For three straight days downtown, the air was thick with the sound of break beats and the smell of soul food. Asheville’s 35th annual Goombay Festival was held Sept. 11-13 in Pack Square Park for only the second time since leaving its former home on Eagle Street. The festival was inspired by a Caribbean tradition dating back to the 16th century, which allowed slaves to hold a party once a year wherein they would cook for each other, play music, drink, dance and celebrate their African heritage.
“It grew exponentially from last year,” says festival organizer Jessica Tomasin. Attendance at last year’s festival was estimated to be around 5,000 to 7,000 people, but this year Tomasin gauges numbers were somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 15,000.
“People came from all over,” she says. “We talked to a lot of people throughout the day that had come from Atlanta, Charlotte, Durham, Gastonia. … There were a lot of local folks, but there were also people that saw it and said, ‘Doug E. Fresh for free? I’ll drive three hours for that.'”
On the stage, Doug E Fresh, Lyric, Al Coffee and Da Grind, Kat Williams and Jonathan Scales laid down grooves, but on the lawn there was also magic happening among the tents and vendors. An abundance of stalls offered every imaginable variation of soul food, Jamaican cuisine and West African cooking. A walk through the crowds overloaded the senses with the smells of wood fires, bubbling deep fryers and slow-stewed curries.
Green Opportunities’ GO Kitchen-Ready program served up fried fish plates with collard greens, scratch-made potato wedges and coleslaw as well as blueberry, sweet potato and bean pies by the slice or whole. And not to be missed was the famous fish burger from Ms. Hanan Shabazz, who has been slinging soul food in Asheville for generations.
There was a nearly 20-minute wait at Gwennie’s Jamaican Jerk Chicken stand. Decorated with large Jamaican and Rastafarian flags, the tent was dishing up jerk and curried chicken, beef patties and peas and rice.
For those who wanted Jamaican food but couldn’t deal with the line, Carl and Stacy Brown‘s Jamaican food stall was right next door, “They’re chefs, and Carl cooks at the hospital, but he’s never vended at a festival before,” Tomasin explains, “So I worked with him to get him everything that he needed and walked him through everything from getting insurance to what the expectations were from a festival standpoint with the health department. And he had a really great festival.”
The Browns served jerk chicken fresh off the smoldering grill, as well as curried chicken, stewed until tender and elegantly spiced, not to mention curry goat and oxtails.
“I just really wanted to put the focus back on the community,” Tomasin says, explaining that this year in planning Goombay, she put together a committee of community members and worked with a minority enterprise development committee to seek out local entrepreneurs interested in vending at the festivals she helps organize. Those vendors came out in droves, she says, relying on her to help teach them the ins and outs of getting in the game.
At Kente Kitchen, a locally run caterer specializing in West African fare, Ramona Young served an incredible palm butter chicken with rice. It was savory, full of spices and tasted like a cross between a tagine and Indian butter chicken. She also doled out a veggie jollof rice, a one-pot, paella-like dish considered by many to be the inspiration for Louisiana’s jambalaya.
And Daddy D’s served up a mean pork chop sandwich, old-school style — bone-in pork chop pounded thin, breaded and double fried then tucked between two slices of white bread. Add some mayonnaise, ketchup or hot sauce if you wish, but the seasoning on the pork was so perfect that there was really no need to mess with such a beautiful thing.
“At this point I’m just so excited to see what can happen from here,” says Tomasin of her hopes for future festivals, echoing a sentiment surely felt from by anyone who ate as well as I did at this year’s Goombay.