As the taste of Jamaican jerk becomes more popular, the issue of cultural appropriation has also arisen and recently explored by Forbes magazine. Authentic Jamaican jerk includes the flavors of scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, ginger, garlic, scallion, and allspice berries and the smoky pimento wood fire used for cooking. The Jerk tradition has created commercial opportunities for Jamaica as diners crave the “real thing,” but some of the foreign adaptations of Jerk have merely sought to capitalize on its popularity without crediting its long cultural history on the island.
The Jerk cooking tradition was born in the hardship and resistance displayed by the Maroon and native Taino cultures of Jamaica and date back to the 17th century when enslaved African people known as Maroons escaped to form their own communities in the island’s Cockpit Country. The jerk preparation developed as a method for preserving the meat of wild hogs in a marinade inspired by African and Taino traditions and then cooking the meat by burying it in the ground to hide the smoke and scent so the people would not be discovered by slaveholders and government authorities. After the Maroons became free, jerk seasonings became a staple of Jamaican cuisine and spread via the Diaspora throughout the world.
Fans of authentic jerk cried foul in 2020 when the Association for Dressings and Sauces presented Zaxby’s Caribbean Jerk Sauce, which is made by Golden State Foods, a California-based concern, an award for “top sauce of the year.” This sauce, which is made of mango and habanero peppers, was developed to season the Zaxby’s food chain’s limited edition Caribbean Jerk Fillet Sandwich and as a glaze for its wings. It was described by the Golden State corporation as “authentic, fruity, sweet and spicy” and as “familiar and authentic.” Critics objected to the firm’s claims of authenticity as well as its lack of cultural sensitivity to the Jamaican origins of Caribbean jerk. They also said that the situation raised questions about corporate values, as there is no cuisine called “Caribbean Jerk.” Jerk is Jamaican, and Golden State Foods could have easily purchased authentic seasoning directly from authentic Jamaican manufacturers, a move that would have contributed greatly to the island’s economy.
Defenders of food companies like Golden State Foods say it is difficult to avoid such issues with a seasoning as popular as jerk, which has increasingly been used in rubs, marinades, mashes, and sauces and earned the Number 28 ranking on Taste Atlas’s list of the 50 more popular spices in the world in January 2021. The seasoning has expanded in use beyond the traditional flavoring for chicken and pork to include seafood, vegetables, tofu, pizza, and other dishes. Creative chefs has modified jerk dishes with innovations of their own, and these are considered part of the cultural evolution of foods. At the same time, they raise the question of when inspiration becomes cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture takes convenient portions of a marginalized culture without experiencing any of that culture’s development and putting its own interpretation of the cultural aspects it has adopted, often for commercial purposes.
The Jamaica Jerk Producers Association Limited (JJPA) established jerk as a Jamaican intellectual property in 2014, registering the “Jamaica Jerk” as a Geographical Indication (GI) mark. Regulating jerk’s authenticity requires non-genuine Jamaican jerk products to leave markets when the GI mark is registered. Infringements of the regulations can result in fines and jail terms, but cases of such appropriation by well-known brands have continued. Jamaica has the right to protect its claim to this authentic culinary tradition.
Some examples of cultural appropriation include the effort of British chef Jamie Oliver in 2018 to capitalize on the popularity of jerk by offering a microwavable meal he called “Punchy Jerk Rice” in 2018 that was far from authentic jerk. In 2019, the Swedish furniture firm Ikea had to apologize for selling what it called “jerk chicken and rice and peas,” which not only provided non-authentic jerk seasoning, but used white rice and garden peas, rather than the traditional Jamaican ingredients of rice and kidney beans made with coconut milk. In 2020, the Canadian athletic apparel firm Permission discontinued its association with Ripe Nutrition, which had been hosting a pop-up broth bar inside the clothing store that included a “sexualized” jerk sauce called “Jerk Me.”
Jamaican jerk flavor can be found worldwide now, but not often in a bottle. Genuine jerk is made special through its links with Jamaican history, geography, culinary culture, and its unique ingredients, and it can be found in brands like Grace, Walkers Wood, Spur Tree, and Busha Browne.
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