2011 Caribbean-American Labor Day Parade in Brooklyn, the Food and the Spectacle


Scantily clad dude toasts the crowd from atop one of the semis that pulls the floats in the parade.

Though its antecedents can be traced to Carnival parties in Harlem in the 1920s, the Caribbean-American Labor Day Parade (there is no official name) began in the mid-’60s. It resembles in almost all respects the Mardi-Gras celebrations held in New Orleans and Trinidad, which occur 40 days before Easter, at the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar.

Typical menu of one of the more ambitious Jamaican operations. (Click on any picture to enlarge.)

How our celebration, which now includes an estimated 3 million observers and participants, ended up along Eastern Parkway is anybody’s guess. It begins at Schenectady and Eastern Parkway and moves west until it reaches the Brooklyn Museum, just short of Grand Army Plaza.

This stretch of Eastern Parkway is tree-lined and has access roads on both sides, making it ideal for meandering crowds and food stands, and, as the marchers in their colorful costumes pass by, many spectators stop for Caribbean eats at an estimated 250 food stands — some quite elaborate affairs manned by a dozen or more cooks and sellers, others simple operations involving one elderly lady and a card table. Everyone flies their island colors, and participants represent Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Barbados, Guyana, and Haiti, among other nations. Since most Spanish-speaking islands now have their own national parades, the presence of islanders from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico has declined in the last few years.

The sizzle that you hear is breadfruit frying.


The dancers got a little jiggy with it.

Jerk chicken is probably the easiest viand to find, nearly all of it barbecued on the spot in oil drums over lump charcoal, which is a recipe for excellent jerk chicken. The one I tried was unusually herby, and had a Scotch bonnet sauce that packed quite a wallop. And vending jerk chicken is not limited to Jamaican stalls; Trinidadians, Panamanians, Guyanese, and Bajans (Barbadians) also get in on the act. Jerk has become a pan-Caribbean phenomenon.

Jerkin’ the chicken is an art form.

The street-side jerk chicken is often of stunning quality.


Have your picture taken with the prez.

The dish called macaroni pie is our mac-and-cheese.

I got Haitian griot from one stand, sided with the freshest green salad you can imagine, and an amazing goat-head soup of Jamaican origin, with a slightly gluey consistency, and all sorts of vegetables inside and a slight burn; the soup in this context had become a species of pepper pot, one of Jamaica’s favorite street foods.

Following are a few more of the day’s festivities, which ran from the 11 a.m. kickoff at the Eastern end of the parade, and ended officially at 6 p.m. — though the celebration extends far into the evening.

The sidewalks of Eastern Parkway sprouted trees of cotton candy.

Individual dancers inhabited these sorts of colorful rolling frame contraptions festooned with fabric and feathers.


Konkrete Kitchen specialized in fried things, like whiting and wings.

The parade pauses for a moment of reflection.

Mmmmm … oxtails!

Dredging up some corn from goat-head soup