Jamaica: In Search of The Real Jerk

Scotch Bonnet, Maynefoto
Scotch Bonnet

The first thing I do when I arrive in Montego Bay is find a spot for jerk pork. I’d start tasting it, and yes, it’s always pork, before the plane even lands.

For years, Scotchies, a little joint about 1-2 Jamaican miles from the airport on the north coast road between Montego Bay and Falmouth did the trick.

But the last time I went to Scotchies (MoBay), my mouth watering in anticipation of the jerk pork that I knew would be succulent, seasoned through and through with the right balance of Scotch Bonnet peppers, scallion, thyme, a little mace and sugar rubbed in, then slowly cooked over pimento wood, I was disappointed.

While the pork was succulent, it was bland! Nary a Scotch Bonnet in sight!

Who ever said jerk should be this bland? By definition, jerk, The Real Jerk, must have a reasonable amount of the fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper.

A trip to The Pork Pit on Gloucester Avenue in town was marginally less disappointing. I blame the need to please visitors and make more money.

What’s Jerk?

Jerk is a way of cooking that was created in Jamaica. It involved rubbing the meat with a mixture of spices and cooking it over a pimento fire. The pimento wood adds a distinct smoky flavor. Jerk also refers to the spices that are used to marinate the meat.

Jerk and drinks at Scotchies, Mobay
Enjoying the company of friends at Scotchies, MoBay

Jerk has been a part of my life since childhood. As a little girl, I remember a man (known only as “The Jerk Man”), who would ride around our district usually on a Saturday evening selling jerk pork – it was only pork then – from a pan that was attached to the handlebars of his bicycle. The pork was suspended on a mesh layer over pimento coals in a tray just below. We could smell it way before The Jerk Man arrived at our gate.

Sometime between my childhood and high school, jerk pork all but disappeared, perhaps because of the influence of Rastafarianism and their abhorrence of pork. When it came back in the 70s, it had expanded to include chicken, fish, even sausage.

In time, the knowledge of how jerk was made went from a few cooks, mostly male, who knew the (then secret) ingredients to a bottled wet or dry rub that became available locally and internationally initially to satisfy the palates of the growing number of Jamaicans who lived abroad.

But something got lost in the transition from a few local cooks to international recognition – everyone was free to put their own interpretation on what jerk was supposed to be. But I knew I could always count on finding the Real Jerk in Jamaica.

Not anymore. At least, not in any area that sees a lot of visitors. Something about wanting to make jerk palatable to them and therefore make more sales produce a jerk that’s nothing like how I know jerk is supposed to taste.

(A few years ago, even the Jamaica Tourist Board announced a culinary Jerk Trail, which allows visitors to sample the real thing.)

For true aficianados of The Real Jerk, come with me to one of my favorite places. It’s right on the border of Hanover and Westmoreland and called appropriately, Border Jerk. (I also have to mention Boston Jerk in Boston Bay, Portland, the jerk capital of Jamaica.) There you’ll get some good jerk pork. For those who don’t like pork, there’s chicken, Festival (flour and cornmeal mixture) and soup. If the jerk’s too hot, wash it down with a bottle of Ting, a carbonated grapefruit drink. Me, I prefer a rum and Ting.

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11 comments on “Jamaica: In Search of The Real Jerk

  1. Marcia, now you have my mouth watering for some jerk pork. I’ve only been to Jamaica once and had jerk chicken and I remember thinking that it wasn’t hot enough. I was expecting tears and a little bit of a cough but I got nothing. It was good just not hot. I laughed through this cause I could just imagine a native Jamaican not getting the taste they were accustomed to and being quite disappointed. Tourists rule unfortunately. 🙂

  2. You’ll have to come with me next time to get the real stuff. Yes, it’s disappointing. Like you, I love it hot, hot hot.

  3. Great blog. I love your play on words, as you know what most of us women thought about from your headline. I found you after you found me and left a comment. It sounds like we should keep connected.
    I visited Jamica once. Loved its “no problem” attitude. I also met an alligator named George on the Black River. I guess I should blog about that one of these days. Keep smiling.

    Pat Bean

  4. Yes, Pat, you should! I have yet to meet George. Would love to hear about your meeting.

  5. Yes, I’d love us to be buddies, if you’re still looking, that is.
    I try to play as much with the headline as I can. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Hi Marcia, just been catching up and was reading this post on the train, my mouth sure was watering. I’m like you, I like it hot, hot, hot!

  7. Hey Tony, nice to hear from you. How’s it going? I miss not reading your posts or hear about Devon. I’m sure you’ve been busy with work but come back soon, blog buddy, I need to hear from you.
    Thanks for reading my post, on the train no less — are you on your laptop or iPad? Yes, I love it HOT!!!

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