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The one common theme strung through all of my trips to Jamaica has been jerk—jerk chicken, jerk pork, jerk goat, jerk fish, jerk everything. You’ll be hard pressed to travel very far on the island and not run into a jerk hut or shack. They’re on the side of the road, on the beach, in city centers, lining the outside of the farmers’ market. The process of jerking started out of necessity centuries ago by the Maroons, escaped African slaves who evaded capture by the British by fleeing deep into the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. The beauty of jerk lies in the spectacularly hot and flavorful marinade. Its reliance on salt and hot peppers helped preserve any wild game the Maroons caught while on the run. Tangy lime juice, fresh scallions and fragrant thyme, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg add heady flavor to the meat. It’s downright addictive.
On a recent trip, I came across a popular jerk joint called Scotchies, right on the highway in Montego Bay. Kelly Rerrie, the manager and owner’s daughter, brought us around to the back of the restaurant where the outdoor grills were. Moving through the billowing, fragrant smoke, the two cooks tended the grills. Shorty, the brains behind their jerk paste, and King Kong, a quiet guy who instinctively poked and turned the hunks of meat on the grill. The grills aren’t what you would typically envision. Long slender logs of pimento wood (pimento is the Jamaican name for allspice) hold the meat over a slowly burning fire. Thick sheets of corrugated zinc are laid on top of the meat to trap the smoke, which adds a deeper flavor to the jerk. After trying—very unsuccessfully—to pry a jerk marinade recipe from Shorty (he mumbled a few key ingredients as he stared down at his shuffling feet), we sat down on pillow-topped kegs at round tables in the shaded courtyard to a feast of jerk pork and chicken, roast fish, festival (think slightly sweet hush puppies), steamed yams and sweet potatoes, and ice-cold Red Stripe.