Jerk Hunt: Seeking?ro;”and Finding?ro;”"Real" Food in Jamaica.
Our hotel beach bar is blasting the Bob Marley dance remixes created by another guest here, a middle-aged party dad from Indiana named Rich. Rich used the original Wailers recordings?the early sessions produced down here by Coxsone Dodd and Lee Perry, before Bob decided to go worldwide and Peter Tosh quit. Tosh's stretchy wah-wah rhythm can't be heard at all on Rich's remixes, though. The guy replaced all the instruments with preprogrammed beat tracks and disco synth, so Bob's singing over what Rich must think is modern music, yet is actually 80s casiotone house. Zero syncopation.
I always said I wouldn't take a Caribbean vacation. But Negril?the smaller, funkier alternative to Montego Bay?isn't so Sun City. At least I'm hearing Marley's voice and not Jimmy Buffett's. On Negril beach it's illegal to build higher than the treeline, and there's some breathing room between the 50 or so hotels that line the coast from Bloody Bay, at the north end, to the South Negril River. It's a beautiful, white-sand beach, but they have those all over the region?the main attractions of Negril are reggae and pot. This beach was known as a Rasta spot even before it was known as a Rasta-tourism spot, apparently. Though probably not long before. Rich's been coming here every year since 1974, he told us.
If he was truly as wired as he seemed to be our first night here, when we met him, then Rich is hip and ahead of the curve: a full-blown, techno-and-nose-candy 80s man in a Land of Everlasting 70s.
A non-musical, non-drug reason to come to Negril might be to rest, and that's my girlfriend's purpose. It also seems to be the goal of most of the African-American tourists here, who were well represented on the plane and the shuttle bus but are mostly absent from the we-be-jammin' scene on the beach. It makes sense to assume that many are at the ritzier, quieter part of resort Negril, called the Cliffs. That's the coastline on the other side of the river, where instead of a sandy beach there's high ground with jagged coves and shady hardwoods. The hotels there are more or less gated, and they don't hire bands to enliven the night with reggae versions of Grateful Dead songs. It's a bit hard to rest on Negril beach, where sunbathers get pitched nonstop. It's the same hawkers every day, offering aloe massage, bracelets, parasailing, ganja or to braid your hair.
I don't want any of that, and am far from tired, yet I do have a mission, foolhardy as it is. I'm here to eat Jamaican food. The local music and drug economies are stacked against any possibility of connoisseurship, for certain. If you're shopping, your job is to pay too much for 70s garbage and like it. Maybe with a lot of time or cash a pungent bud of what the Rastas smoke or a Maytals record not available in the U.S. could be acquired. Even desiring those would make one a poor sport. But a mere week and single paycheck, plus wits and resolve, I figure, should be enough to get me eating what a finicky Jamaican of means might eat.
My Jamaican food obsession started with patties and soon progressed to rotis and curries, stewed kingfish and escoveitch, some goat and oxtail. It must have started at the Caribbean Day Parade one year (held Labor Day weekend in Brooklyn, it's easily the best annual outdoor party in New York), but the Golden Crust chain and Buff Patty on Myrtle Ave. in Fort Greene played early roles as well. Last year I started getting into the breakfasts, making weekend-morning trips to the boroughs to compare callaloos and ackees. I do not deny the role of whiteboy exoticism in my research. Jamaicans are not culinary proselytizers?not at all?and the challenge of penetrating their insular flavor universe lends my quest a sense of spice-hunting adventure some might equate with Columbus'. So be it?their food is good.
So far, questioning Jamaican tourist workers about how to get a taste of "the real thing" has caused me to come across like an especially perverse sort of whoremonger. The places on the beach specialize in things like jerk chicken pizza, and the most popular food purveyor in Negril by far is a McDonald's that operates out of a trailer. I don't want to make sweeping generalizations about the Americans and Europeans who holiday at Negril. So, just the facts: all of them smoke and none of them read. Draw your own conclusions.
