Fourth Course: Tableside and Roadside
Later in the car, we pass many vendors selling pan (barbecued) chicken and holding up bags of fiery peppered crayfish with bright red shells. Carey tells me we are invited to the home of his friend, chef Darren Lee, in Port Antonio, near our new hotel and a stone's throw from Boston Bay, also known as "the home of jerk." I realize I'm lucky to have a guide like Carey, who loves food and culture and keeps company in kind.
A Jamaican of Chinese descent, Darren has worked in America and in the finest restaurants around the island. When we arrive at his home, I see that - in true West Indian fashion - he has made more food than we can possibly eat. In an haute homage to local ingredients, there is tuna tartare made with local blackfin tuna atop reconstituted local sea moss (a dried seaweed) and a green salad with hibiscus dressing. What I'm really interested in, though, are the traditional dishes he has also prepared. There is curry goat, peas and rice and jerk chicken.
While we eat, Darren explains the holy trinity of ingredients that is the staple in nearly every type of Jamaican cooking: allspice, scallion and Scotch-bonnet pepper. He is animated as he talks, making comparisons to both Trinidadian food and our shared French culinary training so I may better understand. He also explains how this trinity is the starting point of jerk, a seasoning mix that can combine more than 20 spices and was created by the Maroons, escaped slaves who lived in the parishes of Portland in the Blue Mountains and cured wild hog meat that was then slowly smoked over a pimiento-wood fire. After emancipation in 1838, the Maroons were said to come down from the mountains to Boston Bay on Friday evenings, selling their smoked meats. Today, jerk stands dot the entire island, but the essence of true jerk is an elusive mix of spice and smoke that hard-core afi cionados, like Darren, claim is best found in Boston Bay. He recounts the tale easily, not just because it is part of Jamaican lore but also because he has grown up in this parish, where there is always a hint of jerk smoke in the air.
As he speaks, I find myself again wishing that I could stay talking long into the night, as with the Twymans. I like this man for his love of food and his love of country. "Will you come with us tomorrow? To Boston?" I blurt out. Across from me, Carey breaks into a wide smile. "Yes, can you come?" Now Darren smiles back, excited too. "Yes, I think I can." We spend the next half-hour negotiating when to meet and where we will go the next day.
True to his word, Darren meets us at our hotel the next morning, and together we make our way to a cluster of sheds called a "jerk center." It looks more like a huddle of falling down lean-tos than separate food stands. Emerging from the car, we see a band of rough-looking men, clothes smudged with blood and ash. We go to the largest of the stands, Mickey's, which is closest to the road. A steep hill slopes away from the building on one side. Two 10-by-10- foot grates are set side-by-side over the smoldering ashes of pimiento wood, stoked by a man wielding a longhandled shovel. On top of the grates are square pieces of galvanized metal upon which pork, chicken, sausage and fish sizzle, wrapped in foil.
I edge closer to the grates, and the men stand aside. Peering over the low wall and down the hill, I see a man making sausages, stuffing and twisting off the links by hand. I am the only customer and the only woman here. The men are clearly amused by this American lady come to have a look-see, and I am beginning to feel uneasy. It is clear that I do not belong here.
Darren tells them quickly in patois that I am a chef and a writer. With that, they nod warily. "She West Indian. Trinidadian," I hear him say, and they visibly relax. One man comes forward with some jerk chicken and roasted breadfruit on a plate. Another wields a bottle of pepper sauce, which I gladly take and pour out generously. "That too much!" he says, startled. "Nah, man," I reply and begin to eat. They watch closely to see if I will cough or sputter. When I don't, they smile broadly. The man with the pepper sauce asks if I like the jerk. "Yeah, man!" I say, grinning back.