The Cosmopolitanism of Jamaican Jerk Chicken

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Image result for jamaican jerk chickenTransatlantic Slave Trade: 

Prior to the colonization of Africa, the people of West Africa lived lives that were rich in culture. These African persons had language, even though the European men could not understand; they had kingdoms built upon hierarchy of class and rulers. These people were intelligent without a “Western” education. The African people were knowledgeable in politics, as well as the arts. They had technology and were skilled with medical practices. Math and astronomy were other skills that the African people were experienced in (International Slavery Museum). However, much of the culture that the African people built and grew to know, destructed when the European settlers entered. Although the slave trade helped excel the advancement of wealth and development for European nations, it depopulated and devastated the African continent (Adi).     

Slavery began well before the fifteenth century, but the most well-known and most significant remembered form of slavery is the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Transatlantic Slave Trade was developed during the fifteenth century when many European nations were colonizing various lands overseas in the newly founded Americas. The Americas were founded in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer who sailed under the Spanish empire, yet died thinking he had circumvented the globe. Later, the Americas were discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian explorer who sailed under the king of Portugal, between the years of 1499-1502; disputing Columbus’s claims that the America’s were the West Indies (Almagià).  

Originally, the Portuguese began enslaving Africans, by kidnapping them and transporting them back to Europe for trade. Due to the discovery of new lands in the East, demand for labor grew, and the African people were the ones who were forced to cross waters to deliver. The Spanish took the first set of Africans over to the Americas around 1503 and by about 1518 Africans were traded directly from Africa to the Americas: without first going to Europe (Adi).  

History of Slavery in Jamaica: 

Christopher Columbus was the first to sight the island of Jamaica in 1494, allowing the Spanish to occupy the small island in 1509 under a license from the son of Columbus. Yet with the invasion of these Europeans, benign diseases, wars, and cruel labor, the Arawak Indigenous People, slowly began depleting. The drastic decline in population of the Arawak people was the beginning for Jamaica’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Portuguese and Spanish looked at the New World as a place for mining and agricultural production. Enslaved people from Africa were imported to work on sugarcane plantations. However, similar to most Caribbean nations, Jamaica was captured by the British in 1655, and in 1670, The Treaty of Madrid was signed, formally giving the British control over Jamaica (Gomez 62). 

In 1513, the first group of Africans arrived from the West to the Jamaica, having been captured by the Spanish and Portuguese. These Africans were skilled, having been “servants, cowboys, herders of cattle, pigs and horses, as well as hunters” (Tortello). However, not long after the Spanish colonized Jamaica, the British fought and took over. 

The British were quick in their colonizing. They produced vast number of plantations that mainly focused on the cultivation and production of sugar. As a result of the great numbers of sugar plantations, sugar began to play a huge role in lives and culture of those in Jamaica (Tortello). For the most part, sugar, along with rum and molasses was transported back to Europe, but sugar was new. It gave a new flavoring – sweetening – to the bland foods the Europeans were accustomed to. It was also an ingredient some of the African people used in making their own foods, and there was plenty of sugar to go around.  

Jamaican Maroons’ Culture: 

The British takeover of Jamaica in 1655 is where historians can trace escaped enslaved African peoples, otherwise known as the Jamaican Maroons. As a result of the British invasion of Jamaica, the end of Spanish rein signaled a new rise of “an independent force, the Maroons” (Benitez). These escaped slaves lived a life of adventure and fear. Maroons constantly had to watch their every angle for fear of being recaptured and returned to slavery. They lived more in the interior region of Jamaica. They were nomads, constantly on the move. Scholar Bryan Edwards describes the Maroons as: 

Constantly on the move through the rough terrain of the interior of Jamaica. They frequently hunted for wild boar, often selling the meat to buyers in the settlements on the coastal regions. When they were not doing this, they were searching the woods for runaway slaves, whom they would return dead or alive for a reward. (Dubdoub). 

The Maroons were their own communities. They had escaped from the confinement of slavery to create a new way of life for themselves in a land they were unaccustomed to. . 

