“In Jamaica, we eat every part of the goat,” says Rudy, my driver. “You ever had Mannish wata? Same thing with the patty–the only thing left at the end is the bag.”
He raises the small, greasy brown paper bag he’s holding with one hand, while driving with the other. I notice his impeccable crunching technique as he tilts his head forward and sinks his teeth into a steaming hot beef patty. No crumbs scatter on his pants, unlike mine, and a swift bite at intervals causes the pastry crumbs to fall directly into the bag.
I smiled and felt some weight falling off my shoulders. Just an hour after landing in Jamaica, the patty sampling had begun and I had a patty-enthusiastic driver. But what Jamaican isn’t, when it comes to their favorite snack?
Still, the exhilaration and pressure of a tight deadline weighed on my mind. I had under a week to complete the task of researching, writing and shooting the story of the Jamaican patty–the shoot being just as important as the article and even more demanding. The following Friday, I had a flight to New Zealand to catch and there was no missing that.
After being assigned the feature on Monday, I booked my flight to Jamaica on Tuesday and landed at Sangster International on >> Wednesday. To top it off, I was facing a long Easter weekend, Jamaica’s biggest public holiday of the year–even more significant than Christmas.
Rudy, one of my frequent airport drivers, was immediately intrigued when I told him the reason I was back so soon.
At his initiative, our first stop from the airport on the way to Negril, was Hammond’s Bakery, in the historic and chaotic town of Lucea. There, we learned that Hammond’s no longer bakes their own patties but rather distribute the Tastee brand (one of Jamaica’s biggest industrial, patty making chains).
“No problem, I can take you anywhere for your patty story. If you need to go to Kingston or MoBay, I can take you. Just text me the day before and say ‘patty drive!'” jokes Rudy. “But you know what, mi neva stop and think about this patty ting before,” he admits.
Neither had I. For as many times as I’d traveled to Jamaica, lived there for months on end and snacked on the spiced, stuffed pastry in all its combinations, depending on my mood of the day, I’d never paused to wonder exactly how it’s made. Or where it came from. I just lined up like a Jamaican at a Tastee or Juici outlet, grabbed my snack to go, stuffed it in a coco bread and enjoyed my dollar lunch without a thought.
But now, I was looking forward to learning all about the infamous Jamaican pastry. And just like my driver turning out to be an enthusiastic assistant, the events that unfolded over my four days of my assignment were nothing short of magical. I kept thinking of one word: flow. Of course, I couldn’t have accomplished my goal so swiftly if I weren’t already familiar with Jamaica or had trusted friends on the ground, to whom I remain in gratitude.
The images below show how the “patty drive” unfolded and the special moments and photographs that didn’t make the article, due to space.
The Patty Makers
Against the buzz of passing scooters and speeding cars on Norman Manley Boulevard–Negril’s Beach Road–Miss Sonia and I sat at one of four tables in her restaurant’s screened porch, where she shared that she learned to make patties from her grandmother, who raised her in Grange Hill from the age of three months.
“When I first came to Negril, 30 years ago, I had nothing,” she said.
I would learn, too, that Miss Sonia is everyone’s mother–she’s raised 15 children, many of whom were not hers. She took them in anyway, including pregnant teens, even when she couldn’t afford it.
Soon we were in her narrow kitchen, lit by a single exposed bulb. While I photographed her cooking by a wood fire and making the dough, she would look at me at intervals and whisper “thank you, thank you,” and bow her head. Her grandson Brian (pictured above) was on hand to assist her, helping with the last portion of the job: frying.
After we ate–dipping our patties in her secret, well seasoned sauce–I asked her what her special patty ingredient is, why so many return for her pastries.
“Love,” she replied without hesitation.
Niah, also known as Carlton Birch, worked for Miss Sonia for 17 years before breaking out on his own. Today, his ten-year old patty shack is a favorite tourist stop along Seven Mile Beach. Niah and his sister, who assists him, were warm and welcoming, and put as much love into their patties.
Neville Stewart is a fixture on Negril’s Seven Mile Beach. Every day for the past 20 years, starting at 11 am on one end of the stretch–from Traveller’s Beach Resort–all the way to the other, he pushes his “patty bicycle” along the powdery white sands, clamoring past throngs of tourist bodies: “Beef patty! Veggie patty! Chicken patty!”
Locals and visitors alike rise from their vendor or lounge chairs when he shows up. Some even know exactly what time he’ll appear. Who can blame them? It’s the cheapest, tastiest lunch alternative on a hot day in the sun.
I walked what felt like all of seven miles with him, under the sun and sometimes rain on that cloudy afternoon, while interviewing him about his patty venture and patty making skills. He was teased along the way–Neville! who dat pretty gyal? Yuh dawta?–while telling me everything I needed to know about the infamous Jamaican patty.
“It’s a skill,” he concludes. “You can have all the ingredients and still don’t know how to make it.”
Neville bakes his at home–he frowns at the frying method– every morning at 6 a.m. By mid afternoon, he has sold at least 70 patties. His filling was the spiciest, tastiest I sampled over four days.
The magic moment? When two Jamaican entertainers on stilts, on their way to amuse tourist crowds at Margaritaville, stopped to buy a patty from Neville. Yep, everyone in Jamaica loves their patty.
I watched the patty making process four times. Each had their special additions, but most were similar in their technique. The highlight here, was meeting a local chef with an original patty pan from the 1960s. He invited me to his home and made patties from scratch using the pan (they were delicious).
I’m not sure how many patties I sampled in one weekend. From Negril to Montego Bay, sometimes solo and other times with Rudy, I staked out every small bakery (the focus of my article) in Negril and Montego Bay, in addition to the big Tastee or Juici outlets, in search of the perfect cover photos and to make sure I had covered every angle.
“I’ll never forget this patty drive,” Rudy said on our last day together, as we walked around Montego Bay’s Sam Sharpe Square while I shot every day travel scenes–the last part of my assignment.
Neither will I.