far into Old Man Winter’s arrival.
That would be the Labour Day Weekend Caribbean Carnival in Brooklyn, NY.
Officially called the West Indian American Day Parade and just coming off its 45th year in New York City, it’s a four-day weekend of revelry that I have been a part of since I was introduced to it by my older sister when I was just 12 years old.
Despite the fact that over 3 million revelers (double the size of the population of Trinidad, the carnival capital of the universe) converge on the parade route on the last day of the official festivities, mainstream media coverage of the event remains virtually non-existent.
This makes it one of the largest street parties and public gatherings in the United States, but sadly also the best-kept secret even to many Caribbean residents right here in New York who live outside of Brooklyn.
It is also one of the hottest Caribbean culinary and musical events that is easily able to satisfy any food-obsessed or Caribbean food curious culinary adventurer, or Soca music fanatic, or steel-drum music devotee, or all-night party enthusiast and reveler like myself.
I would like to let you in on an even lesser known secret. A carnival of this magnitude doesn’t come together in three days or even three weeks. Unbeknownst to many, much like Trinidad, Brooklyn actually has an unofficial “Carnival Season” which kicks off at the beginning of the summer.
Mas Camps begin setting up in storefronts, or share a space with other businesses, or even out of someone’s apartment, building costumes and throwing parties to raise money to pay for all the necessities of a proper band showing come Carnival Monday — Labour Day in the United States.
Steel Drum players regroup at their respective “pan yards” after the long winter to begin practice for the annual Panorama competition. These pan yards could truly be someone’s actual backyard, an alleyway between two buildings, or, in the case of my favorite pan yard, in the back of a combination junkyard-musical stage, kitchen and bar.
With the large number of band members, young and old coming together after school or day job to get the sound tight, practice can go on until the wee hours of the weekend nights ‘ which then requires some form of sustenance, hence the kitchen and bar portion of the operation.
That’s where I come in.
On the weekends in the summer, I make the pilgrimage to my favorite pan yards to catch a vibe with the sweet sounds of the steel drums and sample some of the freshest, most authentic home-spun Caribbean cooking you will find outside of the islands. Shark and bake, bake and salt fish, bake made to order, chicken foot souse, cow foot souse, pelau, pholourie, curry goat roti, curry duck, doubles — all coming out of a couple of pots and frying pans balanced on a portable burner that is held up by a few boards nailed together.
If you come around often enough and they get to know you, you may even score a plate of some even more obscure “down home” food that is reserved for band members only, and maybe a rum drink.
That’s when I truly begin to feel like a part of the whole experience.
When the season is in full swing in the middle of the summer, I will leave the pan yard after hours and head to one of the infamous “breakfast fetes,” where the start time can be four in the morning, usually ending somewhere around noon.
These fetes are sometimes “all inclusive,” where you pay one price and experience a sizeable showcasing of delightful Caribbean libations, culinary mastery, scantily clad revelers and, of course, music. At that noontime cutoff, with the hot sun now beating down on my back, there is the inevitable announcement of the address where the party continues, usually immediately after and not too far away.
As I exit, there will probably be a corn soup and/or doubles man with cart parked right at the exit gate of the venue. Then, you might catch a glimpse of that non-Caribbean, non-initiated passerby on their way to work, looking on in amazement at the transaction unfolding before them when I, the shirtless sweaty mess, chest and belly shining with party glitter, Jamaican flag covering the head cup, purchase some corn soup to hold me over till I get to the next party location; paying the vendor using money retrieved from my shoes.
One can easily get to Brooklyn on a Thursday night, and continue this fiasco non-stop straight into Monday morning and this is only August. There were years when my affinity for indulgence (or over-indulgence) in this type of behavior caused me to miss work on Mondays, as one day just morphed into the next and you somehow lose track of time – what with the music, food and fancy friends made moving from on soiree to the next.
Then comes the long awaited big weekend, with the kick-off of the competitions, masqueraders, and of course, J’Ouvert, the early dawn Monday celebrations which is the pre-cursor to the main event, the parade on Eastern Parkway later that morning.
Along with the costumes and music, the Labour Day Parade is the largest and most diverse Caribbean food scene you will find on the planet. Almost every island and food preparation is represented on the parade route, if not from the stalls themselves, then from the restaurants surrounding. This assortment, variety and range of food is the one aspect of the Brooklyn Carnival that no island nation including Trinidad can hold a candle to. The stalls line the parade route and start cooking early in the morning, which is when I show up to take advantage of the fact that at that time, it is fresh off the fire and at its best. I gingerly take a nibble from the steaming hot cornmeal pone I just bought and pass it on to the gullible souls who unsuspectingly get roped into my escapades there, convinced to do so usually from listening to one of my outlandish stories of carnivals past. I warn them to pace themselves or we all will be stuffed to the gills way before we get to the bounty from Barbados and Haiti.
Suddenly, it seems from out of nowhere, one of the big parade trucks cranks up the million-megawatt amplifiers loaded on the back and begins pumping out the absolute loudest, mind bending, heart stopping heavy beats, playing the latest tunes of the year.
Slowly, they make their way one after the other down the parkway, masqueraders following in line directly behind, dressed in the very costumes I watched them painstakingly piecing together sometimes even way past midnight on a weeknight, still dutifully waking up to get to class or to face the boss at work in the morning. That’s the dedication that comes with being a participant in a band along with the hope of getting a winning review from the judges.
As the last band rolls by, I realize beyond a doubt that the season is officially over.
So if you find yourself in New York and it’s summer, take a trip over to Fun City Brooklyn and experience what can only be described as the most comprehensive Caribbean classroom the United States has to offer.
Snag a bench on the corner, close your eyes, take a bite, and listen to the sounds of pan coming from that random alleyway or a band still hanging on strong from J’Ouvert morning. Tief’ a wine from one, beg a sip from another, it’s all in good fun.
This is Carnival, Brooklyn style!
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.