Most of the bartenders, dealers and fixers in Negril are young Jamaican men, apparently trained at some central location to respond "Yah mon" to every question that begins "Can I" or "Would you." (That's why Rich's silly tape plays at the bar.) Friendly and accommodating as these guys are, they either prefer burgers themselves or can't imagine sending a tourist where they like to eat. I try to explain that I've eaten a lot of Jamaican food in New York, but it makes no impression, probably because the South Bronx, Harlem and Flatbush don't show up on American tv. They don't even seem to quite believe me about the millions of Caribbean immigrants in my hometown.
I asked Rich where's he's been eating in Negril since 1974, but what he told me was so appalling I erased it from my mind immediately after impact. In 27 visits he never made what seems to me the obvious move: walking the beach mile, crossing over the South River and turning left, away from the Cliffs, into the actual town of Negril, to look for real Jamaican restaurants. For our maiden voyage we decided to hit the first one we saw, which turned out to be Winners, the Jamaican version of a neighborhood OTB. They had fresh snapper, so we ignored the beamed-in horse races and tried one brown-stewed, the other escoveitched. Bingo.
We decided that every day we'd lunch somewhere on Negril beach or the road behind it, Norman Manley Boulevard. Then at sunset we'd walk down Manley, politely refusing all the cabbies honking and pulling over to pick us up, to the town. When you cross the bridge the change is absurdly dramatic, from sleepy Rasta theme park to tropical Third World cacophony in a single step. The road gets so narrow that trucks brush pedestrians as they pass, spewing gangsta dancehall and black clouds of soot. The cinderblock buildings with tin roofs, school children in matching uniforms, palm trees sprouting in all directions like gigantic shrubs, Coke signs, stray livestock and scent of sage burning with garbage set the same atmosphere as that of any village in India?naive soul-searchers should quit wasting their airfare. People haggle and argue (the worst we saw was a woman screaming while brandishing a coconut machete, ignored as if harmlessly insane), and men gather to do nothing much, but there's hardly an air of menace. Some folks even smile and greet the intrepid tourists.
The unique thing about Jamaica is not that it was colonized twice, but that it boasts a 300-year-old, living tradition of New-World-African self-determination. Vinegary escoveitch is Spanish (from Spanish Jews, some say); patties obviously derived from English meat pies and curry must have come with the Chinese and Indian laborers brought here after slavery was finally abolished. The island's trademark jerk technique, though, is credited to the Maroons?ex-slaves who escaped or were released while the Spaniards fought the Brits, their descendants born free in the mountains. It's easy to be romantic about the inventive barbecuing guerrillas who defied the plantation system, especially with modern Jamaica in the miasma of World Bank debt. Even the dreds selling "Bob Marley smoke" on Negril beach are, by extension, trafficking in their mythos. It'd take a Rich, though?someone completely indifferent toward African rhythm?to miss the hard evidence of their influence. I used to believe the legend about reggae's foundation in distorted radio signals from the U.S., warping the sound of r&b. Considered against the snapping backbeat of Jamaican patois, the theory doesn't hold up.
Jerk central is on the other side of the island, Boston Beach. The authentic stuff is rubbed with a spice mix featuring Scotch Bonnet peppers (relatives of habaneros) and slow-cooked over a fire of green allspice (pimento) wood. Tourist demand brought jerk to MoBay and Negril, where it's prepared roadside in converted oil barrels, exclusively, if you believe what's painted on those barrels, by gentlemen named "Smoky." There are at least a dozen Smokys on Manley Boulevard. No Smokettes. (Named for Jamaica's first prime minister, a key mover in a long, slow push toward independence, Manley runs through the habitat of a population of unsettlingly tall, bulgy-eyed land crabs. In June, the street is littered with the remains of such creatures, smooshed by taxis during their mating ritual.) My experience so far has led me to believe that, on the whole, Jamaican men are not really who you want cooking your goat curry or oxtail soup. But in Negril there's no equivalent to the Brooklyn street festivals where moms and grandmoms set up shop with their home cooking in foil chafing dishes. We calculated that in a culture with roles so traditional that culinary technique is for women while cooking in restaurants is for men, other corny stereotypes might hold true as well. So we started betting on the fattest chefs. Bingo again.
