Looking For Jerk in All the Right Places

All kinds of ways to do jerk. Here in Saint Elizabeth they use oil barrel barbecues and forego the pimento sticks. Photography by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

Our driver turns off the road leading east from Jamaica’s Port Antonia and pulls onto a dusty lane. When we climb from the van blue smoke assaults our senses. Its aroma makes my mouth water as I march to the first of several ramshackle huts.

Welcome to the village of Boston. Welcome to the birthplace of jerk.

For days I’ve been on a mission. I’ve imbibed in Black River, noshed in Negril and been titillated in Treasure Beach. Today is the culmination of my quest for a culinary treat that screams ‘Jamaica’ as surely as Reggae, Red Stripe and Appleton’s Rum.

I have been looking for jerk in all the right places. The best jerk in Jamaica.

Today I reign victorious.

Lunch is served in Saint Elizabeth Parish: perfect pork. Photography by Sharon Matthews-Stevens. Photography by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

When the English invaded Jamaica in the 17th century, slaves called Maroons escaped into the Blue Mountains. Lunch often consisted of wild boar. In order to preserve the meat they added all kinds of spices. They slow-cooked and smoked it over wood (most often pimento sticks) in covered underground pits to avoid detection.

Borrowed from the Taino and Arawak, the process was also derived from Peruvian and Spanish methods of making ‘jerky’, thin strips of dried meat. Jerk is thought to be a corruption of the Spanish word charqui.

This village and – more specifically, the Boston Jerk Centre – is reputedly host to the most authentic jerk on the island. Locals have been selling the delicacy to tourists since at least the 1940s.

Showing off the cooking process. Here in Boston they do it the traditional way. Photography by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

But I digress.

Right now I stand at the counter of Mickey’s watching the smoke waft up from a cinder block fire pit six-feet-by-six-feet across. Orange coals throb in the bottom of the pit while rows of pimento sticks cover the top. Max, the ‘spice man’, raises a sheet of corrugated tin covering great sides of pork and smears a brown paste over them with a huge brush.  

“No other place does spice like they do in Boston,” he says, hacking off a chunk with his machete and handing it to me. 

Now I notice jars and plastic bottles lined up along the counter. The caps are color-coordinated, some yellow, some green, and some red. 

Max grins. “Sauce for sale. How hot you like it?”

Which brings me to a controversy. A few days earlier I encountered, on my quest, the chef of Jake’s Hotel on the south coast. He was prepping for a local wedding: jerk, of course, de rigueur. 

Lunch is served in Saint Elizabeth Parish: perfect pork. Photography by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

“The ingredients are the thing,” he said, holding a bouquet of scallions before he chops them up and adds them to marinating chicken thighs and breasts.

Historically, basic ingredients were pimento (AKA allspice) and salt. As things evolved thyme became a must-do, along with scallions and nutmeg most of the time. Scotch bonnet pepper was the latest – if most infamous – addition.

But that’s not the controversy.

While the guy at Jake’s and Max over in Boston (along with everyone else so far, for that matter), marinated and basted the meat, the process is by no means universal. 

In her book, Jerk Barbecue for Jamaica, Helen Willinsky says dry rub is “more authentic than marinade.”

There’s evidence for this position. Some experts suggest that the very word comes from a process of poking or “jerking” holes in the meat with a sharp stick then filling them in with the dry spices. 

At any rate, the rule of thumb, whatever your historical position may be, is that you get a crustier jerk with the rub and juicier meat with the paste and marinade.

The latter works just fine for me, I decide, tearing into a chicken thigh one afternoon in Saint Elizabeth Parish in the south. Chef Khani, the proprietor of this hillside establishment, is a twenty-plus-year veteran. Supposed to have the best jerk in the whole parish.

He uses these big barbecues made from oil drums and foregoes the requisite pimento sticks to smoke the meat. And forget about the recipe. “No three teaspoons of this or that,” says Khani with a laugh. “Just go with the heart.”

At Scotchie’s, an island-wide chain of jerk shacks, they have opted for the pimento stick and covered smoking method. That too, it must be said, works. Just fine.

Here at the one outside Montego Bay (I’ve heard it’s the best Scotchie’s in Jamaica) great slabs of pork sizzle under those ubiquitous corrugated tin sheets. Here a staffer in vivid Hawaiian repositions the meat with gestures graceful as a symphony conductor. 

And here, biting into a hunk of jerk that burns my mouth even as it warms my heart, I realize that the controversy is but a tempest in a teapot.

Sticks or no sticks? Poked or smoked? Rub or marinate? 

There’s really only one question that matters.

Please, sir, can I have some more?

Should you wish to do other things in Jamaica rather than eat (perish the thought!) check out: www.visitjamaica.com

Mark Stevens is an award-winning travel writer whose specialties include Canada, the Caribbean and boating. Credits range from Sailing magazine and Canadian Yachting to the Washington Post.