Discovering Jerk At The Source

Most every beach on Jamaica has beach shacks where you can eat a wonderful variety of fresh fish, meat, and vegetables cooked over open fires every day. But perhaps the most famous of these eating beaches is Boston Bay near Port Antonio, on the eastern end of the island, where, it is rumored, jerk pork was first served to the public.

Jerk is a spicy barbecue, first developed by the Maroons, descendants of the slaves who were either freed by the Spanish in 1865 or who ran away from their English plantation owners and learned to survive in the wild, isolated Blue Mountains. The word jerk, like our word jerky, apparently comes from an indigenous Indian word meaning dried, salted meat. The first Maroon jerk was the meat of wild pigs cooked over an open fire of pimento (allspice) branches. Nowadays jerk refers both to the method of cooking over an open fire and to the blistering concoctions of fiery scotch bonnet peppers and spices that are slathered onto the roasting meat.

Drive into the outskirts of Boston Bay and roadside vendors will try and wave you down, claiming that their jerk is indeed the hottest, the spiciest, the most tender, and in fact the very best! I prefer to pass them by in favor of my favorite jerk shack, right above the beach, next to a grandmother cook who has a simple porch dining area where you add her cole slaw and spicy baby bok choy to your plate of spicy jerk pork, blackened by its long smoke over an open fire.

That's just one of the countless options for delicious, authentic jerk cuisine on the island, though; each shack and roadside stand swears by its own concoction, and mostly their recipes are secret and handed down by previous generations. By whatever recipe, jerk is rough, wonderful, mouth-burning barbecue, Jamaican style. And one day I hope to have tried each and every one of those roadside stands!