Jerk Turkey On The Menu

Nelson at the James Beard House dinner earlier this fall. A one-woman army, she was tasked with appetizers and cocktails. Copyright Clay Williams for the New York Times, with permission from the photographer. 

Nelson at the James Beard House dinner earlier this fall. A one-woman army, she was tasked with appetizers and cocktails. Copyright Clay Williams for the New York Times, with permission from the photographer. 

This Thanksgiving, Chef Nadine Nelson will be doing her turkey a little differently—and she's encouraging New Haveners to do the same as they head into the holiday season.

Nelson, founder of Global Local Gourmet, is leading the Thanksgiving charge with a jerk turkey. It’s an homage to her diasporic roots and to Black Thanksgiving traditions she’s observed since moving to the United States.  Earlier this week, she brought that story to WNHH Radio’s “Kitchen Sync” in preparation for Thanksgiving.

“People always say: Make something that you know for people when they come over,” she said. “But I always think it’s fun to make something you’ve always wanted to make. Make it so that it’s kind of foolproof.”

It comes from Nelson’s approach to food and cooking. A self-described “not restaurant chef,” she has molded a career around cultural fusion, working across countries with a bright palette of spices always at hand. Whisper-thin collard greens and glowing, spice-kissed carrots. Sticky rice and the vibrant anti-waste Food Mandalas that she has made at several local pop-ups. In October, she took those skills to New York for an ”Odyssey Across Africa” dinner at the James Beard House, as part of New York African Restaurant Week. 

Tasked with appetizers and cocktails, she worked and reworked recipes from different corners of the continent: Jollof rice sushi with collard greens and a peanut dressing, open samosa naan bites, a chicken kofta oasis and Ntaba grilled goat, Moroccan carrot salad. From New England Sweetwater Farm and Distillery, cocktails called the Sankofa and Teranga. 

She learned secrets with her fellow chefs—smoking out the bitter taste of palm oil, broiling onions, tomatoes and peppers to intensify flavor, adding curry, thyme and ginger to jollof rice.  

“I wanted to do a story of North, South, East, West and Central [Africa],” she said. “I think that talking foods from the African diaspora, there’s an opportunity. A lot of people haven’t talked about foods from the Caribbean, from Latin America, from Africa.”

“You see the different ties—that even though we might have traveled through our enslavement to different areas, we still have that connection to Africa in many ways, in many different cuisines,” she added. “I think that connection is really important to acknowledge and to celebrate, and to tell people about.”

Then she brought them back to New Haven, scheming new dishes and a hybrid centerpiece for her Thanksgiving table, and tables far beyond the holiday season. Those include what has become her signature jerk turkey, an unexpected dish that has come from a hope of yoking cultures for her daughter.

When Nelson was growing up, she swore off turkey—it was a dish she and her family didn’t want at the table. But almost a decade ago, she gave birth to her daughter Soleil. And things transformed as she thought about the tastes she hoped her daughter could grow up with. 

“I kind of insisted on it,” she said. “My daughter is half-African American, and I feel like, you know, it’s Thanksgiving. I know that we’re Jamaican but we’re in America, that we need to have a turkey.”

She experimented with the bird until it was just right, perfecting a green seasoning (recipe in link above) and jerk sauces with which to brine it. Her kitchen filled with the smell of onions, herbs, thyme, parsley, cilantro, garlic.   

“My family was like ‘Oh, I don’t like turkey’ and they ate all of it,” she said, laughing. 

She also has sides: cornbread stuffing with turkey sausage, sugared sweet potato casserole, guava-glazed curry carrots, Algerian green beans with garlic and paprika and cloves, creamy party potatoes and tandoori-spiced cauliflower cooked at high heat. They're different each year, to keep her experimenting. And she said she's hoping her friends, colleagues and fellow New Haveners will do the same.   

“Have some fun,” she said. “Have a little creativity. It’s really good to have your standards that everyone likes, but I think that people … they look forward to seeing the different things.”  

To listen to the episode of WNHH Community Radio's "Kitchen Sync," click on or download the audio above or check out "Kitchen Sync" on iTunes, where it is a free podcast.