The word maroon stems from the Spanish word cimarrones which means mountaineers. The mountain regions of Jamaica were a good hideaway because it was difficult for white settlers to follow and chase them up such steep hills and rough terrain (The Maroons of Jamaica). As more Africans were brought to Jamaica to help work on the slave plantations, the populations of the Maroon community grew. 

Africans wanted freedom. They would attempt to run away, and those who were successful would join their fellow Africans in the Maroon communities in the mountains. Many slave rebellions occurred in the Jamaica and as a result, the British government felt a need to put an end to the Maroon communities. The first Maroon War occurred in 1728, which only further pushed the Maroons to be more determined and ambitious to win than ever. By 1739, the war ended, and the British and the Maroons made a truce. The Maroons could have their land and communities, but in return they would respect and honor the British government and also help in invasions against foreigners (The Maroons of Jamaica).  

It was a major win for the Maroons. They had won their freedom. Nevertheless, the Maroons are not only to thank for their bravery and determination, which gave so many Africans of Jamaica their freedom, but they also helped foster a new development in taste.  

Jamaican Maroons and Jerk Chicken: 

When these runaways setup their communities they met with the indigenous people on the island, known as the Arawak people. From this circumstantial event, the Maroons and the Arawak people united and the concept of cosmopolitanism erupted in many cuisines found throughout Jamaica. The Maroons being escaped enslaved people of Africa used their original African customs and traditions, while also incorporating new customs into their lives. One particular food that began with the Maroons is Jamaican jerk chicken.  

Keeping in mind, today’s version of Jamaican jerk chicken is different than how the Maroons made this authentic dish. Remembering that the Maroons were escaped slaves who were constantly on the run, their foods needed to have the ability to be made within a short amount of time and cooked in way that refrained from drawing attention. Smoke from fires drew attention and might cause the white settlers to come looking for them.  

Meat is a type of food that spoils quickly if it is not properly preserved. The Maroons preserved their meats by marinating them in “spice-heavy marinade” (Rothman). When it was time to cook these meats, the Maroons would dig holes and fill them with charcoals. The Maroons would then bury the meats in the holes with the charcoal, which they covered to prevent smoke from rising into the sky bringing attention (Rothman).   

Jamaican Jerk Chicken Today: 

Today Jamaican jerk chicken is a national dish that is shared with cultures worldwide. Many tourists relish in the idea of getting their mouths to taste the kick of spice in the jerk chicken from Jamaica and even go to nearby Jamaican restaurants in their home areas to try it. I am familiar with the Jamaican jerk chicken having grown up in Massachusetts, near Boston, which has a large population of Jamaicans. There were a few mini-restaurants that sold jerk chicken and I would go to them and eat their cuisines. In addition, my family travels. The two times I visited the country of Jamaica, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some of the famous jerk chicken and eat it in its natural habitat.  

Jamaican jerk chicken is not a food that is typically served by itself. From my own experiences and as I read on the same site from which I got the recipe, Jamaican jerk chicken is typically served with coconut rice and beans, as well as festival, which is a type of bread. Festival is known as Jamaican cornbread fritters, and they are termed “festival” because according to legend, eating them is fun like a festival (Kiesel). These mix of tastes make this cuisine a delicious meal that will leave one’s body feeling full and well fed.  

I’m sure the recipe for Jamaican jerk chicken varies depending on who’s making it and in what region, however, the taste is all so similar. The recipe I chose to use comes from a Jamaican travel and culture website. Their recipe calls for: 

Ingredient:  Portion: 
Chicken  

or 

Chicken Breast 

3 ½ lbs. 

or  

3lbs. 

