For decades, jerk chicken has stood alongside ackee and salt fish as the national dish of Jamaica. The popularity of jerk cooking, in which meat or fish is marinated or dry-rubbed with pimento and Scotch bonnet peppers, is compounded in the countless “jerk centres” of Caribbean Diaspora communities from London to Toronto.
Jerk cooking stems back to the 18th century and the Maroons, descendants of runaway African slaves. To avoid being discovered and recaptured, the Maroons established free communities in Jamaica’s mountainous regions. Here, they adopted the food preparation techniques of indigenous Caribbean peoples like the Taino and Arawak Indians, slow-cooking the meat or fish they caught over allspice wood.
As opposition to slavery grew towards the end of the century, the Maroons were granted greater rights and the need for tribes to hide in the mountains waned. With the eventual end of the slave trade in the early 1800s, Jamaica moved away from its plantation-based economy and became focussed on manufacturing and mining. And as it entered the modern era, so too did jerk cooking.
Jamaica has limited sources of natural gas and by the 1950s, its dependency on oil imports had grown. Empty oil barrels began littering yards and street corners, and enterprising cooks found an opportunity to transfer the pit-cooking techniques of the Maroons onto these disused canisters, using cinnamon, cloves, and thyme to mimic the flavours of the original allspice wood. The iconic jerk drum was born.
Debates may rage over what makes the best jerk chicken (should you dry-rub or use a marinade? Is soya sauce necessary? How many Scotch bonnets?), but most Jamaicans will agree that it must be cooked with a jerk drum.
“Rastaman Revelina” runs a guesthouse in Portland and is a veteran jerk chef. On my visit, he points to a disused oil barrel in his garden and explains, “People find them and wash them out, then burn them out.” This gets rid of the oil residue as “tar doesn’t fully burn out, only oil.”
The standard 50-gallon oil barrel may be overwhelming for home cooks, but with a bit of imagination, almost anything cylindrical can become a jerk drum, from small gas canisters to domestic water boilers.
Over in Drapers Beach in Portland, I meet a young man named Julian. From a hammock above the beach, he shouts “You like that?” He is referring to an impressive jerk drum he fashioned from a gas canister. Ready-made jerk drums can be bought for between £15 and £50, but as Julian tells me, most people prefer to source their own metal cylinder and take it to a welder or auto workshop to split in half.
“We took it to a welder to chop it then we put the hinges on it and painted it—ya see it!” he says proudly.
In true Jamaican fashion, there is much discussion about the ideal jerk drum size, shape, fuel, and ventilation. “Honest John,” who I meet on the picturesque waterfront beyond the town centre of Port Antonio in Portland, shares his method: “I use pimento wood chips to cook it up and after it’s done, it's filled with coal to keep the drum heated throughout the day and into the night.”
Growing up in the UK, I always knew that jerk was popular in Jamaica but had no idea how prevalent the drums were. They’re everywhere, from public parks and beaches to front lawns, bars, and markets. The ones in residential spaces are usually plain in colour or rusted from being left out in the elements, but in the hustle and bustle of the country’s bootleg night markets, some of the brightest barrels are on display. Jerk drums that stay padlocked during the day are transformed with flags, paint, and mini sound systems; vying for attention among the late night locals and tourists. The outlandish display seems ironic for a cooking method that started as a way to evade discovery.
Jerk chicken and pork remain solid favourites, but in coastal towns like Ocho Rios, jerk chefs cook whatever the local fisherman has caught that day. Lobster, snapper, and barracuda are wrapped in aluminum foil and served with hardo bread or festivals, as well as an optional side of soup.
Regardless of location or menu, I hear a similar sentiment from almost every Jamaican jerk cook and food entrepreneur I speak to: “It’s not real jerk if it’s not cooked in a drum.” And after tasting their chicken, I’m inclined to agree.