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You know how it is when you ask a local, “Where should I eat?” and they always direct you to what they consider to be the best restaurant in town and it never is? It’s just expensive and formal and the place where maybe the locals go when they’re celebrating an anniversary or something, but it’s not really where you’d go to get real food, what I call the food of the people. And on this, my last day in Jamaica, I don’t want fancy food; I want the food of the people.

So what I do is ask Lincoln where he goes to eat. “You don’t want to go there,” he says, laughing.

Why not?

“It’s just not where tourists go,” he says. “In fact, tourists don’t even know it exists.”

Perfect, I tell him. Let’s go.

So much against his better judgment, Lincoln takes me to a little fishing village near the airport called White House. “Everyone from MoBay come here for fresh fish,” he tells me as he parks the Town Car in a dusty, dirty lot beneath the shade of a sprawling avocado tree.

Lincoln leads the way to Evelyn's in White House. Photos by David Lansing.

Lincoln leads the way to Evelyn's in White House. Photos by David Lansing.

There are several places we might go in White House, Lincoln says, but they’re all pretty much the same. These are the very modest homes of fishermen. Early in the morning, the men go out in small boats and catch what they can, bringing it back to their wives and daughters who cook it up for locals in tiny eight- or ten-table cafes on the bottom floor of their homes.

Lincoln says Rosie’s is good and sometimes he likes to go to Baba Joe’s or Sucko’s. “But I guess my favorite is Evelyn’s,” he says, so that’s where we go.

We walk through Evelyn Ramcharan’s home, right through the kitchen and living room where her granddaughter is playing with a headless doll, and out to the patio with its broken concrete floor painted dark green, and sit on broken plastic chairs at a wooden table that is less than ten feet from the turquoise-colored Caribbean. While we’re looking at the menu, which is just a handwritten sheet of paper, the young couple next to us, having already ordered, strip off their outerwear revealing swimsuits and hop in the sea for a swim while they wait for their lunch.

Lincoln orders the steamed fish and I get the local lobster. Now there is absolutely nothing special about Evelyn’s—except the food. Which is simple but extraordinary. Lincoln’s steamed red snapper is topped with fresh yellow peppers, onions, and big chunks of bright green okra.

“You see?” Lincoln says, pointing at his plate. “What I tell you at the market? You order steam fish and not get okra, it’s not steam fish.”

Steam fish (with okra, of course) and fresh lobster at Evelyn's.

Steam fish (with okra, of course) and fresh lobster at Evelyn's.

My lobster, dressed up with lightly sautéed peppers and onions, tastes cleanly of the sea and the sweet butter it was sautéed in. Some homemade coleslaw, a side of rice and peas (“peas” being red kidney beans), and two frosty Red Stripes—it’s the best meal I’ve had on the island and costs less that $20.

After lunch, we stop at a roadside stand where two little girls, no more than 10, are selling watermelons, small pineapples, and bags of peeled and sliced sugar cane, straight from the field. After a meal, Lincoln says, you chew a bit of sugar cane. “To aid in digestion and cleanse the mouth.”

“I thought that was what rum was for,” I say.

He laughs. That works too, he says. He drives slowly through the verdant countryside past little makeshift stands where children sell clumps of quinep, luscious sweetsop, jellies, mangos, jars of honey, salted fish, and even fresh lobster. Food of the people.

I guess we should head back to the resort, he says.

I am most reluctant to end our afternoon and my trip. “I don’t suppose you know anyplace around here where we might get a Q and jelly,” I say.

Lincoln chuckles and nods his head. “Just might,” he says. “Just might.”

And that’s just what we do.

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The proper name of the resort I’m staying at is Ritz-Carlton, Rose Hall. Which seems a bit odd since Rose Hall is the name of the old estate across the street where Annie Palmer, known on the island as “The White Witch,” murdered three husbands, kept love slaves chained up in the basement, and was eventually murdered herself by a voodoo doctor who was also one of her slave lovers.

Of course, this all happened some 175 years ago, so maybe people are over it.


I’d been resisting a visit to Rose Hall since duppies (what Jamaicans call ghosts) really aren’t my thing, but it was a dark and windy day yesterday—bad for the beach but perfect for visiting a haunted house.

Why did Annie Palmer kill her husbands at Rose Hall, above? She didn't.

Why did Annie Palmer kill her husbands at Rose Hall, above? She didn't.

I was shown around Rose Hall by a tiny little woman in a faux-plantation outfit (imagine the Hattie McDaniel character in Gone With the Wind) named Latoya. Now, I don’t want to step on any of Latoya’s well-rehearsed lines so I’m just going to basically repeat what she told me as we walked around the old stone house that was originally built between 1770 and 1780. I’m not going to use quotation marks, so just imagine that I’m now letting Latoya write the rest of this blog:

After the death of the original owner, John Palmer, the house eventually ended up in the hands of his grand nephew, John Rose Palmer, in 1818. Two years later he married a 17-year-old woman named Annie who was raised in Haiti by a nanny who taught her voodoo. Annie was nothing but wicked. Shortly after marrying John Rose, she poisoned him, mostly because she liked making love to the slaves on the plantation and her husband wasn’t down with that.

