Welcome to Portland, The Birthplace of Jamaican Jerk Pork
“Jamaican cooks have imagination and flair. That’s why we adore pigs and never think of them as bacon. It’s a reggae celebration, the smell of pimento, fiery scotch bonnet and jerk seasoning filling the air. A street party for swine in heaven.” Jomo Morris
This isn’t the way to start a vacation; in fact, choosing to visit Jamaica in May – the official start of rainy season – is a sure way never to see the sun, walk on the sand, or swim in the sea. There’s nothing to do but wait and watch as lightning flickers along the distant blue mountain tops. The rain picks up in pace and tempo, and my despair deepens. Water gushes from the drains along the side of the house and a small river forms in the yard. The eddying current sweeps away twigs, leaves, mud, and with it, my hope of visiting Portland.
The parish of Portland (and by extension the small community of Boston) is recognized as the birthplace of Jamaican jerk pork. This visit should be one of the highlights of my trip, but I’m hard-pressed not to let this morning squall dampen my spirits. The rumble of thunder is ominous but distant. The ground is wet; the grass and the trees all glisten as if brand-new. It’s as if the rain has made all the natural colors of the land brighter and more vibrant. Even the air seems crisp and fresh, and I breathe in deeply then turn the key in the ignition. It’s a two-hour drive to Boston. The coastal road passes through the small towns of Anotto Bay and Buff Bay before reaching the much larger town of Port Antonio. The parish of Portland is straddled by the Blue Mountains, Jamaica’s highest peak. It rains often here, and the runoff from the mountain rivers is fierce and ice-cold. Portland’s topography is lush with the bold hues of green bananas, avocado, breadfruit, mango and red ripe coffee berries. Nature is alive in this parish, and I am happy that my destination for jerk pork traverses this unspoiled piece of paradise. It’s a scenic drive, and my mind drifts to thoughts of Jamaica past. During the short-lived banana boom of the early 1900s, Annotto Bay was an agricultural hub for the sprawling plantations that covered the landscape. Eventually king banana gave way to rows and rows of sugarcane, and the government-run Gray’s Inn sugar factory. But the industry was ailing and though the town tried to hold on, declining production and revenue forced the factory to close in 1985. Now, a layer of grime, garbage and stray animals have left the town a shadow of itself. I’m glad to leave Anotto Bay and its sad past and continue along the highway. The road is a lot smoother now, and my car pulls easily through the twists and turns of Free Hill before descending into Buff Bay. I’m getting closer; but again, there’s no rush. Portland approaches: it’s an old friend, a familiar memory, gentle as a butterfly’s kiss. It’s my mother’s ancient VW bug bouncing down narrow country roads, dodging potholes, honking at chickens, scaring wayward goats back into the bush. This is the parish of my childhood adventures. It was just the three of us, Mommy and her two sons. Each Sunday afternoon, she would introduce us to the Jamaica she remembered and loved. It was exciting: we went to Sommerset Falls and swam in the aquamarine pool under the waterfall. We went to the Blue Lagoon, and my brother and I spent the afternoon frolicking at the water’s edge. We went to Rafters Rest, where the mighty Rio Grande Rafters met the sea, and found a tour guide who was willing, for a small fee, to give us a short, 30-minute ride up the river and back. Even back then it was expensive, and Mommy’s schoolteacher salary wasn’t enough for the full three-hour trip down the river. These bamboo rafts originally brought bananas from deep in the bush to market down river. It was the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn who convinced locals to carry people instead of bananas down the Rio Grande. We journeyed deeper into Portland, up and up to the Nonsuch caves. We went to Reach Falls, caught crayfish, had an all-day cookout on Swift River. In this parish of dasheen and cocoa, white sand beaches and waterfalls, little has changed – and I’m glad for that. From the town of Port Antonio it’s a short 20-minute drive to Boston Bay. The scenery along the way is breathtaking. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to drive right past the unkempt shacks selling jerk pork, sausage, chicken and fish.
I arrive at Boston Bay late in the afternoon. The sky, dark and overcast, is still pregnant with rain, and I’m a bit leery of the intermittent squalls that accompany my journey. I’m surprised: despite the worldwide fame of Boston as the birthplace of Jamaican jerk cooking, it’s still an odd jumble of concrete, board, zinc roofs, flies, stray dogs, loud music, roasting meat and spices.
People who come to Boston, come here for one thing and one thing only: jerk pork, sold by the pound, cooked on spits of pimento wood the same way it’s always been done. Boston Bay hasn’t been sanitized and repackaged. There’s no air-conditioned comfort here; this isn’t a tourist attraction. This place is strictly for the locals, and Boston seems determined to stay that way. On my most recent visit, someone had built a tourist trap on the hill just above the original, a spanking-new jerk center and bar complete with a large neon sign and asphalt parking lot. It starts to drizzle again, but the rain only adds to the allure of this place.
My mind is clear as I walk towards the old collection of shacks and bars along the side of the road in tune with the throng of people moving in and out their favorite jerk spots. The decision is easy for us: we take our pound of pork please, with a bottle of ice-cold Red Stripe beer – never mind the flies or open huts or dirt floors – this is the Boston we know and love. This is Boston the way we remember it, and we’re glad for that.