This Little Piggie Went to Pork-Pit

Spicy Jamaican jerk food is spreading around the world; Garry Steckles visits his birthplace and explains how it's done

“The hot work starts at the Boston Bay pork pits” Photo by Louis Davis“The hot work starts at the Boston Bay pork pits” Photograph by Louis DavisBoston Bay, the Jamaican village which is the true home of jerk cooking. Photograph by Louis DavisJamaican jerk from Boston BaySufferer’s stand at Boston Bay. Photograph by Louis Davis

It’s five in the morning and it’ll be another hour before the first rays of the morning sun penetrate the tropical darkness that shrouds the tiny village of Boston Bay. Not many people are up and about. The hour is early, even for a part of the world where rising with the sun is a way of life.

One of the few locals going about his business is Everton Williams, known to all and sundry as “Skinny”. This morning, just as he does every morning, Skinny has slaughter on his mind. His unsuspecting victims are a couple of plump pigs, neither of which has the slightest idea that its most recent slurp in the trough was the porcine equivalent of the condemned man’s last breakfast.

Wiry, muscular and all business, Skinny shepherds the two pigs into a ramshackle wooden building, one of a cluster on a small hill just off the main coastal road that bisects Boston Bay. Quickly and methodically — he’s done this thousands of times — he draws a razor-sharp knife across one pig’s throat, then does the same with the other.

Watching carefully as Skinny goes about his work is Stanley Duncan, better known to the inhabitants of Boston Bay — and to thousands of other Jamaicans — as Sufferer.

 

The two unfortunate pigs are playing their reluctant role in a morning ritual that is the first stage in a daily operation that has catapulted Jamaican cuisine into the international limelight.

What Skinny and Sufferer are engaged in is a method of preparing food known as “jerking”, and Boston Bay, in the north-east parish of Portland, is its capital. This village, home to a few hundred people, is a gastronomic mecca to which aficionados from all over Jamaica make regular pilgrimages, ready to pay homage with eager taste buds to its fiery delights.

And, make no mistake about it, jerk pork and its culinary cousin, jerk chicken, are fiery in the extreme. I’ve eaten hot food in many parts of the world — India included — but I can’t recall anything more incendiary than a recent helping of pork and chicken from Sufferer’s stand in Boston Bay. It’s undeniably delicious, but it’s not for the faint of heart or the faint of stomach, and should never be eaten beyond hailing distance of a copious supply of ice-cold Red Stripe beer.

Which is hardly surprising when Skinny lets you in on how he goes about his business. And it is a business. The cluster of pork pits, bars and restaurants that are the hub of Boston Bay may be haphazard in appearance, but they provide direct employment to hundreds of Jamaicans and sell substantial amounts of food directly to the consumer in a no-frills retail operation. The preparation and sale of that food is carefully monitored and licensed by Jamaican authorities.

Both Sufferer and Skinny take their work seriously, and they’re fiercely proud of the food they sell and of Boston Bay’s reputation as the best place to buy it. Skinny’s eyes light up with quiet pride as he takes a break from the pit for a cold beer at the tiny restaurant next door and tells a visiting journalist about the art of jerk cooking.

“First of all,” he explains, “we have to singe the hairs off the pigs. We do that over a fire. Then we debone them. The intestines are used to make sausage. But the secret’s in the seasoning. Before we cook the pigs, we season the meat with hot pepper, scallion, onion, pimento, ginger, black pepper, salt, paprika and all-spice. We pound this in a mortar and pestle, and coat the meat with it.”

The hot peppers they use it’s worth noting, are Jamaica’s famous Scotch Bonnet variety, while the all-spice is a pungent seasoning, unique to the island, that resembles black peppercorns in appearance and a mixture of clove, mace and cinnamon in taste.

Once the meat has been properly marinaded, and with the morning sun by now high overhead, the hot work starts at the Boston Bay pork pits. Slow burning wood is transferred from a small pit, two to three feet deep, into the wider, shallower pit where the cooking takes place. Any kind of wood can be used for fuel, but, says Skinny, “red pimento is best”

After the burning wood has been satisfactorily arranged in the cooking pit, long thin strips of wood are laid side by side across the top of the pit, an inch or two apart, and the seasoned pigs — by now flat, almost rectangular pieces of meat about a couple of inches thick — are laid carefully on top. The chickens are cooked similarly on a smaller adjoining pit.

The actual cooking process has started, but Skinny’s work is far from done. He and his fellow workers at Sufferer’s — mostly young men like Roger Minott, who looks after the chicken part of the operation — must keep a constant watch on the pit.

As the pork cooks, fat from the meat starts dripping down on the wood a foot or so below. The smoke it produces is an essential element in the flavour of Boston Bay jerked food; but it can and often does spark into flames. When this happens, the whole pit can become an inferno in seconds, with the highly flammable pork in imminent danger of being consumed.

At the first sight of fire, the whole team leaps into action. The object of the exercise is to get the valuable pork away from the heat, an operation that involves considerable risk at worst, and burned, sore hands at best; it tends to be accompanied by a certain amount of cursing in rich Jamaican dialect.

