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.
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 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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