On Thursday, June 23, as part of Caribbean-American Heritage Month, O'Henry Bryan, the creator of Portland's Pride Jerk Seasoning, and Doreen Thompson, Executive director of the National Caribbean-American Foods & Foodways Alliance, taught a class on the history of jerk at Bazaar Spices. After giving a brief history of jerk and answering a few questions from the audience, the evening concluded with a spicy tasting of jerk chicken and roasted vegetables seasoned with Portland's Pride.
As Bryan and Thompson explained, jerking is not a new phenomenon and has been around for thousands of years. The indigenous people of Jamaica used the technique of spicing and slowly cooking their meat over the fire to preserve it, and eventually, these spicing and cooking techniques merged with the flavors brought to Jamaica by Africans forced into slavery. Some of these slaves, called Maroons, escaped the plantations and lived in the mountains to evade British soldiers. To survive, they ate wild boar preserved with a special blend of spices and slowly cooked over a platter of saplings. Although, as Bryan pointed out, these saplings were likely not from the pimento (allspice) tree, as the pimento tree is considered sacred and thus not cut down for cooking. The combination of spices, the cooking technique, and the quality of the meat (free range and well fed) meant that the jerked pork was able to be kept at room temperature for weeks without refrigeration. (Don't try that today, please!) Eventually, in the 1880s, a descendant of the Maroons commercialized jerk in Boston Bay, near Portland, Jamaica. Originally only pork was jerked, but then the style of cooking spread to seafood and chicken as well. Fast forward to today - you've likely seen many jerk seasonings on the grocery store shelves. But, as with many things, these seasonings are not always authentic. Enter O'Henry Bryan, who decided to get into the jerk business to bring back the authenticity to jerk and, in turn, to give back to the people who made it all possible - the parish of Portland, Jamaica.
Speaking of the authenticity, you're probably wondering just what exactly is in a jar of Portland's Pride Jerk Seasoning. Well, I can't tell you. When questioned, Bryan gave a wry smile and said he couldn't tell us the exact ingredients (of course not) but, he went on to explain that the seasoning blend used to be called "pepper salt" because it was made of mostly peppers and salt. Eventually green onions were added, and then those fiery peppers known as scotch bonnets. (In fact, Bryan's scotch bonnet peppers are grown exclusively for him in Jamaica!) Today, you might find jerk seasoning with garlic and sugar; if you do, run away - they're not authentic. The creators of jerk knew that the sulfurs in garlic would eventually lend an "off" flavor to the seasoning, and sugar has been added commercially to tame the fire of the peppers. We don't want that. Just know that Bryan's blend of peppers and spices is actually authentic, truly flavorful, and even the mild version packs a good punch.
Portland's Pride is also not just for jerking. Try it with eggs, smeared on toast, or spread over vegetables and fruit. Most anything would benefit from a spicy kick of jerk. Stop by Bazaar Spices to pick up a jar of your own, and sign up for the Bazaar Spices newsletter to never miss an upcoming events.
Interested in learning more about Jamaica, Jamaican cooking, and jerk? Check out these books, recommended by Doreen Thompson:
Tell My Horse - Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston
A Caribbean Mom's Table - Traditional Recipes for the 21st Century and Beyond by Dorel Callender (local writer!)
Authentic Recipes from Jamaica by John DeMers and Eduardo Fuss