Kitchen Marronage: a Genealogy of Jerk



How to better open this dossier on the politics of food than with this powerful text by Tao Leigh Goffe linking Jamaican Maroons’ cooking practices with their organized struggle for free existence and their relationship with Indigenous nations of the Carribeans?

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

verb transitive. In Jamaican cookery: to marinate (meat, esp. pork or chicken) in a spicy mixture of seasonings (typically including allspice and Scotch bonnet chilli peppers) before smoke-curing or barbecuing it. (Jerking was originally practised by Jamaican maroons as a way of cooking and preserving the meat of wild hogs.)

 Oxford English Dictionary



Jerk, the spicy seasoning, is a global cultural export and it is almost as much the flavor of Jamaica as reggae is. Like reggae music that developed out of Rastafarian ethos and musicality, jerk is an African-derived ritual that was not developed for mass commodification and was in fact cultivated in opposition to it. Jerk is part of the material and immaterial culture of West Africa that can be tasted across the Antillean archipelago. Jerk is the taste of Black fugitivity, and you will not find anything resembling it on the African continent. Jerk is kitchen marronage. Put another way, kitchen marronage is a fugitive act of culinary sustenance. An African Indigenous and Indigenous Amerindian co-production, jerk is “the physical and psychological act of African survival” as Kamau Brathwaite defines marronage. Loosely defined marronage is any number of clandestine modes of flight from slavery by non-state actors. Jerk is thus a genre of marronage, as a cuisine outside of and in opposition to the European colonial and creole palate. 

Like most complex flavor profiles, jerk is a technology of preservation that developed centuries ago out of scarcity. Jerky, for instance, the cutting of meat into strips that are desiccated is a related technique. Dating back to the 17th century long before refrigeration, jerk was a method for curing pork so that it could last for days at a time. Wild hogs, brought to the archipelago by the Spaniards, escaped the Spanish as enslaved Africans did too and served as sustenance to the people who became known as Jamaican Maroons. 

Jerk, however, is not the myth of African purity or hermetically sealed cultural retention it would seem to be at first taste. The spice blend cures the protein (pork, chicken, goat, shrimp, fish, tofu) as it is skewered with holes poked to infuse flavor and smoked in an underground pit over the course of a few days. This technique bears similarity to other Indigenous forms of island cooking, as in Hawai’i, where Native people slow-cook in an underground oven called a kālua. Much like barbecue, a word derived from Indigenous Caribbean peoples, barbacoa traces back to Haiti and Native techniques of how meat was cooked over a “wood frame on posts” by the Arawak. 

Jerking is as much a technique of Indigenous cookery as it is Maroon gastronomy, and it calls into question what and who is considered native or indigenous to the West Indies. Christopher Columbus arrived in Jamaica in 1494, claiming it for the Spanish Crown. Africans, many of whom were Muslim, fled first the Spanish conquistadors who brought them there in the 16th century, and then later the British settlers after they seized the island in 1670. The Spaniards named the island “Jamaica,” a bastardization of the Arawak name Xaymaca meaning land of wood and water. These unruly subjects, Maroons, are an example of what Latinidad and Spanish Empire was formed against, Africanness and Indigeneity. By the same dint the Maroons can never have been said to have been British or commonwealth subjects either. To be cimarrón is to exist in the category of identification beyond the nation-state of Latinx or the British West Indies as social formations. Maroon affiliation across the hemisphere is linked in a diasporic and archipelagic manner, anchored in the time capsule of seventeenth-century West Africa and the Indigenous Americas.