While propelling south on Flatbush Avenue past hair salons, roti parlors, and colorful fruit stands spilling breadfruit and bananas onto the sidewalk, you’d be hit by the pungent smell around Fenimore Street. The odor would pull you along like a Star Trek tractor beam until you reached the awning that spelled “Fish” against a bright-yellow background. Passing into the store, you were confronted by a deep, narrow space split down the middle, with a Korean fishmonger on the left—his specimens of butterfish, ocean perch, and whiting laid out in neat rows—and the more anarchic Danny and Pepper on the right. Through a littered window you could see the blackened quarter-chickens laid out like cordwood, and through a rear door, billows of smoke that proclaimed that the product had been cooked over charcoal.
For 10 years at least, Danny and Pepper had been producing the world’s best jerk chicken, following a tradition originated by Arawak Indians in the mountains of eastern Jamaica.
The current recipe involves massaging the poultry with a loose paste of herbs, chiles, and native allspice, then grilling it with the marinade still clinging to it, resulting in flesh that is gloriously charred, dark pink inside, and faintly sweet tasting. A couple of months ago, the fish market vanished, later replaced by a display of soca, reggae, and hip-hop CDs, and the name of the stand was changed to Danny Express. Luckily, the chicken was as good as ever. What happened to Pepper, I wondered? Had he—taking a page from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—disappeared into a vat of fiery jerk sauce?
Last week I noticed a new place across the street and up one block, suspiciously named Peppa’s Jerk Chicken. There was
a similar receptacle loaded with quarter-chickens ($5, $8, $12), but a red sign overhead advertised a much fuller menu of island favorites like goat head soup, cornmeal
pudding, and saltfish and ackee. A conversation with the kid behind the counter confirmed that the new place was indeed owned by the erstwhile Pepper of Danny and Pepper, now restyling his name as Peppa. I determined that a comparison of the two jerks must be made—a jerk-off, if you will.
And so on a recent Sunday I appeared at a Grove Street party with two aluminum tubs of chicken, nearly identical in appearance. I’d squirted Scotch bonnet sauce in the corner of each, as I warned the guests. Let me note that Danny’s homemade sauce is a little thicker, with a yellowish cast, while Peppa’s is thinner and more vinegary, like the original sauce at Danny and Pepper. As the guests tore into the two tubs, I watched anxiously and polled them on their opinions. “I like Peppa’s better; it’s richer and saltier,” said Ruth. Indeed, the chicken coating flaunted a faint hint of Worcestershire. At first Nick disagreed with her, but finally drifted into the Peppa camp. Sookie preferred Danny’s for its milder taste, then had the misfortune of picking up one of the pieces that had touched the sauce. She spent the rest of the party fanning her mouth.
The 10 guests, including myself, preferred Peppa’s by a margin of 7-3.