The best patties on Negril beach are available from Dr. Bill's. The place seems to have at least four rather assertive drug dealers operating in it at all times?even 8 a.m., to my surprise?so it's best to take out. The big-bellied chef makes his own pastry and agrees ("Yah mon!") to put whatever you want inside, then if he doesn't have that, substitutes cabbage. He made me a lobster patty from a spiny specimen I bought on the beach's black market for $5. Lobsters are out of season, so I'm an environmental criminal, if not quite a drug tourist. The crustacean dealer was the only hustler we met who seemed afraid of getting caught.
A decent place on Manley is Jah B's, which operates on the extreme low end of the tourist industry, renting huts they call bungalows out back, and serving up hearty callaloo and saltfish breakfasts while competitors do eggs Benedict for twice the price. Our other breakfast savior is the fruit man on the South River bridge. This righteous dred taught us the names of the four kinds of mangos he sells, showed us what ackee looks like before it's blended with saltfish and how to tell if a soursop is ripe. He doesn't even charge gringo rates.
Over on Sheffield Road in the town of Negril, we tried Sweet Spice and Mario's, both of which seemed vaguely upscale, though empty. The cooks were competent, and they served fish filets instead of unbeheaded wholes, pureed fruit juice rather than canned. But the tangy brown sauce from that first night on Winners was, I felt, the only concoction on the level of the Bronx's Feeding Tree?probably New York's best, and definitely its friendliest, Jamaican restaurant. That changed when we went backcountry on one of the informal 50-buck auto tours that Negril beach bartenders give on their days off. Ours included stops at a fishing village and a waterfall. At a rotary where women sell them we bought bags of shrimps drowned in pepper sauce, and later we ate lunch in the tourist-free town of Black River. I hoped our guide hadn't chosen the restaurant just because it was showing the Jamaican national soccer team on tape delay. I ordered as he did, goat curry, and wasn't disappointed. The meat had been stewed clean off the bone, infused with deep-yellow heat, just as complex yet immeasurably less busy than its Chinese cousin.
Last night was what will be the last revelation, for this trip at least. I'd wanted to try and locate pepperpot soup or smoked marlin, or at least find out why no one seemed to be serving roti or kingfish, but Elisabeth's less quixotic choice was a shack not far from the Negril grocery market called the Jerk Hut. There, again, chance provided two fresh red snappers, so again we took them. They came stuffed with okra, scallions, spices and a rice-ish filler that just might have been LaChoy Chinese noodles, having been wrapped in foil and steam-roasted on the jerk grill for the duration of four Red Stripes. Every bite was mind-altering, a mainlined dose of weightless sensuality. The ease of this flavor on my straining tongue made the experience like biting into soursop expecting Sour Patch Kids, or trying to photograph the soothing afternoon patter of passing rain on broad island leaves.
So I write, now, listening to Rich's atrocious treatment of the Wailers' most-likely-involuntary ska cover of "Sugar Sugar," knowing that the plantation tourism paradigm has enveloped me. I was an uptight guy inspired to relax and let the tropics come to me, no problem. Tonight we will saunter into town and return to the Jerk Hut. We will order jerk chicken. It might lack the subtle aroma of pimento, but we know the Hut will bring the smokiness, and the peppery fire that comes on slow and delicious but builds until you feel napalmed. Maybe we'll even take a taxi home, instead of catching a mile's worth of flying road gravel and shattered crab limbs. I'll loll in the back seat, overfull, tongue-singed and drunk, thinking, "What a simple place."
Feeding Tree, 892 Gerard Ave. (161st St.), Bronx, 718-293-5025.
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