I have eaten Jamaica’s national dish and I can tell you this much: It hurts. Smoke stings your eyes and scotch bonnet chiles scorch the gullet. I experienced my first real fiery jerk pork in Boston Beach on the northeastern coast of Jamaica. After making it through one order, I wiped my brow . . . and promptly ordered seconds!
Jerk is Jamaican barbecue. Like its North American counterpart, jerk is simultaneously a dish, a cooking method, and a way of life. It turns up at rugged roadside eateries and respectable restaurants from one end of Jamaica to the other. To make jerk, the meat (usually pork or chicken) is washed with lime juice or vinegar, marinated in a fiery paste of scotch bonnet chiles and other spices, and smoke-cooked over smoldering hardwood.
Some people cook jerk on a barbecue grill, others in a steel drum or over a pit. As for the seasoning, as the jerk marinade is called, there are probably as many different formulas as there are individual cooks in Jamaica. And, in recent years, the traditional jerk pork and jerk chicken have given way to such newfangled creations as jerk snapper, jerk lobster, even jerk pasta.
Historically, jerk is associated with the Maroons, runaway slaves who settled in the St. Thomas highlands in eastern Jamaica in the late seventeenth century. To preserve meats while on the run from British soldiers, the Maroons rubbed wild boar with a fiery paste of salt, spices, and scotch bonnet chiles, then smoked it over smoldering wood.
Actually, the preparation probably dates back to the region’s first inhabitants, the Arawak Indians. After all, the raw materials for jerk-the incendiary scotch bonnet chile, the pimiento berry (allspice), thyme, wild cinnamon, and scallions-have existed in Jamaica for centuries. The very term "barbecue" seems to have come from an Arawak word, a grill made of green branches called barbacoa.
According to Winston Stoner, charismatic director of the Busha Browne Company (which manufactures a popular line of Jamaican seasonings), the term "jerk" is derived from a Jamaican patois word, juk, meaning "to stab" or "stick with a sharp implement." "The first thing to be jukked was the wild boar," Stoner explained to me at his office in a Kingston warehouse. "Today it’s a tame pig." Once dressed, the meat would be jukked a second time to speed the absorption of the spice mix. "But to really understand Jamaican jerk," insisted Stoner, "you’ve got to go to Boston Beach."
Twist my arm. This tiny seaside community, a 20-minute drive from the city of Port Antonio in northeastern Jamaica, has the sort of serene horseshoe-shaped beach you dream about on a cold winter night. Brightly painted canoes dot the golden sands, which are lapped by the turquoise Caribbean. Named for the Boston Fruit Company, which had a Jamaican outpost, Boston Beach was once a center of the banana trade. Today, it’s renowned for another gastronomic specialty: jerk. Although jerk is served all over Jamaica, Boston Beach is the best place to find traditional jerk pits.
For, like the barbecue of the American South and the bean hole beans of New England, jerk is born quite literally from a hole in the ground. Even the fanciest steel drum rig (and there are some fancy ones in Jamaica) can’t compete with the elemental flavor of meat cooked over an open pit.
A jerk pit consists of a shallow trough, framed on either side by a row of cinderblocks. Arranged across these blocks is a sort of grate made of inch-thick sticks cut from green pimiento (allspice tree). Spaced 1 inch apart, the sticks literally burn up during the cooking process and must be replaced every few hours. As the sticks burn, they impart a smoky flavor that is unique to Jamaican jerk.
What’s in a Name?
To call Sufferer’s Jerk Pork Front Line No. 1 a restaurant might be stretching it a bit. The dining room is a rickety pavilion made of bamboo slats with four mismatched tables. An American health inspector would wince at the sight of the open-air kitchen, with its dirt floor, corrugated tin roof, concrete work table, and cutting board made from an old tree stump. There are only three basic items on the menu: jerk chicken, jerk pork, and jerk sausage. But to come to Jamaica without visiting Sufferer’s (or one of the other jerk purveyors in Boston Beach) would be to miss one of the most intense gastronomic experiences in the world.
Prince Duncan Sufferer doesn’t know the origins of his restaurant. The serious, soft-spoken man took over from his parents in 1975. Today, he’s assisted by a half dozen young men at an operation that begins at 6 a.m. and doesn’t finish until 7 or 8 at night.
When I arrived at 11 a.m., the crew had been working for hours. A wiry young man named Darrick Minot has the painful task of puréeing 24 pounds of scotch bonnet chiles in a hand-cranked meat grinder. When you stop to consider that the scotch bonnet is the world’s hottest chile-up to 50 times hotter than a jalapeño-painful is the operative word here. "Don’t touch your eyes when doing this," Minot warned, as the stinging pepper fumes swirled all around us. I guess it’s not for nothing that he works at a place called Sufferer’s.
The tongue-torturing chile paste that emerges from the meat grinder forms the backbone of the seasoning. But it’s not until 21 different spices and condiments are added that the marinade is complete. The spices include wild cinnamon sticks, whole nutmegs, and fistfuls of pungent allspice berries. The bittersweet flavor of the latter is one of the defining flavors of jerk.
Other essential seasonings include bushy branches of thyme, antler-shaped clusters of ginger, and escallions (Caribbean chives), which taste like a cross between a North American scallion and a shallot. Garlic powder, soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, and a generous measure of sea salt are added to the marinade, which is mixed in a plastic bucket. The resulting mixture is so hot, it would probably qualify for regulation by the Atomic Energy Commission.
Pit master William Gallimore, a tall black man dressed in a battered blue shirt and shoes that literally fall off his feet, tends the four pits where the jerk is cooked. The first is a ground-level barbecue grill, where thick coils of homemade sausage sizzle over blazing embers. The second holds split chickens on a wire grill, with a sheet of metal over them to keep in the fragrant smoke. The third is a round hole in the ground where whole breadfruits roast among blazing pimiento wood. The fourth pit is the rallying point for all this activity, for it is here that a whole pig is transformed into meltingly tender jerk pork.
According to Gallimore, the secret to great jerk is the slow cooking over low heat. Every half hour, he shovels fresh coals under the pork. It takes about an hour to cook a chicken and 5 hours to cook a pig. The pork is turned every 30 minutes, an operation that plunges the pit master into dense clouds of eye-stinging smoke. The lengthy cooking produces pork of astonishing succulence, meltingly tender, richly flavored, subtly smoky, spicy but not unbearably hot. The slow cooking seems to attenuate the bite of the chiles.
The service of jerk is as simple as the cooking process is complex. You order it by the pound. The pit master hacks off pieces with a cleaver and serves them to you in a sheet of waxed paper. That’s it.
The traditional accompaniments to jerk pork include festival and breadfruit. The former is a cigar-shaped fritter made from flour, cornmeal, and sugar. The latter, a tropical fruit brought to the West Indies by Captain Bligh himself, tastes a little like a baked potato. If you ever tasted breadfruit and thought it bland, you haven’t tasted Sufferer’s. To wash down this princely repast, there are icy bottles of Red Stripe Beer, dark sweet Dragon Stout, or for the teetotaler, a refreshing grapefruit soda called Ting.
In the last ten years, jerk has spread far beyond the shores of Jamaica. I’ve eaten jerk at a strip mall in Ft. Lauderdale, a boisterous bar in Boston, Massachusetts, and a trendy restaurant in SoHo, New York. My neighborhood eatery in Miami serves jerk scrambled eggs for breakfast and jerk chicken Caesar salad for lunch. But to taste the real McCoy, you must make a pilgrimage to Boston Beach in northern Jamaica. Which isn’t the worst assignment-especially as winter approaches!
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