I smear the dark brown paste on everything. I pat it onto salmon filets before I slide them into the oven and sneak it between tightly stacked leaves of cabbage layered into a steamer basket. I use my hands to massage it into Brussels sprouts, roughly chopped carrots, and broccoli florets. And every time I pull the container from my fridge, I ask myself how the hell I lived so long without a jar of jerk seasoning.
I didn’t grow up eating much Jamaican food in Oakland, California. This city, awash with some of the best Ethiopian and Eritrean, Filipino, Mexican, and Laotian food in the country, has comparatively few spots offering flavors of the Caribbean. And neither of my vegetarian Jewish parents were making a whole lot of curried chicken or braised oxtails.
My introduction to jerk chicken — its skin soaked in the flavor of sweet smoke, of Scotch bonnet peppers, allspice berries, ginger, and green onion — was during my first year of college, across the Hudson river from a New York town called Kingston. That’s where I had my first meals at Top Taste, where you’ll find the best — and more or less only — jerk chicken, curry goat, and oxtails in town. The snug restaurant, painted with wide stripes of yellow and green in the colors of the Jamaican flag, and set on the corner of a sleepy residential street, sells all sorts of groceries you can’t find elsewhere in the area: ackee, saltfish, canned callaloo and Tastee Cheese in vacuum-sealed aluminum containers.
As soon as the door swung open on my first visit four years ago, I was greeted by booming dancehall coming from a boombox propped above the entrance and the smiling faces of owners Melenda Bartley and Albert Samuel Bartley, known to a stream of friends and loyal customers as Sammy. For many, Top Taste brought familiarity and reminders of faraway homes. To me, everything about the experience was new, a welcome and deeply needed change of pace and scenery from the always-boiled, never-baked food of my college dining hall. I didn’t own a car, but whenever I could convince one of my new friends to drive me there, I was at Top Taste.
Over the years, Melenda and Sammy became friends, and their restaurant felt more like home than the cement-block dorm where I slept. I’d order from the menu scrawled on a piece of neon green cardstock on the wall, and while Melenda was filling my square plastic plate with rice and peas, stew chicken, oxtails, and plantains, I’d walk around to the restaurant’s snug concrete patio, where a plume of smoke tipped off the whole neighborhood that Sammy was making a fresh tray of jerk chicken.
That chicken was like nothing I had eaten. The meat was almost blackened by the time it absorbed the smoke, and while the skin was crisp, it gave way between my teeth. The flesh was ever so slightly past the point of juiciness, the fat and connective tissue broken down over hours of gentle cooking, so that the meat melted with each bite, mixing with starchy sweet plantains, steamed cabbage and peppers, and a dot of ketchup and scorching hot sauce.
A few months into my often twice-weekly trips to Top Taste, I asked Sammy how he made his jerk chicken. He sat down next to me with his spice-smudged apron still on, and explained the process in very matter-of-fact terms: The meat gets marinated overnight in a rich jerk seasoning blend (very, very heavy on the ginger), and the next day — rain or shine — he lights a spark under the pimento wood in his old barrel grill, caked with a thick layer of seasoning from good use, and cooks the chicken until it’s done.
I’d known as soon as Sammy first walked me through his process that this wasn’t the sort of recipe I could transcribe, fold up, and stash away for safekeeping. He’d made the dish on so many occasions that each step was second nature: an inkling that more scallion, garlic, or Scotch bonnet was needed, a sniff test confirming the salt, heat, and herbage was balanced to his liking.
When I moved to the city after leaving college, I made it a point to seek out jerk chicken whenever and wherever I could, always comparing it to the meat that came off Sammy’s grill. Some restaurants in Brooklyn had plantains more plump than the ones at Top Taste. Others had the perfect rice and peas, each grain and bean whole and separate, never mushy. Many served a jerk chicken that was good — exceptional, even. But despite following every recommendation, no one’s chicken compared to Sammy’s.
