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Insider's Jamaica

Rita Marley, the widow of reggae legend Bob Marley, digs into a plate of escovitch and dishes about some of her favorite Jamaican food.

"One love, one heart," Bob Marley sings about bringing people together. He could have been referring to the effect he himself has had on Jamaica: His music has attracted reggae fans from around the world to the island, with the number of pilgrims only increasing after his death, in 1981. People may initially feel a connection to Jamaica because of the music, but once there, they also quickly develop a bond to the island after tasting its food, like fiery jerk chicken, coal-roasted fish and tropical fruits.

Last December the Marley family gave lovers of reggae and Jamaican food a new excuse to come: They organized a special tribute concert in the village of Oracabessa, on Jamaica's north coast. Leading American musicians, including Lauryn Hill (whose children's father is Rohan Marley, one of Bob's sons), Chrissie Hynde, Tracy Chapman, Erykah Badu and Busta Rhymes, and Jamaican legends Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert performed their interpretations of Marley classics. Offstage they joined Rita Marley, Bob's widow, at Goldeneye, a hotel in Oracabessa built on the former estate of Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels.

Sitting at Goldeneye under sea-grape trees overlooking a bright blue cove, Rita talked about Jamaican food over a lunch of escovitch (fried red snapper heated by pimento, Scotch bonnet chile and allspice berries) and stewed callalloo greens, which taste like collards.

Prompted by the lyrics of "No Woman, No Cry," one of Bob's most famous songs--"Georgie would make the fire light, log wood burning through the night, we would cook cornmeal porridge, which I'll share with you..."--Rita reminisced about the way the community would cook together in Trenchtown, where she and Bob grew up.

"In those tenement-yard communities, they usually have one area with a fireplace, and everyone would bring their stove," Rita said. "We'd gather lignum vitae, ackee, mango--whatever wood we'd find that would catch a fire."

In the early days of Rita's marriage to Bob, before he was well-known, they often stayed with his family in the pretty seaside town of St. Anne's Bay. Money was tight, but the kitchen garden provided staples such as bok choy, pimentos, scallions, callalloo, breadfruit, thyme and ackee, a fruit that grows only on Jamaica. Ackee is poisonous unless it is allowed to ripen and split open naturally and the red veins are completely removed from the flesh. But that doesn't keep it from being a local delicacy and a Marley family favorite, its creamy curds sautéed with onions and smoky saltfish (some substitute bacon for the fish).

Even as Bob grew more famous, he never left behind the food of his homeland. Eating in the ital style of his Rastafarian religion was so important to him that he always took his own chef, Gilly, on tour. Although strict ital food is vegetarian, Bob, like many Rastas, ate meat and most fish, but no pork and, most important, no salt. Instead, Gilly cannily seasoned food with fresh spices and herbs.

At every stop on a concert tour, Gilly would create a postshow feast with huge pots of rice and "peas" (kidney beans simmered in coconut milk and thyme) and fried plantains. He would ladle onto the rice an ital stew, often made with such vegetables as cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, brown gungo peas and butter beans, cooked in coconut milk with garlic and thyme. Gilly would also squeeze fresh juices and mix drinks like limeade, ginger beer and Irish Moss (a particular favorite of Bob's), a thick, clotted drink made with seaweed, condensed milk and cinnamon, which has a reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Ital food is served in many Jamaican restaurants, including Queen of Sheba, an open-weave bamboo restaurant tucked into the yard of the Bob Marley Museum, which is located in his former home on Hope Road. A gracious avenue of embassies and private schools, Hope Road sweeps up past the big open-air market at Papine into the Blue Mountains, where Jamaica's famous coffee is grown.

The Devonshire Restaurant, not far from the Marley Museum, serves fresh fruit juices similar to those Bob favored. The local tropical fruits chef Norma Shirley uses are often available at the Papine market--sweet, grainy naseberries; hard green balls of guinep, which tastes both slightly tart and sweet; sour, red, lantern-shaped fruit of the sorrel; and the custardy flesh of the soursop.

Many of Rita's favorite haunts also feature the island's traditional foods. "One of the nicest things to do in Kingston on a Sunday is eat johnnycake, Festival and fish at Hellshire Beach," Rita said. "You can't eat ackee without johnnycakes"--dense, chewy fried dumplings--and Festival, a sweet, cigar-shaped version of johnnycake. The restaurants she's so fond of are simple wooden shacks with corrugated-tin roofs. But they serve some of the island's freshest coal-roasted snapper, parrot fish and yellowtail, eaten with a hot sauce of finely diced peppers in vinegar that contrasts with the sticky, sweet Festival.

Some of Jamaica's tastiest food is found at roadside stands, most of which serve scalding jerk dishes. "People come from all over the world to sample Jamaican jerk," Rita said, referring to the method of grilling chicken, fish, pork and vegetables that have been marinated in a blend of scallions, Scotch bonnet chiles, thyme, pimento, allspice berries, cinnamon leaves, nutmeg and rum. Family jerk-sauce recipes are guarded secrets.

For jerk in Kingston, Rita recommends Jolly's, in Portmore, and Wellington's, off Marcus Garvey Drive, near the Greenwich Farm neighborhood. Although these stands are well established, they have no phone numbers or official addresses. But any cabdriver knows where to find them.

Roadside stands are also a good bet outside Kingston. The valley of Faith Pen has around 50 shacks that serve food at all hours: jerk, curried goat, boiled corn soup cooked with tripe, ackee and saltfish, and roasted breadfruit that tastes as rich as pound cake. (To get there by car from the north coast en route to Kingston, pass the town of Moneague and stop in the valley just before you climb Mount Diablo.)

Perhaps it's the freshness and variety of Jamaica's food or the skill with which Jamaicans use herbs and spices to season the simplest recipes. Either way, the island's food, like Bob Marley's music, has an invigorating effect. Or, as Rita put it, "Jamaica has a lot of foods that give you energy and strength, as well as being very nice to eat."

Vivien Goldman is the author of The Black Chord (Universe/ Rizzoli) and Pearl's Delicious Jamaican Dishes (Island Trading).

Published August 2000
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