After several futile attempts at explaining the ingredients in his "Jamaican beef patties wrapped in orange dough," Caribbean food vendor Felix James gave up and simply described the contents of his product in one quick phrase: "anything that pleases you."
James' description of his fast-selling Jamaican beef patties also summed up the rest of the culinary and musical attractions at the 12th annual Caribbean Summer in the Park Day, a West Indian-style festival held from 1 to 7 p.m. yesterday on the Ellipse.
James and more than 5,000 others showed up to help turn the Ellipse into a little bit of the Caribbean with a summer extravaganza featuring spicy food, hot weather and live reggae, calypso and Haitian music.
"Anytime you can get reggae music like this in D.C. and some nice spicy food, you're all set," said Stu Werner of Arlington, adding that he was drawn to the event because of his interest in rhythm and blues music, which bears some similarities to reggae music. "There aren't too many places around here that you can be treated to all this," he added.
A half dozen bands entertained the thousands of onlookers in the tent-covered grandstand and the hundreds who danced before them, all seeming to take the heat in stride. Meanwhile, vendors lined up along the perimeter of President's Park and sold food and goods ranging from curried goat to imported trinkets.
Started in 1974 as a way for Caribbean immigrants to devote one day to the public promotion of their diverse and colorful culture, the festival has continued to grow as the estimated tens of thousands of West Indians in the District have become more visible.
In other North American cities, participants in Caribbean festivals often wander through the streets wearing elaborate and colorful costumes. But, said John Blake, a Caribbean news editor for WHUR radio and one of the organizers of the event, the Caribbean residents in the Washington area are "a more sophisticated group. In most cities there is a real carnival, but that wouldn't work here. West Indians in Washington tend to be laid-back; they are usually professional or semi-professional people."
Likewise, the Caribbean resident in Washington -- typically a teacher, student or businessman -- is generally regarded by working-class West Indians elsewhere as more restrained, making him quite content to party in the confines of a downtown Washington park.
"I've been to a lot of these types of festivals in other cities in the Northeast and in places like Houston . . . and there aren't as many booths or people here as at the other festivals," said Alan Peck, a native of the District whose mother emigrated from Jamaica. "But overall, the quality is just as good."
"I came for the music and the food, but you also see a wide array of people here. It's not just blacks and natives of the Caribbean, but you see a lot of people of all cultures," said Dianne Kern, also of the District.
The festival, which returned to the District this year after a one-year hiatus, costs about $15,000 annually, Blake said. He added that a year ago District and Federal budget cutbacks were enough to suspend the event for a year.
He added that this year's sponsors include the D.C. Committee to Promote Washington, the D.C. Lottery Board, the Stroh Brewery Co. and Caribbean Festivals Inc., a group of Caribbean residents who are involved in promoting West Indian musicians and artists in the District.
Vendors along the sidewalk served up food from the various islands -- such as curried rice, boiled goat meat and fried vegetable rolls -- not to mention some more local, and less spicy, favorites such as french fries, lemonade and fruit salad.
"This is one of the few opportunities around here where people from many different Caribbean countries can come and share each other's dishes. Although the culture is similar, there are some subtle differences," said James, who emigrated from Guyana 15 years ago and now lives in Riverdale.
To ensure that the foods served were as safe as they were tasty, U.S. Department of Public Health officials traveled from vendor to vendor testing the temperature and contents of the food.
"Some of the vendors are cooking the food with not enough heat," one inspector said, adding that the level of compliance with safety regulations by the vendors was "just reasonable, but I'm not going to close anyone down."