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?
“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.
What I offer here is a genealogy of a jerk, at once a seasoning, a way of cooking across islands in the Caribbean, a marinade, and a philosophy. Evidence of jerk as an archipelagic flavor first appears in the colonial record in 1698, in the memoirs of white French clergyman and botanist Père Labat, who ate a jerk pork feast in Martinique, describing the sumptuous meal in rich detail. In 1802, the white New Jersey-born colonialist and wife of the Governor of Jamaica, Lady Nugent, described in detail the heavily spiced jerked hog in the Maroon style and how it was turned while it cooked over pimento wood fires in her famous account. According to Caribbean cookbook author and personality Virginia Burke, jerk took to the streets post-emancipation, becoming a popular street food. In the 1930s in Jamaica in the Boston Beach area, jerk became popular near tourist resorts of the burgeoning luxury tourism industry. At this moment jerk made its world debut and now there are jerk championships held across the globe. And so Maroon cuisine is hidden in plain sight. Few are aware of the indeterminate lineage of the signature flavor of the Caribbean. Maroons continue to thrive across the hemisphere from Panama to Haiti to Mexico to Martinique to Suriname, where they have been known archaically as the “Bush Negroes.” The designation of bush speaks to what it means to be outdoors and part of the wilderness as refuge for Black life. Maroon hinterland settlements are known as quilombos in Brazil. In the southern United States, Maroons and Indigenous peoples found refuge in swamp landscapes and bogs. Embracing the local ecology of the Americas has been quintessential to the flavor of Maroon cuisine across the hemisphere. Maroons across Central America, and many people of Afro-Indigenous descent, such as the Garifuna, retain their distinct languages and cuisines when they enter mainstream diasporic society.
Jerk is a genre of cooking that depends on a secret blend and a decolonial sense of time. Maroon time depends on patience, lying in wait, and not being easily detected. Jerking is marinating. The moisture of the marinade (tamarind, scallions, ginger, garlic, bird peppers or scotch bonnets) infuses the protein as the spices (allspice, cumin, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon) cure the meat, also preserving it. As important as smoking the meat are the branches of the pimento tree, indigenous to Jamaica. It is said that guerilla warfare was invented by Jamaican Maroons. Not only did they find refuge in the bush, they found food, foraging in the lush mountainous landscape which provided cover against British armies. In Cockpit Country, the interior of the island of Jamaica, the place names, the toponymy, speak to the stakes of ongoing African warfare by Maroons and other plantation runaways ; names such as “bad land,” “Look Behind,” “Retreat,” “Me-no-Sen-You-no-Come,” and “Quick Step.” As historian Vincent Brown says, “Rebel strategy here drew upon African experiences of forest warfare and mountaineering even as British troops fought the rebellion as one battle in an integrated global conflict.” He defines diasporic warfare across the Americas as ongoing intergenerational siege for territory across the hemisphere.
My father told me we were Maroons. The past tense here speaks to the ways in which the Maroons of Jamaica continue to evade, even in uncertain bloodlines. What does it mean to be descended from Maroons? A family secret or a badge of honor in distinction from the broader Afro-Jamaican population that was enslaved? The exceptionalism of Maroons in Jamaica is not straightforward because as Édouard Glissant defines them, Maroons are producers of opacity. Do they still exist as a community in Jamaica? Yes. They have their own currency, their own language, Kromanti, kept secret from outsiders, and thus their own sense of sovereignty. Yet much like Indigenous peoples, minority communities across the globe, they are marginalized and impoverished because they are deemed left behind by time. The definition of what it means to be uncivilized, they live in defiance and refusal of coloniality as a philosophy. Maroons are hermetically sealed in a time capsule from the penetration of coloniality including Western forms of technology and infrastructure. Financial imperatives of the modern world that drew Maroons out of their settlements in the Blue Mountains and Cockpit country, Moore Town and Accompong, into mainstream Jamaican society.
