Few Caribbean dishes are as well-traveled, or as beloved, as Jamaican jerk, a humble meal of bone-in chicken or pork parts doused in a blend of spices and hot peppers, and cooked slowly over smoldering pimento wood branches. Peppered across the island, roadside jerk stands entice passersby with wafts of fragrant smoke rising from makeshift grills encased in sheets of tin siding. Supple, juicy, and crispy in spots where the meat has been charred by the fire, jerk is an integral part of Jamaica’s economy too, with restaurants like the perpetually busy Scotchies or the relaxed Pepper’s Jerk Center serving tourists and locals year-round. It’s typically eaten with your hands alongside fried cornmeal “festivals” (dumplings), scorching- hot Scotch bonnet pepper sauce, and cold beer.
Although jerk comes across as a leisurely beach food, it’s actually a dish of resistance, born out of necessity and circumstance. The origins can be traced to the Maroons of the 17th century, a tribe of enslaved Africans who fled into the mountains of Jamaica’s eastern Portland parish to escape Spanish-owned plantations. Here, the Maroons barbecued whole wild hogs, burying the meat in the earth to smother the smoke and keep the Spanish and British forces from discovering them. “They had to live off the land and find ways to survive,” explains Suzanne Rousseau, co-author, with her sister Michelle, of Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cook