Back On the Rock

Saturday, October 01, 2005



I’ve barely stepped into Ranny Williams Entertainment Center when I hear the cry. This can’t be happening. It’s 4 pm, so, yes, I’m late. But this is the Pan Chicken Championships for crying out loud. How chicken can done?

“Chicken done. If you did order five, you can only get t’ree. If you did order t’ree, you can only get one.

“Don’t bother with the screwface. The chicken done.”

The speaker is wearing a little white chef’s hat and waving a spatula, defensively, at the crowd before him. Faces are glowering like the coals lining the converted steel drums – pans – that serve as the grills for the chicken. While our Trini friends inventively put the pan to use to make music, we yardies use it to feed our greatest passion: our bellies. Pan chicken, the granddaddy of Jamaican road food, is a singular dish; perfectly spiced chicken, pan-grilled on the side of the road; served in tinfoil with slices of hardo bread and best eaten in the wee hours of the morning after a long night of partying.

Based on sheer volume of consumption, I am a pan chicken connoisseur. Red Hills Road. Hope Road. Pantucky in New Kingston. Moist, dry. Mild, spicy. I’ll eat pan in all its incarnations. I’ve scared friends by yelping for them to make a sudden stop so I can satisfy a pan chicken craving; have pulled hair-raising U-turns and broken all kinds of traffic laws in the name of pan. I’m convinced there’s a secret to street seasoning and I’m hoping that it’s not car exhaust. My mission today is to unlock the tricks of the pan, but, unfortunately, half of Kingston has the same idea. The open field at the Ranny Williams Center is packed to capacity with hundreds of Kingstonians looking for their Sunday dinner and the chef, woefully under-armed with his spatula, is under pressure.

“People. Me serious. Back ‘way from the booth.”

The sign on the valiant chef’s booth reads “Kingston”. He’s one of the participating pan men and women from St. Thomas, St. Mary, St. Catherine, Portland and Kingston & St. Andrew who have assembled for the second of three regional championships to judge the kings and queens of the pan. It’s a scorching hot day and the heat and the mocking smell of chicken that fills the air is getting the best of the assembly of hungry pan fans. Tempers are flaring.

“How she get four chicken? She nuh fe get four chicken! Look here nuh man. You know how long me a wait fe chicken.”

“Yow, star. Me nah leave without even one piece of chicken. Me tell you that.”

I feel an unexpected surge of hostility towards the team of judges at their nearby booth. The competition is apparently over, but the judges are still working on plate after plate, glibly, seemingly oblivious to the jealous and baleful stares of onlookers. Their table is laden with plates of pan chicken, so gussied up for the big day I scarcely recognize it. Diced tomatoes, shredded cabbage, little vegetable rosettes and other Johnny Come Lately garnishes share the shelter of Saran wrap alongside the coveted chicken.

My desperation deepens as the reports trickle in: St. Andrew – Done. St. Catherine – Done. St. Thomas – Done. Portland – Done. I offer to pay double, triple, the asking price. I consider passing myself off as a judge, or introducing myself as a reporter in the hopes of scoring a quarter chicken or even a drumstick. But then a whisper rustles through the crowd:

“St. Mary. St. Mary have chicken.”

Maybe it’s the pan fumes. Maybe it’s the fact that I haven’t eaten all day and have given up chicken for a week. Maybe it’s that I’ve been looking forward to the Pan Championships for nearly a month; swore off pan to cleanse my palate, comforted by visions of spending a Sunday afternoon stuffing myself silly. Or maybe it’s the pain of pan lust denied. But before I know it, I’m at the head of the pack in a flat out sprint across Ranny Williams, eyes desperately scanning the booth markers looking for St. Mary. Too late. Before I can even ask the question, the St. Mary chef greets me with a snort and a clipped “Chicken done.”

I figure the only way to salvage the day is to leave with a recipe, but the pan men are too busy fending off patrons and grilling the few remaining birds to talk. I spy one chef hightailing it out of the park and grab hold of his smock.

“Do you have any more chicken?” I ask him through clenched teeth, trying not to sound as desperate as I feel.

“Lady, you don’t hear? De. Chicken. Done.”

“Well tell me how to make it. How do you make pan chicken?”

“To tell you the truth, lady, me nuh really know. A fill in me a fill in for me bredrin. Me just do a little thing with the chicken.”

Desperate for a recipe, I press on. “But how is it different from jerk?”

“Oh, well with jerk, you have to jerk the chicken. With pan, you just do what you feel.

“Little this. Little that. Onion. Pepper. Jus’ make the pan do the work.”

I leave Ranny Williams dejected. Starving. Mission not accomplished. But as I drive out of the parking lot I hear another cry, a faint voice struggling to be heard over the din of the sound system and the Hope Road traffic.

“Boiled corn over here. Boiled corn.” An old lady is sitting on the sidewalk in front of Ranny Williams, two large pots in front of her. In the pantheon of roadside food, the only thing that can trump pan chicken is a perfect boiled corn.

So I pull a U-turn. Dinner is served.


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