Then she remarried but that guy wasn’t too keen on her makin’ da sexy with the unhired help either, so she had one of her slave lovers take care of the guy. This gave her the time to redecorate the basement into one of the first orgy rooms on the planet, complete with torture equipment, sharp instruments, bear traps, and a round bed. Dis Annie was a kinky girl.

Well, she got married again but soon grew tired of this guy as well. I guess we all know what happened next. But at this point one of her sex slaves decided he just wasn’t that in to her. Most everyone on the plantation was scared shitless of Annie because she knew that Haitian voodoo shit, but this guy knew a little voodoo himself. So they had it out in a Harry Potter sort of way. In the end, they both died.

So the slaves buried her in a stone crypt meant to keep her soul caged up where it couldn’t cause anymore harm. But somebody forgot to say all the proper magical things during the burial ceremony and her soul got out. And now you can find Annie riding around the plantation at night, whip in hand, ready to lash anyone she comes across.

In short, Annie Palmer is one bad-ass bitch.

Okay, Latoya has gone off to escort the next tour group and I’m back. And I hate to spoil Latoya’s story because it really raised goosebumps up and down my spine, but almost none of this is true. According to an archivist for the Jamaica Archives, Annie Palmer was just a simple young woman (unfortunately, she was never trained in voodoo) who, when her husband died seven years after they married, “had no money, no slaves, no real claim to the estate—nothing.”

What? No slaves! Well, okay, according to the records there was an elderly housekeeper, who tried to keep the place up for a couple of years after John Palmer passed away, but Annie Palmer, who couldn’t afford Rose Hall, moved away.

Says the archivist, Geoffrey Yates, Annie Palmer “never married again, had no children, and was not destined to live to a ripe old age.” She died in 1846, at the age of 44, and “was buried in the church yard at Montego Bay. No tombstone has survived to mark the spot.”

Which sort of makes you wonder who’s buried in the massive stone crypt at Rose Hall where the guides like to end their tours by singing that old Jamaican spiritual “Ballad of Annie Palmer.” Which just happens to have been written by that old Jamaican singer/songwriter Johnny Cash.

Still, I have to say, I like Latoya’s version of the story better.

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Can you jerk Spam?

I always travel with a can of Spam. Not because I’m worried I’ll end up stranded somewhere and have nothing to eat but because I find it interesting to give it to chefs and see what they make of it. Literally. But I only give it to chefs who have no idea what it is. Like the sushi chef in Miami who transformed it into tonkatsu, giving it a nice crunchy texture. Or the young chef at the Hacienda del Carmen, near Lake Chapal in Mexico, who wrapped it inside corn meal and steamed it in a banana leaf.

So yesterday, as I was licking the spicy jerk drippings off my fingers, I asked chef Ricardo Stewart if he’d ever heard of Spam. “Sure I have,” he said, “but I’ve never been there.”

Seems Ricardo thought I said Spain.

Not Spain, I said. Spam.

He looked at me like perhaps I’d had too many Red Stripes. Which perhaps I had.

Now the trick at this point is to not try and explain what Spam is (if that’s even possible). You just want to give it to them. And let them take it from there. So I ran back to my room and came back with my little blue can and handed it over to him. “See if you can jerk this,” I said.

Ricardo showing off his jerk Spam at the Ritz-Carlton jerk centre. Photo by David Lansing.

Ricardo showing off his jerk Spam at the Ritz-Carlton jerk centre. Photo by David Lansing.

Ricardo opened up the can last night and told me he had his doubts. “I couldn’t figure out what it was,” he told me this afternoon when I showed up for lunch. “Even after I read what was on the can.”

But he marinated thick slices of the mystery meat in his secret jerk marinade and when I showed up this afternoon, he put them over a very low fire and let them plump up while being infused with smoky flavor from the pimento wood.

When they were done, he brought me a couple of slices along with some breadfruit, roasted yams, and a Ting, a local grapefruit soft drink. There were a few other people sitting on the wooden benches at the bar and I told Ricardo to go ahead and slice up the rest of the jerked Spam and offer them some as well. He shook his head as if he wasn’t too sure of this but did it anyway.

Then we all tore off little pieces of the jerked Spam and tried it. “This is the best Spam I’ve had in 20 years,” said the guy sitting next to me, a criminal attorney from New York City. A couple from Virginia next to him said they liked it even better than the jerked pork they’d been eating. Even Ricardo, who still had no idea what Spam was, thought it was pretty damn tasty.

