Jerk History

A Brief History of Jerk

It is common knowledge in Jamaica that Jerk was started in the mountains by the Maroons, who adapted Taino/Arawak techniques of preserving meat.  Initially this was wild boar.  English records exist as far back as 1672 remarking on the high quality of the taste and digestibility of Caribbean vs European pork. (A Description of the Island of Jamaica, London: J. Williams, Jr., 1672.)  Descriptions of a process that are similar to how traditional jerk pork is still made today were described in English records as early as the beginning of the 18th century. (A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica: with the natural history of the last of those islands. London: BM, 1707)  From this we know there are centuries of tradition in jerking pork in Jamaica.

Nanny of the MarronsThe portrait on the home page,and to the right, is of Nanny of the Maroons from the Jamaican $500 bill.  She is well known as one of the leaders of escaped slaves, Maroons, living freely in the Blue Mountains with the Taino natives hiding from the European invasion.  Initially jerking by the Maroons started with cooking the pork in pits in the ground with a slow long burning fire.  This allowed   the wrapped and buried pork to be cooked with some discreetness.  This method of roasting the pork would also trap most of the moisture into the meat leaving it tender and succelent. 

By 1720 the Maroons were acknowledged to have full control of over 500 acres in the Blue Mountains. And, by 1739 they were offically granted this land by English sanction.  Once the need to hide from the English was gone, the what is now traditional jerk barbecue, created using sticks of pimento wood to hold the pork above a fire, became the common way of jerking pork.  It unquestionably would save time and effort in its preparation.  Reference to this form of cooking pork are in English records as early 1890, (Herbert T. Thomas, Inspector, Jamaica Constabulary, Untrodden Jamaica. Kingston: A. W. Gardner, 1890.)  This pork was still slow cooked, as when buried, taking six to nine hours depending on the size of the pig.

The eytomology of the word jerk is unclear.  The authoritative hypothesis is that it is from a Spanish word that was derived from the Peruvian word charqui.  This is the word used to describe dried strips of meat by the indigenous natives of Peru.  It is believed that these people passed the knowledge of preserving meat this way throughout the Caribbean.  In English we still use the word jerky for exactly the same product.   Some say jerk comes from the process of 'jerking' the meat, which was poking it with holes to the skin, so that the flavor of the spices could more thoroughly penetrate it before it was cooked.  Supporting this hypothesis is the use of 'jook' in patois, to mean to poke.  

Jerk was brought out of the mountains and down to  the beach by the recent ancestors of the current Boston residents. Initially, it was jerk pork and breadfruit that were for sale.  Beyond the impact of the jerk marinade, jerk pork was always slow cooked over pimento wood, which contributed to the extraordinary flavor of the meat.  Today wood besides pimento is used to flavor the pork too, including sweetwood and wild coffee.  This is why the most authentic commercial jerk, can still be found in Boston where the pork is still always slow cooked over wood sticks in the jerk pits.

PimentoBerriesOrignally the spicing for jerk was used to assist in preserving the drying meat.  It included birdpepper, pimento, (a.k.a. allspice: pictured to the right,) and salt. It is easy to imagine that meat dried with a generous amount of these spices embedded would remain untouched by the normal process of decay. Once jerk became a commercial product, and after it became difficult to find enough birdpepper, scotch bonnet peppers became a part of the now traditional recipe. Recipes were also improved for flavor by adding onion, scallion, ginger, in addition to wild cinnamon, nutmeg and wild thyme. As with all cooking the recipe morphs over time for all kinds of reasons, but traditional jerk marinade still uses all of the aforementioned spices and seasonings to this day.  The essential ingredients for any variant of jerk include hot peppers, pimento, and thyme.                   

Remains of First Commercial Jerk Pit in theWorldNo one was exactly sure of when, or why,  jerk started  to be sold in Boston.  However, Bostonions were sure that selling jerk on the coastal A road was definitely happening by the mid 1940's.  The first Jerkmen were Isaiah Smith, Drelton Williams, Authur Wilson, Rufus West, and Sydney and James Marshall. Their jerk pit was less than a quarter mile east on the A road from Boston Beach. At that time the beach was known as Buckley's Beach, from the family who owned a house on the cliff above.  When Jamaica gained independence, all beaches became public, although access to them through private property could lead to fees for visiting them.  At that time, 1962, Buckley Beach became Boston Beach.

It is speculated that the remains of the second commercial jerk pit on the island lie under the generous tropical growth across the street from Boston Beach.  The third jerk pit was at the current location of Ivy's Jerk Centre, and the fourth started by Stanley Duncan was at the current location of Shaggy's Jerk Shop.

This site is dedicated to the men mentioned above, and those who joined them: William Marshall, Hilford Bignall, Arthur Bignall, Melvin Mackenzie, Naman Duncan, Delver Smith, Rufus Robinson, Cyril Robinson, and Dudley Taylor.  They were the first generation of men to jerk pork for sale, and bring jerk out of the mountains to all of Jamaica, and eventually, to all of the world.  We give thanks to them for their contribution to sharing such a sumptuous experience with all of humanity.

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