I came back to Oakland to spend the first month of shelter-in-place with my family. But like so many others who up and left cities with no real plan, a month turned into three, and then four, and now here I am, writing from my childhood home six months later. When I lived in Brooklyn, I hadn’t once tried to make jerk chicken in my own kitchen, knowing when a craving really hit — which it reliably did — I could buy an Amtrak ticket for $38 and be perched comfortably at one of Top Taste’s plastic-upholstered booths by lunch. Now, I feel pangs of sadness thinking about Sammy and Melenda and the plate of jerk chicken and rice and peas I could be eating 3,000 miles away.
But on YouTube, where I spend so much of my life now, I recently came upon Terri-Ann, a Saint Lucian home cook who walks viewers through hundreds of incredibly appealing recipes. They include pandemic classics — banana bread and dalgona coffee, our old friends — but also some favorite dishes I didn’t get a chance to peek into the kitchen and watch Sammy or Melenda make on visits to Top Taste. Terri-Ann has recipes for oxtails robed in velvety gravy, flaky golden beef patties, and, to my great satisfaction, jerk chicken. In one video showing viewers how she makes her chicken, Terri-Ann pulls out a glass jar of Walkerswood Jamaican Jerk Seasoning, a pre-blended mixture of spices and herbs which she says she swears by. She plops a generous spoonful of the deep brown mixture into a bowl of chicken drumsticks, along with a big spoonful of her herby green seasoning blend and a drop or two of browning sauce for color. I hastily switched tabs and bought three jars of the seasoning blend with expedited shipping. It wouldn’t be the same, but maybe it’d do the trick.
Since then, the Walkerswood blend has become a staple in my kitchen. The spicy mixture of scallions, Scotch bonnet, allspice, nutmeg, and plenty of thyme finds its way into more or less everything I cook. It’s notably lacking in the generous heaps of grated fresh ginger I know Sammy adds to his blend, but still, it’s excellent. I live just blocks from Minto, one of few Jamaican markets in Oakland, and I regularly stop in to add new sauces and seasoning blends to my growing pantry. I have a jar of browning sauce now, and I’ve bought as many of the hot sauces I remember seeing on the tables at Top Taste as I can find. But nothing I’ve added to my pantry since coming home comes close to my jar of jerk seasoning. In addition to using it in recipes from Terri-Ann and other Caribbean and Caribbean-American YouTubers and food bloggers, I add the paste to fried rice, to tofu, to — you get it.
The boldly flavored mixture is a perfect match for chicken, but that’s where I use it least, instead opting to put it on a thick slab of salmon or slather it on vegetables before roasting. Perhaps there’s just too much dissonance when I pair it with chicken, the bar too high to meet.
I miss Sammy’s jerk chicken like I’ve never missed food before. It’s a yearning that’s become familiar during this pandemic, for those things I know I can’t have. There is no takeout order that will meet the craving, which is as much about the environment surrounding a plate of chicken as it is about the blend of spices or the kiss of smoke that permeates each bite. Those meals were colored by a sort of care and hospitality that you can’t pay for and that’s hard to even seek out. The extra steamed cabbage and carrots because Melenda knew I liked to run the mixture through a pool of curry goat gravy on my empty plate. A piece of bubblegum set on the table as I finished eating, just something to chew on during the drive back to campus. Later, Melenda would send me off with a warm slice of her homemade rum cake wrapped in aluminum foil. It sat in my coat pocket and warmed my hand as I boarded Amtrak to go back to Penn Station.
The first time I bit into a piece of baked chicken I’d marinated in the Walkerswood seasoning blend, I felt pulled in two directions: It was delicious — fragrant and hot, every spice and herb present but not overwhelming. I also felt a little disappointed, as if I’d really expected my thrown-together Wednesday night dinner to taste anything like what Sammy pulled off his smoker after hours and hours of slow cooking and constant attention. I know now, as I go on seven months without a single meal in a restaurant’s dining room or even on a reopened patio, that what’s missing isn’t a handful of grated ginger or the smoke from pimento chips (though both would improve my chicken game dramatically). What’s missing is something only a restaurant like Top Taste can provide, that can’t be found in a jar of seasoning. But right now a jar of seasoning is what I’ve got, and until I find myself in that tiny dining room again, this one is pretty damn good.