Jerk Pork: Our Jamaican Freedom Food
I’m longing to travel to a place with burnished walls and ceiling darkened from years of smoke and soot. A place where every breath draws in spices and roasting meat.
A place of razor-sharp cleavers, and the repetitive staccato of meat chopped into finger-size portions.
I know my prize will be tightly wrapped in layers of butcher’s paper. Meat larded with fat, protected by crispy skin. My fingers greasy and my tongue seared by scotch bonnet pepper. I want the mongrel dog to look directly in my eye and patiently wait for scraps.
My freedom food should come with friendly smiles, green trees, an island breeze. My Red Stripe is ice-cold and everyone speaks patois.
Today, I’m enjoying fried fish with festival, but my heart longs for jerk pork.
Thank the Maroons, Jamaica’s first freedom fighters. Descendants of escaped slaves. Deserted by their Spanish masters in the British invasion of 1655. The Maroons fought to stay free: to survive in our mountainous Cockpit Country, they hunted wild boar and raided sugar plantations for food.
Always on the move and on the lookout for the British, the Maroons devised an ingenious “smoke-free” method to cook meat. They dug a hole, layered it with hot coals, well-seasoned wild boar, and pimento leaves, and then covered the hole again. With no campfire to announce their presence, the Maroons could prepare their meat unobserved by the British. The heat, smoke, spices, salt, pimento leaves and long cooking time created a peppery kind of pork jerky. Curing the meat by “jerking” also kept it from spoiling in the humid tropical climate.It takes a skillful cook to make really good jerk pork. It all starts with butchering the carcass. A razor-sharp knife removes the bones so the meat can lay flat. Then an exotic medley of herbs like lemongrass, scotch bonnet pepper, oregano, pepper elder leaves, bay leaves, thyme, ginger and scallion, are used to marinate the meat.
Then he turns his attention to the grill. The coals have to be the right temperature; the pimento and sweet wood must be fresh and green. In Jamaica, the pimento and laurel trees are crucial to the unique flavor of jerk pork.
Coal is stoked under the grill until blazing hot. Both sweet wood and pimento are laid on top of the grill followed by the seasoned pork. A zinc sheet is a practical way to cover the slowly cooking meat. The meat sizzles and pork fat falls on the cherry red embers. The green wood releases aromatic oils and fragrant smoke adding another layer of flavor to the pork.
Every Jamaican has a bit of Maroon blood in them. It shows, in the rhythmic drumming of our music. In the rich diversity of Jamaican patois. The way we dance.
Our taste for yellow yam, green bananas, cassava, coconut oil, river crayfish and wild pigs. The Maroons taught us to love the foods of our island home and gave us the herbs to cook them with. The essence of Jamaican jerk pork has not changed for centuries, it still remains as it should; an aromatic distillation of meat and spices and heat and smoke. Our freedom food.