The relationship to the broader non-Maroon community in Jamaica, which is 92.1% Black, has always been fraught because of the matter of maroon complicity in returning escaped African plantation runaways to slaveholders. Part of why jerk is so popular is that the flavor is not one note. It delights and surprises the tongue. The spicy sweetness of jerk is difficult to place because it is non-binary. Like the minority community of Rastafarians in Jamaica whose culture is revered and, at the same time, marginalized, and who have been the subject of targeted state violence, exalting Maroons risks romanticizing them as one-dimensional heroes against colonialism. As colonialism is an ongoing and triangulated project between British and U.S. interests in Jamaica (e.g. the Free Zone, IMF), what does the Maroon as isolated hero represent? The deification of Maroons denies the Jamaican project of freedom as one also of fugitive futurity. The epistemic violence against the Maroons is betrayed in the past tense conjugation of language that suspends the community in time, much like Taínos and Arawaks. My father told me we were Maroons. The three protagonists of Maroon lore in Jamaica, Nanny, Cudjoe, and Tacky are the legacy of a posthumous mythology, and were named as National Heroes post-independence in 1962. Not all Maroon settlements in Jamaica accepted treaties with the British, but the 1739 land treaty signed by Cudjoe is infamous for coming at a high price, the freedom of runaway enslaved persons. The treaty stipulated the Maroons were to return African runaways to plantations for a bounty of two dollars each. To some then a sense of treason underscores Maroon identity. In spite of this fraught and heterogeneous history of refusal, what does it mean to be the National Hero of a sovereignty you do not recognize?
I have defined gastropoetics as the poetry and power of food as an archive of human history, ecology, and desire. It is cooking as a mode of invention and reinvention that draws on generational knowledge that is an act of generation itself. Gastropoetics is the building of an archive where recipes are the primary resource and thus argument or evidence for how humans have cultivated and been cultivated by their environment. It is located in the power of making in the classic sense of poiesis, the space of the colonial plantation as site of food production and consumption. Food becomes an argument, a mode of critique negotiating sustenance and a form of art. Kitchen marronage exists beyond the dominion of what has been called the plantationocene. If the kitchen is typically an architectural enclosure, the way Maroons embraced the rainforest as a kitchen is a form of Black spatial livingness in opposition to the containment of the nation-state. The earth is an oven, a kiln.
Maroon gastronomy is evidence of what philosopher Sylvia Wynter defines as “indigenization.” Maroon gastronomy would be an example of what anthropologist David Scott has identified within Wynter’s analysis as “a subject in the rehumanization of indigenization of ‘native’ black life.” Adapted Indigenous techniques as well as shared Afro-Indigenous genealogies defy European coloniality’s myth of annihilation. The smoke is enveloped in the architecture of the underground pit, containing it so that cooking does not give away the location to enemy forces. Jerk is precisely not barbecuing — another part of the lexicon derived from the early Indigenous colonial Caribbean.
In Alimentary Tracts (2010), literary theorist Parama Roy defines her sense of gastropoetics as the ways in which cookbooks are a form of life writing. Yet there is no Maroon cookbook as Maroon life writing; there is only a fugitive taste that narrates. Sumptuary laws regulated the consumption of food and other archives, governing the colonized appetite. A sensorial approach to Afro-Indigenous cultures forms an alternative historiography. The flavor of jerk penetrates and infuses the impenetrable. The Maroons are the ultimate producers of opacity. Did Nanny, Cudjoe, or Tacky tend to the fire pit, the underground oven? Is it possible these roles of kitchen marronage were not gendered and feminized in the way that the kitchen is viewed as a place of servitude and passivity in Western society?
