September 24, 2021

Jamie Oliver has been inspired by Jamaican culture without having any respect for its history – that’s why it’s cultural appropriation

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By Marianne Miles From The Independent UK

Can Caribbean recipes be adapted and modernised? Of course. But you cannot claim a historic traditional term and apply it to your product for profit

Jamaica’s catchphrase is “Wi likkle but we tallawah”, loosely translated as: “We are small but we are strong and fearless”. The global allure of Jamaican culture far outweighs it’s stature, and the rewards for influencing the world in everything from music, to fashion, dance and food, are tiny in comparison.

British chef Jamie Oliver has been inspired by Jamaican culture without having any respect for its history or giving credit where due. His woeful attempt at one of the island’s signature dishes resulted in new product “Punchy Jerk Rice” which has become the cause of much controversy and hilarity.

Firstly, his dish includes none of the key ingredients needed to make a jerk marinade; allspice, brown sugar and Scotch bonnet. Apart from this massive faux pas, traditional jerk is not just the marinade used on meats such as chicken or pork, it also describes the smoky taste cultivated via cooking on a steel pan or mimicking the ancestors by making a pit in the ground. This is usually where most novices go wrong, and what makes the dish unique and hard to duplicate. In short, you cannot “jerk” rice. The idea is absurd, Oliver’s product is, at best, Caribbean-influenced seasoned rice, and at worst, false advertising.

Cultural appropriation is a very real and disrespectful practice which has been commonplace in modern society for some time and tends to be called out more via social media activism. At its core, it chastises those who steal from a culture they don’t belong to and try to pass whatever they’ve taken off as their own invention, usually for profit. That’s exactly what Jamie has done here. In fact, it could be the literal dictionary definition. Jamaican jerk is a much-loved recipe which has been cooked to perfection for centuries, and should not be watered down, or added to the title of a product to fool customers who think they are getting something authentic.

In the midst of the controversy, chef Levi Roots revealed that he taught Jamie the fundamental principles of jerk seasoning and how to cook the dish correctly. The segment was filmed and broadcast on Oliver’s YouTube channel. Levi is the only Caribbean chef to penetrate the mainstream and be fully respected for his expertise. His choice to ignore the teachings of Levi Roots and opt for his own inferior invention can be encapsulated with one word; arrogance.

There is an underlying arrogance from Brits towards Caribbean culture, wherein it is often suggested – often nonverbally, as with Oliver’s minute rice – that it stands to benefit from the “superior” knowledge of white Brits.

This attitude is undoubtedly what led Chef Marco Pierre White to show everyone how “simple” traditional Caribbean rice and peas could be in five minutes, rather than the hours it’s supposed to take. The dish is also cooked using soaked kidney beans or gungo peas. Instead, Pierre White used common green peas. Even a quick Google search would have righted these horrendous mistakes, but Pierre White is, of course, the expert. Unsurprisingly, the result was a hilarious monstrosity, resulting in several months of online dragging, and the shameful realisation that a top chef lacked the knowledge to reproduce what is a basic dish in most Caribbean homes.

UK restaurant Turtle Bay can be found in many cities across the country. The English owners claim to represent the Caribbean with an array of Jamaican dishes complimented with a shabby chic, rum-shack decor. But they also caused controversy when they launched a promotion mimicking Rastafarianism, and encouraging blackface, in 2015. The “Rastafy Me” campaign encouraged customers to don a dreadlocks wig and take a picture, with a filter that darkened their skin. Nevermind the fact that in Jamaica, Rastafarianism is a religion, a sacred and spiritual journey. Anyone with an understanding of the culture would have known this campaign would immediately cause widespread offence.

This arrogance is a subtle form of racism, a superiority complex born out of the belief that African and Caribbean traditions are primitive, and in need of refining. We have been seen as unwanted step-children in the UK, and as part of that, as with the ongoingWindrush scandal, our cultures are still not shown any respect. Every major attempt at teaching us about ourselves, or altering our culture without permission, has failed miserably, so it may be time to show some humility and actually learn from the masters themselves: Caribbean chefs.

Can Caribbean recipes can be adapted and modernised? Of course. But you cannot claim a historic traditional term and apply it to your product for profit. Oliver has yet to comment, but I feel he should take the “L”, apologise, and if he has any humility, the product should be withdrawn and renamed.

Lastly, a message to chefs who wish to indulge in Caribbean cuisine: learn about the culinary traditions of the culture. Respect how they were created – using locally grown herbs and spices, and old fashioned techniques to liven up the scraps slave masters allowed our ancestors to eat. Ask Caribbean chefs for assistance, and stop being greedy. Instead of appropriating, collaborate with those who know best.

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