U.S. Highway 27 marks the border between the Everglades and suburbia. The contrast is stark: On one side of the highway, a paved, subdivided, and strip-malled South Florida stretches all the way to the ocean; on the other, mangroves and squat emerald saw-grass marshes go as far as the eye can see. At 8:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the setting sun cast orange, magenta, and violet stripes across the sky.
At the Seminole Truck Stop, a few leather-clad bikers pulled in and made their way under a thatched tiki hut for a drink. A hundred yards away, long-distance truckers waddled into the gas station's quick mart to restock on 5-Hour Energy. From behind a tall wooden fence came the pungent smell of charred meat. It was the first inkling of a storm yet to come.
Near the fence was a pop-up tent; above it, a red neon sign that read simply, "FOOD." Under the tent sat a countertop deep fryer, a bright steel heating case, and a wide cutting board with a gleaming cleaver. Lenox Frater, who's short with close-cropped hair, bounced between splitting up big hunks of jerked pork ($8) and rolling out sticks of raw dough to make Jamaican fry bread, a doughnut-like sweet treat — then dropping them into bubbling oil. In a high-pitched voice, he alternately chatted into a blinking Bluetooth and reluctantly divulged some of the ingredients in his jerk sauce: scallions, thyme, and scotch bonnet peppers.
A few hours later, he was just one in a sea of people gyrating to a mix of pounding dancehall, chilled-out reggae, and fast-paced Latin rhythms. For about six years, the truck stop has been hosting Jamaican night on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and hundreds, by some reports thousands, of people gather on the edge of civilization for the party. Frater quickly ran out of escoveitch fish ($10): whole red snappers, flash fried, then topped with a thin, vinegary escoveitch sauce made with wide slices of onion and red pepper and chunks of numbingly spicy scotch bonnet peppers. Every so often, you could hear someone laugh, cough, or wince in pain as he realized he'd bitten into a pepper and burning began.
There's a huge Jamaican and West Indian population in the western part of Broward County. Driving north and south along U.S. 441 near Sunrise Boulevard is a dangerous proposition for an ethnic-food enthusiast. Caribbean markets, roti shops that sell the Jamaican version of south Asian flat bread, and Jamaican bakeries easily distract the eye from the road. An endless stream of Caribbean restaurants boasting island-style cooking and under-$5 lunch specials kept us driving in the far right of the three-lane road, ready to pull off and get eating.
Although South Florida is often treasured for its endless beaches and pristine weather, the myriad people who over the decades have moved here in search of a better life, bringing their culture and cuisine with them, are what really makes the area special. Consider driving west the next time you're hungry.
Wayne Hammond, owner of Hammond's Bakery, says part of the reason so many Jamaicans now call Lauderhill home is due to the bus terminal on 12th Street and NW 47th Avenue.
"It gave people the ability to move about, to get to work," he says. "When Jamaican businesses started opening there — you had bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores."
In a shopping center directly across U.S. 441 sits Aunt I's Jamaican Restaurant, which has another outpost in Miami Gardens, according to owner Cary Grant. The I comes from his mother, Inez Grant, who had moved the family from Kingston to South Florida a decade earlier.
For a slideshow of Auntie I's Jamaican Restaurant, click here.
"Our original business was suit manufacturing, but my mother was always known for her cooking," Grant says. "When she came to America, her thing was she always wanted to open her own restaurant."
So Inez began cooking out of her house while Cary and his older brother, Winston, ran around the neighborhood making deliveries.
The oxtail and curried goat are still prepared according to his mother's recipes. Both can be had with two sides: rice and pigeon peas, and sweet stewed cabbage with carrot for a mere $11.49. The oxtail meat was fall-apart tender with rich, slippery chunks of fat clinging to each bite. Grant wouldn't give up his mother's oxtail recipe, but he offered a peek into how the curried goat, a deep greenish stew with chunks of fork-tender meat attached to bone, is made.
"You have to boil the curry [powder] to a very high temperature for it to break down," he says. "Sometimes you even have to burn it in a pan."
After that, the curry-powder slurry is added to a pressure cooker with black pepper, onions, and garlic and cooked for 45 minutes to an hour.
Few communities seem as adept at making more with less as Jamaicans. They know how to make use of secondary cuts; the daily specials at Aunt I's on a weekday afternoon were stewed cow foot and goat head.
The story of Hammond's Bakery bears many similarities to Aunt I's. Wayne's parents, who owned two bakeries in Jamaica called Hammond's Finger Lickin' Good, relocated the family to South Florida in 1979 so the children could attend school.
Wayne and his brother Richard "came up through the ranks" of cooking and took over the business in 1997, when their parents retired. The Hammonds are known for their patties.
Some people know Jamaican patties, also called turnovers, only as eerie yellow things in gas station heating cases. "Now most of [the patties] come out of New York and are made by a machine," Hammond lamented. Homemade ones, however, are the ultimate portable fast food.
Hammond's makes its own savory patties and sells 1,800 to 2,000 patties a day, all made by hand, with fillings ranging from ground beef spiced with scotch bonnet peppers ($1.70) to callaloo ($1.60). Callaloo, leafy greens found throughout the Caribbean that are similar to collard greens, comes from the top of a taro root , sometimes also called dasheen.
Jamaican breakfast fare can be as intimidating as cow foot for the uninitiated. A popular choice on a weekday morning was akee and saltfish, mixed together to create a breakfast hash.
Akee is a tropical fruit, thought to have come from Southern Africa, and has the color and texture of scrambled eggs but the flavor of a sweet mild squash. Mixed with it were sweet translucent slivers of onion and tender chunks of saltfish, juicy but also so salty that we felt our fingers swell as the mixture disappeared.
At Donna's Caribbean Restaurant in Lauderdale Lakes, the $9 dish came with firm boiled bananas, firmer than when raw, with a nuttier flavor, as well as fried plantains and orange-sized balls of that sweet Jamaican fry bread. Donna's website says the restaurant, which has five locations in Broward, opened in 1995. Owner Carl Gordon wasn't eager to talk about his business and how it got started.
"Not interested," he said before abruptly hanging up the phone.
Just as Jamaicans learned to create rich stews out of meats that typically never make it to restaurant tables, saltfish arose as a matter of necessity. Codfish was dried and salted to preserve the meat for use much later.
"When we're ready to eat it, we boil it to pull out all the salt," Grant says. The boiling also rehydrates the flesh, reverting its texture from a dry jerky to its natural state.
Donna's also has a short list of Chinese dishes, including vegetable fried rice ($5.99/$7.99) and shrimp lo mein ($7.99/$9.99), just like you might find at a utility Chinese takeout. If that seems out of place, know that in the mid-19th Century, a few dozen Chinese migrant laborers arrived on Jamaica directly from mainland China. More came from Panama, where they had worked building the country's railroads. Halfway through the 20th Century, nearly 10,000 Chinese were living on the island, and by 1998, that figure climbed to about 22,000, according to Andrew Wilson's book The Chinese in the Caribbean.
Colonization, slavery, mass exodus, and immigrations have all played a role in making Jamaican food what it is today. Grant of Aunt I's says from the Arawaks (indigenous Jamaicans), to the "Indian influence, the African influence, the Chinese, and of course the Europeans," all of these dishes are derived from a different part of a different culture.