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Jamaica’s Jerk History

A primer about the nation's barbecue tradition

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The Taino Indians, Jamaica’s original inhabitants, routinely prepared their meats over a barbacoa (which we call a barbecue) but it was the island’s runaway slaves, the Maroons, who developed jerk by adding special local seasonings and peppers. When jerk was maturing, Jamaica was still filled with wild hogs, so jerk pork may be the most traditional form of jerk.

As popular as jerk is, no one is quite sure how it received its distinctive name.  Some say it’s because the meat is “jerked” on the grill by being turned over and over again.  Others claim it is because the meat is jerked off the bone when it’s served, what is called “pulled pork” in North America. This smoking and drying process for meat is where the term “jerky” comes from, as in beef jerky.

In Jamaica, jerk stands are found everywhere on weekends as many of the locals bring out 55-gallon drums they’ve split lengthwise and made into grills. These weekend barbecuers cook not only for home consumption but to sell to neighbors and tourists.  A true jerk aficionado or commercial jerk stand uses a jerk pit lined with stones and smokes the meat over the hot rocks and wood hot coals for as long as four to seven hours or more. Whatever the cooking method, a key is pimento (allspice) with pimento wood often used for the cooking logs.

Although coleslaw or baked beans would be ideal with jerk, in Jamaica the optional side dishes typically are festival—a crisp slightly sweet fried cornbread fritter or dumpling to help extinguish the heat—and rice and peas.

When you order jerk: Taste the jerk before adding more spice because it could much hotter than you expect. Scotch bonnet is the hot pepper used to spice jerk and it has a lot more kick than the usual habanero. On the Scoville Scale for measuring how hot a pepper is, the habanero pepper is only 260,000 SHU but the Scotch bonnet pepper is about 445,000 SHU. When ordering chicken, go for the dark meat over the white (this has less fat and will probably be drier).


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