The story of how Jamaican food came to Provincetown
PROVINCETOWN — It’s 9 a.m., and Natessa Brown’s humble Jamaican restaurant, Irie Eats, has just sold out of the day’s first batch of ackee and saltfish. Often referred to as Jamaica’s national dish, the popular breakfast staple combines lobes of ackee — a fruit that looks and tastes deceptively like scrambled egg — with sauteed bell pepper, onion, and salt cod. The restaurant has been open for only one hour, but it’s already time to make another batch for the second wave. “It’s a big seller,” she says modestly.
In this popular summer destination on the tip of Cape Cod, as in towns all around the Cape and Islands, a strong, decades-old seasonal Jamaican population powers the many restaurants, inns, and shops that in turn power the region’s tourism-based economy. They make much of the clam chowder, lobster rolls, fried clams, and — in an interesting instance of shared culinary heritage — salt cod, bell pepper, and linguica-laced dishes of P-town’s Portuguese past. And while the occasional whisper of Scotch bonnet or dusting of jerk sometimes sneaks onto the classic New England menus that define Provincetown’s restaurant scene, there wasn’t, until Brown opened Irie Eats in 2014, a legitimate Jamaican-run restaurant serving Jamaican cuisine.
Brown first came to the Cape from Westmoreland Parish, the region that’s home to Negril, as a teenager in 1999. Initially, she joined her mother, who, like most Jamaicans here, landed in Provincetown through the H-2B visa program, which provides foreign workers with seasonal nonagricultural jobs in resort areas around the country. They both worked in the kitchen at Clem & Ursie’s, a beloved yet now-shuttered seafood market and restaurant that specialized in the types of hearty, Portuguese-inflected seafood dishes so dear to the Outer Cape’s culinary identity. When the restaurant closed nearly 10 years later, Brown, by this time a permanent resident of the United States and intrepid Provincetown year-rounder, spent a few years working for the town doing maintenance and saving money. “I knew I wanted to do something for myself,” she says. “I don’t like to borrow money, so I worked a lot.”
In 2012, Brown became a US citizen and eventually approached the owner of a long-abandoned shack practically across the street from the former Clem & Ursie’s with the idea to turn it into a restaurant. Before long, she was painting the shack — which had to be totally reoutfitted — black, green, and yellow. In the years since it opened, Irie Eats has become a magnet for Jamaican workers, tourists, and locals. “Everybody supports [the business],” Brown says, adding, “especially the locals. Once you have a business, locals always look out for you.”
Inside, shelves stock typical Jamaican groceries: cans of callaloo and coconut milk, bottles of grapefruit-flavored Ting and bubble gum-sweet Kola Champagne. A large blackboard displays the menu, which includes recognizable Jamaican classics such as jerk chicken, jerk pork, and curry goat, as well as lesser-known specialties such as escovitch fish and brown stew chicken, and rotating daily specials that include conch soup, pig’s tails with red peas (kidney beans), or stewed cow foot. What unites everything on the menu is Brown’s guiding principle that it all be homemade, from scratch, every day. She arrives at 4 a.m. to start cooking, and only leaves the restaurant at 10:30, to go to her other job overseeing the housekeeping department of an inn in neighboring North Truro. She’s back at Irie Eats by 3:30 p.m. to prepare for dinner service.
Brown’s hard work and dedication come through in the food. Long-simmered curry goat is rendered a deep golden color by the turmeric-laced curry powder that flavors it. Tender and falling off the bone, it’s a perfect rendition of the dish. Jerk chicken is rubbed with a spice mixture redolent of thyme and allspice (known as “pimento” in Jamaica) before it is grilled outside behind the restaurant and topped with a hot and sweet barbecue sauce. Apart from allowing that the sauce contains carrot and tomato, Brown won’t give up much else.
Escovitch fish (the name comes from the Spanish and Portuguese escabeche by way of medieval Persian) is a succulent whole snapper that’s been fried and left to mingle with tangy vinegar-marinated onions, bell peppers, and Scotch bonnet chiles. Brown stew chicken gets its namesake color from a Jamaican molasses-like condiment known as “browning,” which is for sale at the restaurant. It comes, as all of the mains do, with fluffy rice and peas suffused with coconut milk.
Outside, a few painted picnic tables are the restaurant’s only seating, and patrons idle here even after finishing their meals. When the restaurant opened, “it was a blessing,” says a man who gives his name as Wayne. He’s been working seasonally in hotel maintenance for seven years. “To hang out here and have some good food, it reminds me of back home,” he says.
In Jamaica, the term “irie” refers to an overarching feeling of positivity and good vibes. In this corner of the Cape, surrounded by honest food, an accepting community, and a laid-back atmosphere, the name couldn’t be more appropriate.
Irie Eats, 70 Shank Painter Road, Provincetown, 508-487-0470.