It was an unexpected reaction. As I handed a ticket through a grille, the man behind the bars reached for a machete… But then, with his other hand he grabbed a half chicken - recently barbecued, slightly charred and glistening. It looked delicious. He slapped it onto the block and proceeded to hack it into pieces. Then he lobbed the hacked chicken into a large piece of paper.
‘Pepper sauce?’ he asked.
Not likely, I thought. ‘No thanks,’ I said.
I know about pepper sauce. It infects everything organic for yards around, with a scalding overlay that sears your taste buds into non-sensibility. Actually it’s worse. It’s painful. To be honest there is enough chilli for me in the jerk mix already.
While eating, sitting at a plastic deck chair, I turned to musing on the name jerk. I have often wondered whether it is related somehow to beef jerky, the flavoured, dried meat so beloved of South Africans and once of cowboys.
The leading theory is that both names come from a process called charqui. Apparently the South American Indian Quechua tribe would salt meat and then dry it in the sun or over low fires. Actually there have been processes like this all over the world. The Caribbean buccaneers - seventeenth century hunters in Haiti - did a similar thing to wild pig meat and to beef cattle. Their name, which was taken from their boucans, or grills, was eventually given to bacon. The buccaneers would sell the dried meat to ships.
Jerking in Jamaica had a slightly different version, even though it took the name. The Maroons, escaped slaves who hid out in remote mountains, needed a method of cooking which would not give up a smell or leave a visible smoke trail in the sky. Their solution was to cook their meat – again wild pig, largely – slowly, in underground ovens. The salting became a marinade and nowadays it is cooked in barbecues in the ground.
There are jerk centres all over Jamaica now, though the home of jerk is in the east, beneath the John Crow Mountains, where one group of Maroons used to live. Hence the many Jerk Centres lining the roadside in Boston Bay in Portland.
Of course it’s hard not to muse on the name as well as the origins. A Jerk Centre?! You wonder what people would do in there. Body-pop and break dance badly? Take over-acting to a new level? And not only do you get Jerk Centres, but I once passed an ‘Executive Jerk Centre’. Blimey. Perhaps they dress up in suits, chat over-earnestly and take to heart all the advice from about the latest business self-improvement books.
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