“I love that!” says White with a wicked laugh and another chug of the elixir.
Later that afternoon, I drive with him to St. Ann’s, where the stray dogs poking at garbage and the untamed food markets conspire to burst the island’s resort-bubble image. But White isn’t fazed by any of it—not by the cloudy buckets of mackerel or the tubs of floating pigs’ tails. So thrilled is he by the fragrant stands of pineapple, mango, sweetsop, and ginger that he can’t stop grabbing the produce and holding it to his nose.
“I’ve never seen ginger so small and dirty,” he enthuses. “It looks like they’ve just pulled it out of the garden. The pawpaws smell of pawpaw. The coconut water is sensational, and the coconut jelly amazing. I’ve never seen food like it in my life.”
The following day, en route to Negril, we stop at a fruit stand where a man with a machete is whittling down sugarcane and coconut as though sculpting carrots with a paring knife. White dashes out to chat and to grab some pineapples and bananas, then zips back into the car.
At Cloggy’s on the Beach, an open-air place in Black River, we’re nursing Red Stripes and relaxing to the reggae beat when he jumps up and disappears into the kitchen. There, he finds the chef pulverizing a tough piece of conch with a monkey wrench and, delighted, looks on as the man makes deep slashes down the sides of a red snapper, filling each one of the crevices with salty seasoning before sliding the fish into a cast-iron pan of sizzling oil. Eventually White is chased out by the boss, who complains that the other customers are being neglected, and settles back in at our oceanfront table, where we dig into the garlic conch and fried snapper, served on mismatched plates. “Overfrying the fish brings out more flavor,” he says as we watch the sun dip below the horizon. “Now this is proper Jamaican street food.”
The next morning, after a quick breakfast of salt fish and ackee (the national dish), the chef hustles us out to the beach by six-thirty in order to be there for the first catch. A blond Rasta offers us a bowl of a red brew known as “fish tea,” made with whole fish, bouillon, and Excelsior water crackers, which fluff up in the liquid to give them, as White says, “the texture of scallops.” He chooses some king crabs, still bubbling at the mouth, several spiny lobsters, half a dozen chicken lobsters, a tangle of squid, some snapper, and a bucketful of reef fish and leads us back to the hotel.
That afternoon, I find him hard at work in the kitchen, slicing fresh ginger into a fine julienne (and blanching it repeatedly to remove the heat) as lobsters crawl off the cutting board. He calls for a pot of boiling water, a stick of butter, parsley, garlic, and a piping bag. He slices the cloves lengthwise, removes the green sprouts, tops them with sea salt, and creams everything against the cutting board with a chef’s knife before blending the paste with the softened butter and chopped parsley. It all goes into the bag. Next he poaches the chicken lobsters and transfers them to a covered bowl. He splits the crustaceans lengthwise in two continuous slices, removes the tail meat, pipes butter into the shells, and replaces the meat. One more layer of butter, followed by a trip into the oven, and they’re ready to go.