Smithsonian magazine has published a feature article focused on the unique history of Jamaican jerk noting its special place in Jamaican culture. The article begins by stating that jerk is more than a seasoning; it is “a whole culture” that is enthusiastically celebrated by Jamaicans. To illustrate how strongly Jamaicans feel about jerk.
Smithsonian describes the criticism faced by McDonald’s so-called jerk chicken sandwich, which launched in the United Kingdom with the intent of attracting members of the Jamaican diaspora at Christmas. Jamaicans in the UK objected to McDonald’s referring to its sandwich as being anything close to authentic jerk in the same way Jamaicans objected in 2018 to Chef Jamie Oliver’s introduction of his “Punch Jerk Rice” product. Non-Jamaicans did not quite understand the outcry against McDonald’s, saying that the objections were excessive, and that “it was only a sandwich.” However, according to Carolyn Cooper, a Jamaican literary scholar, jerk is much more: it is one of the legacies that represents the history and the fusion of African and indigenous Taino cultures on the island of Jamaica.
The Taino, an Arawak people, named the island “Xaymaca,” or “the land of wood and water.” They first came into contact with Europeans with the arrival of Columbus in 1494. Fifteen years later, the Spanish colonists came to the island and used it chiefly as a trading post, bringing with them enslaved people as laborers. When war with England led the Spanish to abandon the island in the 17th century, the enslaved population fled to the mountains and became known as Maroons, a word deriving from the Spanish word for “mountaineers.” By the time the Maroons met the Taino, the 90 percent of them had gone extinct. Over time, the British expanded their presence on Jamaica and brought more enslaved Africans to work in the sugar industry, and these people would often escape the plantations to join the Maroons in the mountains where they lived as free people. There was a mixing of culinary traditions, and one of these was jerk.
Jerk refers to the way that meat is seasoned, smoked and grilled, and it is a remnant from the slavery era when Maroons would prepare tough cuts of meat to transform them into tender and delicious dishes. They typically cooked wild boar combined with allspice berries, salt, and chili peppers wrapped in pepper elder leaves and cooked in “an underground smokeless pit” over dying embers. This smokeless pit was used by the Maroons because it did not reveal their location as cooking over an open fire would.
The Maroons and the African people brought to Jamaica by the British developed alliances and exchanged food traditions and meat preservation methods. They fed themselves under adverse conditions, staying on the move to evade their captors, for many years. According to Gariel Ferguson, a chef and restaurateur who participated in the first of the James Beard Foundation’s “Savoring Jamaica” celebrations, “Jerk is freedom manifested in food.” To label a dish as “jerk” without acknowledging its history is an insult.
However, in modern times, as Cooper notes, jerk seasoning “like reggae music, … has become a global Jamaican brand.” Grace Foods, the largest manufacturer and exporter of Jamaican food product on the island, sells nearly three million jars of jerk seasoning worldwide. According to the official culinary authorities in Jamaica, for a dish to be considered “authentic jerk,” the meat must be smoked over a pimento wood fire; some online sellers provide pimento wood chips to the United States.