“The women gather,” says Nikki Giovanni in her poignant verse on Black women and mourning. The ritual act of gathering is as much a part of cuisine as the food. The communal politics of food is a question of the necessary conditions of solidarity. Among these conditions is breaking bread together. At the risk of gender essentialism, I make a statement in this gastropoetic genealogy as a gatherer. Former students of mine adopted this terminology of the gatherer in the face of the bullying of a classmate, who insisted that women were weaker than men because historically in the Stone Age, according to him, men were hunters and women were gatherers. What the student designated as a hotep positionality of women as innately passive was a position that some of my students and I interrogated and embraced. The women, my students, ended up building, producing, DJ’ing, and theorizing together. The gatherers were inspired by my syllabus of Third World feminisms and the poetics of Saidiya Hartman, Nicki Minaj, and Anna May Wong. I continue to be inspired by my students.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have embraced the poetics of gathering and kitchen marronage amidst “physical distancing.” I learned to cook. It was not an intention or a plan. I so happened in March to begin an elimination diet after undergoing surgery. It taught me what my body did not need, namely preservatives and processed foods. Kitchen marronage is a different sort of preservation. I grew up on microwaved meals and takeout from cuisines across the globe, from Peru to Senegal to Malaysia, as regular fare. My parents were not food nationalists, and being born in England my palate has always been engaged in the practice of diaspora. During the pandemic I have found a meditative calm in the repetition of keeping my hands busy, kneading dough, pan-frying chaufa, baking Jamaican shrimp patties, and making roti and mofongo. I feel possessed and this newfound talent is a shock to anyone who knows me well. I have discovered the power and sovereignty in cooking that is in the register of how Audre Lorde would define self-care as a radical act. Gathering is the poetry and strategy of survival and sustenance; it is a feminist genealogy.
I cooked with jerk seasoning for the first time in July. As a pescatarian it was a culinary inheritance I have felt denied, watching friends from the U.S. lick their fingers and sing songs while eating jerk chicken. I did what I could in my kitchen enclosure, I cooked jerk snapper with a blend of dried spices. I made do with what was in my pantry: garlic power, onion powder, brown sugar, salt, pepper, cumin, annatto, allspice, thyme, parsley. I placed them next to each other like an artist’s palette before swirling them all together with a stick of cinnamon. Then the powder became the familiar shade of brown jerk seasoning I had seen friends consume gleefully. When cooked the brown sugar forms a glaze that adheres and infuses the protein, snapper in my case. It is a veritable swatch of the Spice Wars blended together. While this shortcut method in no way approximates how Maroons cooked jerk, it is a remix of sorts (see next page).
The myth of jerk is one of the individual ingredients that the spices narrate because they are not all endemic to Jamaica or even the Western hemisphere at all. Allspice is Jamaican and grows on the pimento wood that is used to smoke the meat. Named for Scottish hats, scotch bonnets encode the strong presence of the Scottish on the island as administrators of the British empire. Bird peppers are also homegrown. Garlic is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia or perhaps China. “Skellions,” as Jamaicans call scallions, and which the English called “Welsh onions,” are Chinese. The first Chinese indentured laborers arrived in Jamaica in 1854. Which spices and roots did Asian laborers steal away in the hold of the ship? Thyme was used in Ancient Egypt and Greece. Sugar, of course, is a product directly of the monocrop violence of the plantation as ecological. Sugarcane originated in India and was imported by Columbus to be cultivated in the Caribbean on his second voyage in 1493. Who and what is truly endemic to Jamaica is always in question.
In the jerk recipe ingredients one can read complicity or one can read relationality. The Maroons were, of course, then never really hermetically sealed. Their survival depended on the outside as much as they were sovereign. The techniques of cultivation and cookery they learned from Indigenous peoples cannot be parsed out and do not need to be. Maroons captured and looted livestock, goods, and produce from plantations and provision grounds, but also occasionally traded with the same parties. At times Maroons assimilated and welcomed escaped people, at other times they returned them to plantations for a bounty. In this way the production of opacity was the secret, and the elusiveness of the jerk recipe is also part of the production of opacity. The origins of Caribbean cultural exchange, of knowledge about transplanted fruits, flowers, and herbs, remains murky.
