The Beef Patty Is Jamaica in the Palm of Your Hand

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The patty’s journey to fruition is as varied as Jamaica’s history.

Generally, though, there couldn’t be a faster food — you order a patty and poof, it’s in your hands. If you’re lucky, it’s crispy to the touch. If you’re luckier, you’ve taken a bite quickly enough for the steam to escape the pastry. And there’s a kick of spice present — enough Scotch bonnet for you to say, “Hunh,” but not enough to send you sprinting. But crucially, a beef patty is both deeply inconspicuous and entirely singular, a ritual taken for granted that you can’t help mourning once it’s gone.

The patty’s journey to fruition is as varied as Jamaica’s history; the island’s national motto is “Out of Many, One People,” adopted in 1962 after the island became independent of England. From the arrival of the Spanish (with their concurrent mayhem) and the British (with their concurrent mayhem) to the generations of Africans who were brought enslaved to the island, the mixing only furthered as the years passed. Indentured servitude and migration rhythms also brought Chinese, Indian, Jewish and other West Indian Caribbean dwellers to the island. And through the rhythms of migration and relocation, the island’s confluence of cultures and mores changed forms, taking what it was given and continually adapting.

The island’s foodways changed, too. As Enid Donaldson writes in “The Real Taste of Jamaica,” the predilections of those arriving cultures “have all helped to create the unique culinary blend which is Jamaican.” The world is so much smaller than we make it out to be. So maybe it’s hardly surprising that one of my life’s wonders has been finding beef patties all over the globe: I’ve ordered them, four beers in, from the bar stool of Patois, a Caribbean-​Asian restaurant in Toronto; and I’ve dined on patties barefoot at seaside convenience stores in Playa del Carmen; and I even found patty variants on the menu of an entirely delightful Jamaica-themed queer bar (now defunct) in Osaka, where the microwaved dish I snarfed in fours as a child was served alongside umeshu.

But the biggest surprises arrive closest to home. Not long ago, my boyfriend and I passed through Cool Runnings in Houston, one of our first sit-down restaurant outings in the past few years. We were led into the dining room, a dance hall in repose, where streamers loomed above an empty stage. Our waitress inquired about our spice tolerances — insisting, with a smirk, that we be honest, for everyone’s sake — before she brought out a plate of brown stew chicken, another of ackee and salt fish and then two patties: one beef, one chicken.


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