“If it was up to me,” he said, “I’d put it on the menu tomorrow. If I could get it.”

So who knows? Before long, the Ritz-Carlton jerk centre and even Scotchies may be offering jerk Spam in addition to their succulent pork and chicken offerings. And Jamaica will have me to thank.

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Cold Red Stripe, fiery jerk

I was wandering around the beach in front of the Ritz this afternoon and guess what I found? The Ritz Jerk Centre! Geez. Here Lincoln and I spend a good hour yesterday driving all over the island to get to Scotchies when there’s a perfectly good jerk shack so close to my room that I should have been able to smell that spicy smoke.

I was sitting on the beach staring at the jerk shack as if it had just suddenly appeared over night but according to Lemuel Steele, the portly, bald waiter who has been keeping me in good supply with ice cold Red Stripes, it’s been there pretty much since the hotel opened in 2000. Used to be a towel hut for the beach, he tells me. “Seems people like it better as a jerk shack.”

And how’s the food?

“Oh, it’s good,” he tells me, smiling. “And they got the coldest Red Stripe on the island, no doubt, no doubt.”

Well hell, that’s good enough for me. So I wrapped a towel around my waist, threw on a T-shirt and loped up to the shack, taking a seat at the rustic bar. A Ritz chef was flipping over a gorgeous chunk of rolled pork on the grill.

Pork belly? I asked him.

“The leg of the trenton as we say on the island,” he replied.

Ricardo Stewart jerking the chicken at the Ritz-Carlton. Photo by David Lansing.

Ricardo Stewart jerking the chicken at the Ritz-Carlton. Photo by David Lansing.

His name was Ricardo Stewart and he’s normally a cook at Mangos, the pool-side restaurant, but he says he likes to come down to the jerk centre and cook a couple of times a week because he finds it relaxing. “Nobody in a hurry here,” he says, pointing at people tucking in to their lunches of jerk chicken and bammy, a pancake-shaped, deep-fried cassava bread.

As Ricardo barbecues, we chat. He tells me the Ritz figured they’d better put in a jerk shack when they realized that a lot of their guests were leaving the resort to go and get street food. “No reason not to do jerk right here on the beach,” he said.

He wouldn’t tell me exactly what went into his jerk—“Some garlic, pimento of course, a touch of ginger, some other stuff”—but admitted that the key ingredient was Scotch bonnet peppers. “The trick is how much you put in,” he said. “You want the heat, but you also don’t want to overpower the meat, if you see what I’m saying.”

Ricardo’s jerk was just fine. Not quite as smoky and moist, perhaps, as Scotchies, but damn fine just the same.

And as Lemuel had promised, they had the coldest Red Stripe I’d had yet on the island.

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The best jerk in Jamaica

That hurricane everyone was so nervous about on Friday? Never showed up. Lincoln and I were laughing about the pandemonium even a no-show hurricane can produce on an island. For instance, Lincoln said, he’d planned on taking his gal to the best jerk shack on the island Friday evening only to find it was closed.

“Closed!” he said, still outraged. And they were still closed on Saturday and Sunday. Then he started telling me how if he didn’t have jerk on Friday or Saturday, it slowed his blood. Which is probably why he was so tired today, he said.

Which is when I suggested we go get some jerk.

The best jerk on the island, according to Lincoln, can be found at Scotchies, on the coastal road going to the airport, and that’s where we headed. It’s a good thing Lincoln knew where it was because even if he’d given me directions, I’d have driven right past it. But once you park along the highway, all you have to do is follow your nose. The smoky smell of spicy chicken and pork floats over you the minute you get out of the car.

There’s not much to Scotchies: two pit barbecues beneath a corrugated tin shack where a cook in a red dew-rag tends to the jerked chicken and pork by turning the inch-thick pimento branches it is smoked over.

The cashair window at Scotchies, Montego Bay. Photo by David Lansing.

The cashair window at Scotchies, Montego Bay. Photo by David Lansing.

Lincoln puts in our order at the “CASHAIR” window; we get a little blue stub of paper with a number on it which we hand to the cook. A quarter of a jerked chicken is $3, breadfruit thirty-five cents a slice, and a Red Stripe will set you back a buck-fity (though you can get a shot of Overproof for a buck).

Most people are getting their jerk to go, but in the back, beneath palapas, are benches atop empty beer kegs, which is where Lincoln and I settle in, sharing jerked pork and chicken, smoky sweet yams, breadfruit, and a couple of Red Stripes. The ubiquitous Bob Marley blasts from a boom-box.

Picking apart the jerk chicken with my fingers, downing the cold Red Stripe, I come to one of those universal truths that sneak up on you unannounced every now and then and it is this: The better the food, the less the need for conversation.

Lincoln and I are silent as we eat. As is almost everyone around us.

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