Scotch Bonnet Peppers 

or 

Jalapenos  

6 
Thyme  2 tbsp. 
Ground Allspice  2 tbsp. 
Cloves of Garlic (finely chopped)  8 
Medium Onions (finely chopped)  3 
Sugar  2 tbsp. 
Salt  2 tbsp. 
Ground Black Pepper  2 tsp. 
Ground Cinnamon  1-2 tsp. 
Nutmeg  1-2 tsp. 
Ginger  1-2 tsp. 
Olive Oil  ½ cup 
Soy Sauce  ½ cup 
Juice of Lime  1 
Orange Juice  1 cup 
White Vinegar   1 cup 

In order to accurately make Jamaican jerk chicken, one must make the jerk sauce. All of the ingredients listed, except for the chicken, is blended together to make the jerk sauce. As one can see, the sauce is filled with a mixture of tastes: from spicy to sweet to other mixtures of blending spices. Once blended, the juice is spread over the chicken to marinate. The chicken is then cooked, preferably over coals. Once done, it is good to eat.  

This form of making this dish, incorporates all different arrays of ingredients that could be a form of a cosmopolitan ideal of cuisines. As seen with the Maroons, some of the cooking is a shared tradition with the people of the Arawak nation, while other aspects are pure convenience. The idea of smoking meat is a form of cooking brought on by the indigenous people. Cooking was a form of survival and cooking “right” was a necessity in order to avoid illnesses. Smoking meat allowed for both, while also adding a distinct smoky-like flavor to the foods. Jerk chicken is cooked in such a way, and was a form of cooking the Maroons most likely learned from the Arawak people.  

Aside from the form of actually cooking the meat, some of the spices, such as allspice, is probably an ingredient borrowed from the Arawak people. Allspice is a native spice of Jamaica and is also one of the many spices used in the making of the jerk sauce of the jerk chicken. Allspice is similar to pepper in the way it appears, but is “pungent and fragrant” (ACH Food Companies, Inc.). For the most part, a few of the ingredients, including: scotch bonnet peppers, onions, and sugar are native to the island of Jamaica. Some of their use in the making of Jamaican jerk chicken may be as a result of the uniting forces of the Maroons and the Arawak people. The use of sugar may be a “get back” type of ingredient towards the English settlers. These African people were forced to slave over the cultivation of sugar, but couldn’t actually use it. Perhaps the use of sugar is for its sweetening taste, as well as a take back after their hard labor.  

Many of the other spices originate from various parts of Asia. Through the slave trade, and just trade in general, these spices were able to circumvent the globe and land in several regions of the Earth; giving the people of Jamaica access to such spices. In this sense, the incorporation of these Asian spices, could constitute their involvement at cosmopolitan. As slaves, Africans would cook for their masters and whatever was left over they would keep and cook and eat for themselves. Cooking for their masters, gave the Africans the opportunity to try cooking with all different types of spices and foods, which they could then try for themselves. Liking the tastes of these unfamiliar ingredients, they would then take it upon themselves to integrate them within their own cooking, including jerk chicken.  

Jamaican jerk chicken is a nice example of a cuisine that started with slavery and ended in a celebratory dish that recognizes the bravery of escaped slaves. The cosmopolitan taste of the cuisine adheres to the unity of cultures that slavery forced upon nations. The indigenous people, the Europeans, and trade with Asia, allowed the jerk of the chicken to have such a strong and distinct kicking taste. The power that the jerk chicken has as a well-known dish of Jamaica, gives praise and recognition to those who struggled in slavery and allow African decedents of and in Jamaica to give thanks to their courageous ancestors and to recognize the blessings of slavery.  

There is no justification for the evils of slavery nor can we stay angry at those who withheld our ancestors from their rights to freedom. What we can do is reminisce on our ancestors bravery and courage and recognize the good that came from it all, such as the worldly foods that we now have. Jamaican jerk chicken is just one of many foods that allows us to remember slavery, the bravery of our people, and the combinations of cultures that goes into cooking food.  

From the intricate culture of the African people prior to the invasion of the Europeans, the African people came a long way. They battled the vicious seas and endured years of slavery due to the Transatlantic Slave Trade; crossing rough waters to newly founded Americas. In Jamaica, they were forced to adapt to two reigns. The Spanish first colonized Jamaica and then the British took over, which led to the adventurous and fearful culture of the Maroons. The Maroons gave way to the exotic tastes of new dishes like Jamaican jerk chicken blending ingredients due to convenience and cosmopolitan unison. From them, the cuisine spread and is now a nationally known dish shared, eaten, and welcomed by all.  

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