The Jamaican Jerk method of seasoning food is more popular now than ever. The authentic taste of scotch bonnet peppers and allspice berries infused with pimento wood, commonly featuring thyme, ginger, garlic and scallion, has taken diners beyond Jamaica’s roadside jerk stands, with their intoxicatingly delicious scents and repurposed steel drum grills, to supermarket shelves, mass market dining establishments and big food producers. But while the Jerk tradition has created commercial opportunities for Jamaica, some foreign adaptations of the Jerk trend have attracted allegations of cultural appropriation and marketing gimmickry.
Jerk is a Jamaican cooking tradition, conceived as a product of hardship and resistance and a remnant of Jamaica’s Maroon and native Taino Indian cultures. The origins of the method extend to the 17th century when African slaves, known as Maroons, escaped to the mountains of Jamaica’s Cockpit Country where they would cook the meat of wild hogs by first preserving them in a marinade of Taino and African-inspired seasoning and then burying them in the earth so as to temper the scent and the smoke, to prevent them from getting caught.
Centuries after the Maroons negotiated their freedom, Jerk seasoning methods continue to be a major element of Jamaican culinary culture, extending to the Diaspora and throughout the world.
In November 2020, The Association for Dressings and Sauces awarded Zaxby’s Caribbean Jerk Sauce, produced by California-based Golden State Foods, the distinction of “top sauce of the year.” Golden State Foods developed the sauce for Zaxby’s, an Atlanta-based fast food chain, as a condiment for its Caribbean Jerk Fillet Sandwich and a glaze for its wings. The limited time offer was so popular that it had to be extended.
Kate Dolan, Golden State’s senior corporate chef, described the sauce, made of mango and habanero peppers, as “authentic, fruity, sweet and spicy,” and as “familiar, yet authentic…” She went on to say that, “the ‘spice and heat’ trend influenced this crowd-pleasing sauce, which features just the right amount of heat and a balanced flavor profile.”
But the Golden State-Zaxby collaboration would later be criticized by authentic jerk loyalists, who referred to the sauce’s ad and claims of authenticity as lacking in cultural sensitivity to the Caribbean, or to the Jamaican origins of Caribbean Jerk. In one phrase— cultural appropriation.
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“This raises the question of corporate values,” said a Jamaican food entrepreneur of the product. “There is no real cuisine called Caribbean Jerk. It’s Jamaican. They could easily have purchased the seasoning directly from an authentic Jamaican manufacturer, supporting an ecosystem that would have a positive compounding impact on the Jamaican economy as a whole.”
But is this type of mimicry avoidable with a flavor as popular as Jamaican Jerk?
The popularity of Jerk seasonings, rubs, marinades, mashes and sauces has birthed a movement, earning it Taste Atlas’ number 28 spot on its list of the 50 most popular spices in the world in January 2021, extending beyond the typical seasoning of chicken and pork, to include seafood, vegetables, fruits, tofu, health foods, pizzas and other creatively inspired dishes.
Take for example, Jamaican Michelin-star chef Anthony Cumberbatch’s pressed jerk pork with apple and scotch bonnet jam which made an appearance on August 2020’s Carnival Menu at London’s Park’s Edge Bar & Kitchen, Jamaican Master Chef Craig Wong’s jerk pork belly yakisoba and prosperity jerk lobster at Patois restaurant in Toronto or British Chef James Cochran’s jerk yogurt chicken wings with pineapple, rum, peanuts and mint, served at restaurant, 12:51 in London.
These examples of Jamaican Jerk-inspired dishes are a figment of the cultural evolution of food. But they beg the question, when does inspiration become cultural appropriation?
For starters, cultural appropriation or “misappropriation” occurs when a dominant culture adopts convenient parts of a marginalized culture without experiencing the hardship of the latter culture and putting its own spin on the aspects that it has adopted, often commercializing them.
In 2014, Jamaica Jerk Producers Association Limited (JJPA) established Jerk as the intellectual property of Jamaica by registering the ‘Jamaica Jerk’ as a geographical indication (GI) mark. Regulating the authenticity of Jerk means that non-genuine Jamaican jerk products have to remove their products from markets where the GI for Jamaica Jerk is registered; but while infringement can lead to fines and jail time, there have continued to be cases of appropriation by well-known brands.
In 2018 British chef and food entrepreneur, Jamie Oliver attempted to capitalize on the Jerk trend by introducing a microwavable meal called “Punchy Jerk Rice,” which created an uproar among England’s Caribbean community who argued that it did not taste like jerk at all, but was rather a marketing gimmick to boost sales.
In 2019, Swedish furniture company Ikea was forced to apologize for alleged cultural appropriation when it began selling what it referred to as Jerk chicken and rice and peas but reportedly not only got the jerk seasoning wrong, but also served white rice and garden green peas instead of the traditional Jamaican dish of rice and kidney beans made with coconut milk.
This past Christmas, McDonalds MCD in the United Kingdom was blasted for adding a “Jamaican jerk chicken sandwich” to its 2020 Festive Menu. According to the chain’s website, the sauce was made of tomato paste, habanero chili puree, spices, garlic, ginger and basil and not authentic Jerk chicken flavors.
In November 2020, following complaints of cultural appropriation, Canadian athletic apparel store Permission ended its partnership with Ripe Nutrition, a company that had been hosting a broth bar pop-up inside its store, when it unveiled a number of products including a “sexualized” jerk sauce called “Jerk Me.”
While Jamaican Jerk is a well traveled seasoning method and available worldwide, the authentic flavor can rarely be found inside of a bottle. Jamaica’s history, geography, culinary culture, and unique ingredients set genuine Jerk apart, and can be found among brands such as Grace, Walkers Wood, Eatons, Spur Tree and Busha Browne.
Jamaica has the right to protect its claim to this authentic culinary tradition.