If a pit fire gets out of hand, the day’s work and thousands of Jamaican dollars go up in smoke. Skinny ruefully recalls how that once happened to him when he was called upon to cater to a party in Kingston, the capital. “Four or five pigs, there were. And before I could do anything about it the fire was too high. The fire brigade came, but by then it was too late. The shed I was cooking in burned down as well.”

That sort of incident, fortunately, is rare. Usually, the pork and chickens are cooked without incident and are ready by early afternoon, which is when the customers start to drift in. On weekends, when a pit-stop at Boston Bay is the highlight of many Jamaican family outings, business gets brisk indeed, and as many as five pigs will be jerked and sold from a single pit.

 

Jerking dates back to the days when rebellious Maroon slaves fought British Redcoats to a stand off in Jamaica. The Maroons, who were constantly on the move in the island’s mountainous interior, had to do their cooking whenever they got the chance, and used strong seasoning so their meat would be preserved for as long as possible. The first commercial jerk pork stand, employing recipes handed down from the Maroons, opened in Boston Bay in the ’30s. Today, there are four pits operating in Boston Bay — Sufferer’s, Mickey’s, Puncie and Bargey.

Not so many years ago, jerk pork and chicken could only be found on the north coast of Jamaica, mainly in Portland. Then it started to spread throughout the island. Today, jerk pork and chicken can be had around virtually every corner of Jamaica. In the capital, the bustling Chelsea jerk centre in New Kingston has line-ups every evening; in the tourist centres of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, major pork pits do a roaring trade with locals and visitors. Smaller jerk outlets, many with their own individual culinary touches, are everywhere.

As outlets grew in popularity throughout the island, Jamaicans realised they had a potential gastronomic goldmine on their hands. And jerk pork went international. Today, you can buy jerk pork and jerk chicken in London and Toronto, in Paris and New York, from Barbados to Boston. Jerk seasoning has become virtually a staple on supermarket shelves.

But in sleepy, laid-back Boston Bay, where it all started, they’re not at all concerned with the opposition, even if the food is sold in fancy surroundings in trendy areas of big cities. As Skinny says, “They try to imitate, but they can’t manage us.”

 

Jerk Food at Home

It’s a far cry from Boston Bay, Jamaica, to the backyard barbecue or the home oven in Boston, Mass., or Boston, Lincs. But it is possible — fairly simple even — to prepare authentic jerk pork and jerk chicken at home. It may take a few runs at it before the average home cook gets the seasoning and the cooking just right, but, believe me, it’s worth the effort.

For the seasoning, I use a commercially produced brand as a base — and if culinary purists throw their hands up in horror, let them, for it still tastes wonderful. Dry jerk seasoning can be found on the shelves of many mainstream supermarkets. It may be great, but for now I prefer to hunt out my favourite bottled Walkerswood brand at Caribbean specialty outlets. This is manufactured commercially at a tiny village of the same name about ten miles outside Ocho Rios, by a company called Cottage Industries Limited.

The Walkerswood seasoning I use is “wet” — a thick, moist mixture of hot peppers, scallion and various herbs and spices. The bottle says the contents are “hot and spicy”, and they’re not kidding. If you find it a little too hot, it can be diluted by adding more of the basic ingredients but without extra peppers.

The next step is to marinade the chicken or pork. Chicken can be prepared either split down the middle and cooked in two halves or already cut up into serving portions — whole legs and breasts or smaller pieces if preferred.

Pork should be fairly fatty; lean chops will almost certainly come out dry and tough. My preference is for a thickish piece of shoulder or belly pork, preferably with some rind to come out crisp and crunchy.

The meat should be well coated with the seasoning – don’t stint, or it simply won’t taste right. Working it in with the hands is messy but produces much better results. And it should sit in the seasoning for a couple of hours at least – ovemight in the fridge is even better.

The cooking can be done on a barbecue — the best method at home — or in the oven. On the barbecue, the meat should be cooked slowly, and kept covered to allow the flavour of the smoke to permeate. On a gas barbecue keep the heat around medium low. On a charcoal barbecue, where the heat’s trickier to control, keep the meat well away from the coals. Normal barbecuing common sense applies, particularly when using charcoal. Don’t let the heat get too low — always a risk when the lid’s on — and don’t let the dripping fat catch fire and burn the meat.

Depending on the thickness of the meat, I let pork cook for about 50 to 55 minutes (longer if it’s thicker). For chicken, about 45 to 50 minutes for halves and 35 to 40 minutes for smaller portions should suffice. The meat need only be turned once, but it won’t do any harm to turn it more if you’re a cook who prefers to keep busy.

In the oven, I put the meat on a tray in a single layer, use medium heat and stick to the same cooking times, turning it once or twice. The meat can be browned under a grill for a minute or two to finish it off if you prefer it nice and dark, but be careful not to let it bum.

In Jamaica, jerk pork and chicken are invariably sold with hard-dough bread or with a “fry dumpling” called Festival. If you can find this at a local West Indian supermarket or bakery, it’s the perfect accompaniment. If not, warm crusty French bread is equally delicious, and home-made bread’s better still.

Reggae on the turntable and a simple mixed salad will round off a Jamaican meal to remember.