Many people called "Irish! Irish!" which I also assumed was directed at me, but they were only trying to sell their potatoes.
Another market-goer summed it up. "Big experience!" she said, flashing a toothy smile.
My trip to Jamaica for Christmas vacation proved a great experience - an exciting, eye-opening, educational and delicious tour. Over the course of two weeks, we visited most of the island's 13 parishes, experiencing beach and sea, city, and the lush green inner island, thick with citrus and banana trees.
It was possible to spend a Jamaican vacation ensconced in an all-inclusive beach-front resort, where you can spend blissful days and eat jerk chicken to boot, cooked at a seaside grilling station. While there's nothing wrong with dedicated relaxation, that was not my experience. We stayed with friends in Salt Spring, a rough area on a hilltop outside of Montego Bay with broken roads that jarred the car.
Our hosts were part-time residents with a house in the family neighborhood. Up the road in any direction were small shacks, nearly indistinguishable from some houses, where you could get lunches of stewed chicken, rice and peas and cabbage for $200-300 JA - pretty good, considering the exchange rate was $88 JA to $1 U.S. Interspersed among these vendors were many churches - Jamaica has the most of any nation per square kilometer, I was told - and unfinished concrete houses, rebar reaching skyward, awaiting construction of a second or third level.
The morning of my first full day was when we awoke at 6 a.m. to accompany Miss Doul, a family elder with a knack for picking the freshest produce for the sweetest bargain, to the city's largest fruit and vegetable market. People swarmed around bins filled with Scotch bonnet peppers - red, yellow, orange and green - and cloths heaped high with carrots or fresh white yams covered in chocolate-brown dirt, with wet, bright white fresh-cut ends. There were green banana, ripe banana, plantain, peas, cabbage, sweet potato, scallion and coconut. Tall sugar cane looked like the trunks of Dr. Seuss's Truffula trees. I saw breadfruit for the first time: a large green grenade with savory starchy white flesh that can be roasted, boiled or baked.
This Christmastime market had huge sacks of magenta sorrel blossoms, a species of hibiscus. They're steeped in water with ginger and mixed with sugar to make a popular holiday drink. At the edge of the market was a man cleaning small fish, the scales flying in the air and glinting in the sun like glass.
We were there for four hours, tromping past stalls and carts and bins of produce that failed to meet the approval of Miss Doul, the ultimate comparison shopper. I think we bought $300 worth of citrus - lumpy green-skinned lemons, bright yellow grapefruits and orange-green tangerines. We got yams for $50 a pound, maybe $40. By 10 a.m. my mind was swarming like the market itself, which hummed like a vibrant hive.
We had ackee and salt-fish for Christmas-Eve breakfast. This national dish is mostly ackee (rhymes with "sake"), a red vegetable pod that was bursting on tall trees all around us, revealing golden flesh and shiny black seeds; prepared, it tasted like buttery scrambled eggs. The fish had a briny zing that makes it a dish not to be missed.
For Christmas, we went to Negril, at the westernmost tip of the island, for the weekend. We ate jerk chicken from a barrel smoker on the side of the road, chopped up with a cleaver before our eyes. I learned some new vocabulary. For example, "Big Bamboo," written on cans of seaweed drink "Irish Moss," is a nod to the beverage's reputation for promoting male virility.
Next, we went all the way east to Port Antonio to swim in the Blue Lagoon, of cinematic fame, where the water is pockets of warm and cold. We worked up an appetite and headed to Boston, famous for its roadside jerk and, indeed, they did jerk everything: chicken, pork, breadfruit, chicken sausage, et al. Jerk was served with festival, ten-inch ropes of fried cornmeal dough, so namely, likely, because they make the jerk experience a party in your mouth. There was also an abundance of ketchup. If there is a national condiment, ketchup is it. Later, in the regular supermarket, I saw an entire aisle devoted to it.
We went "to country," as is said - the lack of definite article being just one of the contributions of British colonialists. The island was under England's control from 1655 to 1962. Preceding England was Spain, from 1494 to 1655. The Spanish brought cattle, goats, pigs, lemon, lime, tamarind, ginger, plantain, coconuts, sugar and bananas to the island and, perhaps most deliciously, "escoveitched" fish: fried fresh fish marinated in a vinegar-onion-carrot-pepper sauce.
The wife of our country host prepared a feast of the famous dish, served with yam, which was my favorite meal. Also excellent was the curry red snapper was at Little Ochie, a fish restaurant in Mandeville where diners can chose their whole fish from a coffin-shaped cooler, weigh it and deposit it at the kitchen with preparation specifications. The bisected snapper appeared roughly 15 minutes later, each half covering a full plate, smothered in thick curry sauce and peppers.
In Clarendon, I had the best orange of my life plucked from the tree, its zest trimmed with a knife, the fruit sliced in half so you suck the pulp out of the pith. There, there seemed to be a million kinds of yams: yellow yam, white yam, tall yam, Guinea yam. Country yam is prized, so we brought back 50 pounds to share with family in Salt Spring. By the time we got back to town with that yam in the trunk - over furrowed, serpentine country roads - the car had no shocks.
We get out goat
We returned to Salt Spring for a family party. We had bought a goat, and someone had butchered it for us. There would be curry goat, jerk chicken and soup, enough to feed 100 people. Uncles and cousins cooked on outdoor fires, large soup pots bubbling over makeshift grills. While we waited in the street, I enjoyed a spirited debate on religion in which the participants were smiling, yet sounded like they were shouting at each other.
The soup pot was removed from the fire and I was given a cup of what someone said was "Cock Soup," so-named for the chicken flavoring packets used. Someone else called it "Slave Soup." Everyone seemed to have a different way to call it, which I was used to by then. Most Jamaican men seemed to have three names, too.
Whatever you want to call it, that soup was intense. After thumbing through The Real Taste of Jamaica by Enid Donaldson, I think it was Mannish Water, "a thick, highly-seasoned soup made from goat offal, green bananas and any available vegetables or tubers. Believed to be a tonic, it is an important dish at country weddings and other festive occasions when curried goat is served as one of the main entrees." Mine also had finger-sized flour dumplings floating in it, which I found quite palatable until I hit the goat offal in the bottom of the cup.
Like Irish Moss, consuming the viscera is reported to enhance a man's prowess. I politely ceded this honor, and turned my attention to the curry goat with rice and peas.++