Jamie Oliver is no stranger to controversy, as the failure of his 2004-5 “Feed Me Better” campaign to improve UK school dinners demonstrated. But he really has trouble in the kitchen now, after MPs and other celebrity cooks waded into a heated public debate about culinary authenticity and cultural appropriation over his latest line in convenience foods: “Punchy Jerk Rice.”
It is not just the alleged act of cultural appropriation that has caused disquiet, although many – including the shadow minister for equality, Dawn Butler, and Conservative MP Neil O’Brien – have certainly interpreted it in this way. Oliver also appears to have misunderstood that the term “jerk” is a cultural tradition which is very specific, as Butler recognised when she questioned whether Oliver even knew what “jerk” was.
Crucially, jerk is not the same as barbecue, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Historically, jerk refers to the Afro-Caribbean practice of dry rubbing or wet marinating meat with citrus juice, allspice and scotch bonnet, then wrapping it in banana or plantain leaves and cooking it in a pit fire or hole fire over allspice branches, in a method designed to retain the distinct flavours.
Barbecue, by contrast, usually involves marinating meats and then cooking them above ground on a raised platform made from wicker, plant matter or newer stone or metal constructions. Jerk derives from charqui, a Spanish word of indigenous South American origin which means salted dried meat (linked to jerky). It denotes a specific method of marinating and cooking meat which is linked, historically, to the “Maroons” – or runaway slaves – of colonial Jamaica who are known to have traded their signature jerked wild meats to passing ships from the 1700s onwards.
Jerk is now most commonly associated with roadside cooks in Jamaica who have retained this popular technique. It’s also one of Jamaica’s most successful and iconic culinary exports.
Barbecue from the Spanish barbacoa has even older origins. It derives from a method of cooking known to have been used by the Amerindians, the Caribbean’s first inhabitants. African slaves arriving in the Caribbean may well have known of similar methods of preserving and cooking meat, but they also clearly adopted and adapted the methods which they encountered in the Caribbean, a process called “”creolisation“.
In the light of this history, Oliver’s latest offering makes little sense. As Jamaican-born British celebrity cook, Rustie Lee points out "jerk rice” is a non-starter, not just because it is culturally inaccurate – it does not contain the key jerk spices of allspice or scotch bonnet – but because you cannot actually jerk rice. The classic starch and protein combination of rice and peas (beans) on the other hand, is a dish which has been eaten for centuries across the Caribbean and the Americas. It’s also widely enjoyed everywhere that there is a diasporan Caribbean population – but it is never called “jerk”.
Authenticity and identity
At the heart of the debate about cultural appropriation is the question of cultural – and especially culinary – authenticity. It is particularly important when it comes to food, which is one of the central ways in which particular ethnic, religion, caste, class, gendered or generational groups define themselves in relation to others.
Indeed, the use of the label of “authentic” in relation to food is so ubiquitous that we rarely stop to think about how problematic it is. So talk of “authentic” Indian curries in the UK are anything but. Not only do most Indian restaurants serve Bangladeshi food, but there is no such thing as “Indian” food – only local or regional cuisines, as any Indian cook will tell you.
The best-known example of an “Indian dish” in Britain, chicken tikka masala, is a good example of what historian Eric Hobsbawm famously called “the invention of tradition” – the dish was invented in Britain. In 2001 this celebrated “Indian” dish featured as the focal point in a particularly lively exchange about British cultural identity and multiculturalism between Labour MPs Robin Cook and Keith Vaz, following the then foreign secretary’s speech to the Social Market Foundation in London. Cook argued that:
Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.
Although in the ensuing debate, Vaz attempted to correct Cook’s rather mangled account of the dish and its origins, Cook made an important point: that all traditions, culinary or otherwise, are constructed for particular means and that authenticity is neither stable not uncontested. Thus chicken tikka masala may not be authentically Indian but it does show how absorption and adaptation from external influences can be important processes in the emergent definition of a cultural practice or identity. Indeed, Cook’s speech has been studied by students as a case study in debates on Britishness, cultural nationalism and multiculturalism as recently as 2013.
The problem with Oliver’s “jerk rice” is not so much that it involves an act of cultural appropriation, or that it “absorbs and adapts external influences” (which all cooks do and are free to do) but rather that it uses the term “jerk” as a kind of shorthand to evoke a range of attractive associations for his product.
Jerk is a term which carries the infinitely marketable associations of what might be termed “Jamaican cool” – a heady mix of spicy “exotic” food, reggae music, muscular masculinity (jerk cooking is a very male-dominated practice), endless sunshine and the apparent health benefits of cooking and eating outdoors. It implies a chilled, laid-back vibe with traces perhaps of the potent but rather lazy construction of Jamaica as a narcotic idyll and tourist paradise.
Oliver is certainly not the first, nor will he be the last, to draw on such associations in his adaption of Caribbean food, as my research on the idea of tradition and culinary authenticity in the cookery books of Jamaican-born celebrity cook, Levi Roots has shown. Twitter user Regina Holland aptly summed up the problem of Oliver’s jerk rice as one of an ongoing “bastardisation” of Jamaican food.
Oliver’s jerk rice is merely the latest in a series of recent debates on cultural appropriation in relation to culinary authenticity. Public controversy erupted over Marks & Spencer’s line of “authentic” curry kits, including a Bengali turmeric curry which Mallika Basu, author of Indian Cooking for Modern Living, tweeted was “at best upsetting, and at worst, offensive and callous”. In the US, accusations of cultural appropriation have been levelled at the use of the term “aloha” by restaurants selling trendy “Hawaiian poke” sushi bowls.
These debates shouldn’t be reduced to a crudely binary divide between those who feel the need to police cultural traditions as pure, fixed entities and those who see the more complicated shifting story of absorption and adaptation as the real picture. We can show respect for the specific histories and cultural origins of the foods we cook and eat without losing sight of the notion that “authenticity” itself is a movable feast.