There is power in the kitchen whether indoors or outdoors. Afro-Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James wrote of how the power of cooking on the plantation and how the administering of food has the potential to be a dangerous act. Poison is an underestimated tactic of warfare that could be described in the register of petit marronage, or more minor or temporary acts of opposition on the colonial plantation as opposed to grand marronage or permanent escape. James estimates a third of enslaved deaths were the result of enslaved people poisoning other enslaved people, at times their kin, especially children, to save them from the fate of perpetual bondage. He describes how, in many cases, death was viewed not only as a release but as a return to Guinin, Africa. The opacity of the kitchen provides cover not only for secret ingredients, but also for hatching such plans of toxicity. The kitchen has the potential to be an underclass site of collusion especially because of the way it is gendered as a space occupied by gatherers, women. The kitchen is full of weapons: knives, blades, cleavers, fire, poisonous mushrooms, etc.
The wilderness as the site of production of kitchen marronage makes eating central to an indigestible chapter of the history of the Americas — the cimmarón. The myth of the Maroons escapes the colonial palate. Maroon archives are the bush, the fleeting furtive taste of fugitivity. Jerk is strong, rich, and flavorful; it declares its presence and yet still demands “the right to opacity” in the sense Glissant meant. Jerk has survived over the course of 500 years by evolving, and it is not only a testament to African retention. On the contrary, jerk is a product of Black-Indigenous relationality, of the fraught indigenization that was more of a treaty than anything the British enforced upon the Maroons in the eighteenth century. Jerk connects two entangled presences we were told by the British no longer existed.
If, as cultural theorist Tiffany Lethabo King has suggested, the violence of conquest is quotidian and ongoing; liberation or the practice of “getting free” is too, like conquest, a verb. Eating is livingness, and cooking is a condition of eating and thus living. Getting free is gerund and exists in a Maroon temporality that exceeds colonial treaties or time zones determined by Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), set by the arbitrary location of the Prime Meridian, at the Royal Observatory in London. Maroon time determines freedom as a radical act of Black waiting (cf. Frantz Fanon). The jerk chicken recipe that takes half an hour to cook is therefore part of the elusive practice of jerk opacity. Colonialist recipes for jerk circulated by hipster chefs will only approximate and never conquer the “secret recipe,” and so they do not need to be corrected.
Much like reggae, if what is decoded is other than what political theorist Cedric Robinson calls “the Black Radical Tradition” of what was encoded, the message still has meaning for those waiting to decipher the codeword, the signal to attack. To Robinson the tradition is “an accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle.” He points to the Seminoles in the United States as the inflection of Afro-Indigeneity “effused in myriad forms and locations.” As historian Vincent Brown writes about the martial characteristics of marronage, “[r]ecognizing slave revolt as a species of warfare is the first step toward a new cartography of Atlantic slavery.” The war never ended; sleeper cells lie in wait for the signal in the ongoing battle against European coloniality.
Jerk can be bottled and sold as much as reggae can, yet marronage by definition cannot be commodified because it is defined by the wild. It is feral; it is wildlife. Kitchen marronage embraces what theorists Sarah Cervanak and J. Kameron Carter have called “the Black Outdoors.” It is a condition outside the category of Enlightenment thought and not so much excluded from the myth of modernity as exceeding its regulation and definition of subjectivity. Jerk is a philosophy then formed as the result of an alternative ecology of Black sociality, wilderness, and spicy livingness beyond colonial property and possession.
Kitchen marronage simmers in relation to what Robinson identifies as the “social cauldron of slave organization.” To be a Maroon is to be what cultural theorist Fred Moten has described as a “prophetic organization.” The prophecy of what is to come is related to the way he says, “the maroons know something about possibility.” Indeed, the Maroons have known the unmistakable taste of freedom from the 16th century to the present. To jerk is to infuse with flavor by curing; it is to penetrate. Jerky is derived in the English language from the Spanish charqui from the original Quechua ch’arki, which describes the process of sun baking, piercing meat, and salt-curing it.Though jerk may be eaten the world over it still defies commodification because there are so many varieties, and it is impossible to pin down. Jerk is then much more than a seasoning; it is a philosophy of enduring and a way of Black being. ■
TAO’S RECIPE /// Xaymaca Jerk Seasoning: A Decolonial Recipe