Jerk chicken

Now here’s an ethical problem, one that applies to the culinary as well as the musical arts. The New York Times recently featured in its Wednesday food section a smooth, workaday article about jerk cooking in the city, along with a couple of someone-else-will-try recipes. Jerk, of course, is no longer exotic, and even if you non-Jamaicans have never eaten anything jerk, you’ve probably read that it’s hot in a spiced-ham rather than tandoori style and, to be real, requires a particular pepper (with the delightful name “Scotch bonnet”) and smoke-generating heating source.


Jerk is anywhere Jamaicans are. The wedding that ends In Her Shoes, the book (and film) by my former Philadelphia Inquirer colleague Jennifer Weiner, takes place in that town’s Jamaican Jerk Hut on South Street. There, meats are cooked not in a traditional open-field smoker — as I sampled when I visited the island in the ’80s — but over charcoal in the kitchen, rubbed and bathed first with ginger, thyme, allspice, onions and soy sauce. The Hut’s a charming place, hospitable to all. Jerk, by the way, is archetypically local, receptive to personal variation, and equally successful as home cooking, restaurant fare, or ameliorated tourist treat.


But I won’t, can’t, eat jerk anything until things change in the recipe’s island of origin, which has been called, with demonstrably good reason, the most homophobic place on Earth. Jerk simply will not go down, because Jamaica, that cruise-ship lure, that rum-steeped idyllic destination, is a fatal hell-hole for its gay and lesbian citizens — and a dicey purgatory for queer visitors, too.


A Jamaican father recently called on a mob to lynch his gay son at school — the mauled teen survived. Ordinary Kingston citizens chased a “batty boy” off a pier — this one drowned. Police “egged on” a crowd as they stoned and stabbed a gay man to death — that was in sparkling Montego Bay, seasoned travelers, “the Friendly City.”


montego bay.jpg 


Those scenes from Jamaican life were reported in Time magazine, and similar stories have surfaced elsewhere, though rarely in mainstream U.S. coverage. Don’t imagine that Jamaica‘s antigay stance is limited to a few benighted pockets: it’s the righteous policy of church, state, and tourist board. Frommer’s guide to this prime Caribbean destination provides these handy “Tips for Lesbian and Gay Travelers”:


Jamaica is the most homophobic island in the Caribbean, with harsh anti-gay laws, even though there’s a large local gay population. Many all-inclusive resorts maintain strict no-gay policies. …Avoid open displays of affection — such as handholding on the streets — in Jamaica: You could be assaulted for trying it.


Amazingly, there’s a small gay-rights group on the island called J-Flag. Note this telling statement on its Web site: “Although we provide services and network island-wide, our office is located in Kingston, Jamaica’s Capital and largest city. Due to the potential for violent retribution, we cannot publish the exact location.” The group’s cofounder, Brian Williamson, was murdered in 2004.


So how many mob bashings equal the alluring tang of a jerk-chicken thigh or the powerful vegetal lift of a cup of hand-picked-bean Blue Mountain coffee? That’s the information I need to see in a food or travel article’s service box.


The humanist in me is hopeful that such mounting tales of viciousness must disgust, if not surprise, at least a few Jamaicans, on the island and off. Sadly, most of these hypothetical folks are silent, or underdog-defensive (just read any online comment-thread after the latest example of Jamaican antigay hysteria is brought to task). But that’s not my point.


The whole nation of Jamaica, a proud state that freed itself of slavery and vile colonial rule, is a political and economic mess. So why should the genius of a culture — yes, a fully developed and still transforming recipe-method such as jerk is a perfectly valid, if collective, form of genius — have to pay for that same culture’s momentary evil and madness? Do we reject sushi because of Pearl Harbor? We probably would have then, were it popular stateside (depending upon who the “we” was). I’m not certain that’s the right thing to do: you may recall what happened a few years back to “French” fries in patriotic U.S. eateries when France declined to send troups to Iraq.


But gay Jamaicans too should be able to embrace their own home’s cultural genius. You can’t throw every baby out with the bathwater.


Murder Music

Cultural consumers have more experience with the “Leni” (Riefenstahl) problem raised by Jamaican reggae and dancehall, but still haven’t found a solution that loves the art part and rejects the whole. Do we merely sift out the worst of the haters, Buju Banton, Beenie Man and their like, who wrote and sang that gay men must die (“haffi dead”)? That’s not good enough, because they aren’t alone. And those particular exemplars of authentic musical culture are still not off the hook, no matter how many agents and labels urged them to sign the Reggae Compassionate Act, promising to abjure gay attacks, so they could perform in Europe and the U.S. without sponsors pulling out. (Reportedly, Banton signed last year and then denied that he had signed.)


There is a difference, certainly, between lyrics and lunch: A meal of jerk chicken and rice and peas never incited anyone to go out and look for a man to murder. Yet all the arts have motive power, and the strength and beauty of cooking derives partly — maybe mostly — from its give-and-take assertion of creativity, identity, pride. A straightforward newspaper feature about a cultural signature such as jerk leaves out a crucial ingredient if it ignores its subject’s context and ultimate meaning: how it really “tastes.”


Scotch bonnet peppers, among the world’s most fiery, now bring two kinds of tears to my eyes. What would it take to make it just one?


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  1. Sherry says

    Thanks for this information. I had no idea. From now on, I will boycott anything Jamaican. Too bad, because I love jerk chicken. You can get rum manufactured in other places, thankfully!
    Down with Dub!