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The Story of Jerk

The Maroons invented the now world-famous culinary technique of Jerk! The story of Jerk begins in Jamaica, but has connections to other parts of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe.

 

According to various Maroon historians such as Bev Carey and other scholars, the Maroons created the Jamaican method of grilling and cooking meats that became known as “Jerk” hundreds of years ago in the mid16th century. They created Jerk by merging/seasoning the meat of wild hogs (and later other animals and fish, etc.) with a dry rub consisting of herbs and spices such as pimento berries and bird peppers, pepper elder, wild cinnamon, and sea salt. They also merged the cooking methods, techniques, of the indigenous Jamaican Tainos with African, the Caribs of the Central and Eastern Caribbean, and Portuguese, Spanish, and French buccaneers with whom they traded and intermingled at Boston Bay along the coast.  The seasoned meats were then smoked and slow-cooked.

The words “Jerk” and “Jerky” derive from the word Charqui, which is from the Quechua language spoken by the Indigenous Inca people of the Peruvian highlands. The Taino method of grilling meats was called barbacoa, from which the Spanish word of the same spelling, and the English word “barbeque” are derived. The Maroons hunted and caught wild boar in these mountains with lances or spears called a Junga as well as shot guns. The meat was then deboned, the flesh scored down to the skin, and rubbed on the inside with the jerk seasoning, then slow-cooked and smoked on a raised barbeque grill made of pimento planks called a Patta or Caban, which were placed beneath and on top of the meat. The Maroons also developed another method of cooking Jerk pork by seasoning the wild boar, wrapping it in green pimento and banana leaves, and placing the pig in a pit dug in the ground. The jerk pit is lined with stones atop of which is charcoals produced from burnt-out wood. The meat is then placed in the jerk pit and covered with more green leaves and dirt, until it is cooked several hours later. Jerk meat was often served with staples such as roasted plantains.

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During the wars that the Maroons fought against the Spanish and later the English/British to defend our territories in these mountains between the 16th to 18th centuries, pork and other meats that were cooked and preserved through the technique of jerking became a critical food to sustain and nourish our ancestors in their fight for freedom. The Jerk pit method was particularly useful during wartime because it minimized the amount of smoke that would escape into the air, which could potentially reveal the whereabouts of Maroons to their Spanish and later British adversaries.

 

Although this culinary tradition started with Jerk pork, Jerk rubs and marinades are used with a variety of other meats (most notably chicken), seafood and vegetables today. Across Jamaica, one can find Jerk chicken, pork, and other meats that are grilled in half-cut metal drums called “Jerk Pans” by street venders. The cuisine has also found its way into local, as well as international restaurants and food chains, making it the biggest food export of the Maroon people who originated it.

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