When I visit Jamaica, Friday nights are the most highly anticipated. At the beginning of the weekend, communities across the island are treated to a slough of vendors who set up their stations to serve jerked meats or seafoods along with an assortment of other foods. When I get the chance to visit my uncle in Portmore, a neighborhood just west of the island’s capital, Kingston, the wafting scent of jerk chicken lingers in the air after night falls. Everywhere, patrons flock to their favorite jerk pans—a set up that includes a repurposed steel oil drum as a cooking element paired alongside a cooler bountiful with a selection of drinks, a pot full of chef’s choice soup, and multiple desserts. I’m treated to my choice of jerk chicken leg and thigh or a breast, served over white bread topped with a messy mosaic of ketchup and wrapped up tight in foil binding.
Living in Toronto, if I want pan chicken that tastes like anything like back home, I have to venture to find it: the journey for jerk. While Jamaican jerk is popular worldwide and readily available as a marinade, rub, or sauce at many grocery chains, you’re not always going to find the true flavor inside of a bottle. It’s the history, production method, and ingredients that set authentic jerk apart, and Jamaica makes a point of protecting its claim on the jerk cooking style.
Historians propose two possible origins of jerking. One is that Africans perfected it prior to being forcibly removed from the continent and brought to Jamaica by way of slavery. The National Library of Jamaica asserts that the Coromantee hunters of West Africa, present day Ghana, would roast pork over hot coals, a practice they brought with them when they were kidnapped and taken to the region now known as Boston Beach. Situated on the northeast coast of Jamaica, Boston Beach is often referred to as the “mecca” of jerk, thanks to the way the area has preserved traditional jerking methods.
The second suggestion asserts that during the time indigenous Arawak/Taino people from South America settled in Xaymaca, now Jamaica, over 2,500 years ago, they engaged in a practice that involved smoking and drying meat in the sun, a cooking technique that was already widely used in present day Peru. In fact, food historians like Alan Davidson and John Mariani say the etymology of the word “jerk” has roots in the Peruvian “charqui,” which means “dried strips of meat.” Modern-day jerky is enjoyed the world over, just like jerk.
After Christopher Columbus’ unfortunate arrival to Jamaica to claim it for Spain in 1492, he oversaw a brutal mass murder of the Arawak/Taino population and later brought enslaved Africans to the island to work on Spanish-owned plantations. Some of the then-enslaved Africans escaped Spanish rule and went into hiding in the mountains, a refugee community known as the Maroons. As they did not know how long they needed to hide, they adapted a similar technique that the Arawak/Taino had previously employed, using salt, pepper, and spices to preserve the wild boar meat they hunted as a means of preservation. They spiced the meat, wrapped it in leaves, and prepared it to be cooked, a method that was dually useful for long travels.
Cooking the meat, which could take six to nine hours, involved making pits in the ground and cooking the meat over a slow, low-burning fire. The pit method was the preferred technique as the Maroons were still in hiding from the Spanish; it tempered the scent and the smoke, which afforded them discretion. By 1739, though, they no longer needed to be discreet. Following a complex history involving uprisings between Spain and the colonial British rule that followed, the Maroons were able to come to an agreement with Britain: in exchange for sovereignty, they captured rebel slaves and runaways. Without needing to exercise discretion, they transitioned to an above-ground cooking method that allowed the meat to cook atop pimento wood over a fire, drastically reducing its cooking time. This technique for jerking eventually made its way to Buckley Beach (present-day Boston Beach), an area that continues to maintain the ancestral process of jerking.
An essential ingredient for jerk is a paste of scallion, scotch bonnet, thyme, and pimento, but over time that mix has evolved to include onion, peppers, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices native to Jamaica. This makes jerk a distinct Jamaican product, and the filing of a 2015 “geographical indication” supports this. As defined by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO):
“A geographical indication (GI) is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin...Since the qualities depend on the geographical place of production, there is a clear link between the product and its original place of production.”
The mobilization toward a GI for jerk began in 2008. Seeing that Jamaican jerk was in need of protection, the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) tapped the IPI (Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property) for a capacity building partnership. In order to establish jerk as the intellectual property of Jamaica, they needed to first create a formal association, one that could develop a code of practice and a control manual for the product. Out of their years of research and efforts came the creation of the Jamaica Jerk Producers’ Association and the Jamaica Pepper Farmers Association—the first country in the English-speaking Caribbean to create such protections. Now, they could regulate the authenticity of jerk by standardizing its production methods, and championing the use of ingredients cultivated by Jamaican farmers.
Why does this matter? Because it bolsters the island’s agricultural sector and allows producers of authentic jerk to reap the benefits of their labor, rather than being devalued by copycats around the world. Says GraceKennedy Limited, a widely known producer of Jamaican food products, in a 2014 report by the Jamaica Gleaner, “Owners of non-genuine Jamaican jerk products will have to remove their products from markets where the GI for Jamaica Jerk is registered, leaving room for increased revenues, especially from overseas markets.” Marcus Goffe, Deputy Director/Legal Counsel of the JIPO, added in the same report that the indication would “present to consumers in the international marketplace an indication that there is a difference between jerk and Jamaican jerk and to attach a premium over and beyond every other type of jerk.”
Though Jamaican jerk is not in need of legitimizing by way of the geographical indication, the GI filing identifies, acknowledges and honors the jerking process, and it’s a good first step. Much of Caribbean culture, from music to food, has been historically subject to pillaging, appropriating, and co-opting. The ongoing trend of non-Caribbean people repackaging the region’s cuisine for an urban and often gentrified crowd pushes those people’s own iteration of the culture to the fore while driving business and customers away from preexisting Caribbean-owned businesses. When imitators aspire to profit from the region’s likeness, it effectively robs its progenitors of material gain. Now, Jamaican jerk’s geographical indication allows penalties to be doled out to those who try to imitate or cheapen the style.
Companies and producers abroad can still label their products “jerk,” but labeling it “Jamaican jerk” can be considered an infringement. According to Lisa Rhooms, an associate at the Jamaica-based Myers, Fletchers and Gordon law firm, that infringement can net someone a fine of up to J$1 million, or 12 months of jail time. It’s a regulation worth taking seriously—one that honors a cooking method that’s so uniquely Jamaican, you can taste it.