Jamie Oliver’s Cultural Appropriation Of Jerk Rice


OK, yes, we should get that joke out of the way early on. Yes, Jamie Oliver is a bit of a jerk, isn’t he? Good, that’s done then. Then we’ve Dawn Butler who may well have other and similar character defects even if we couldn’t possibly comment. Both of whom are now in a row about cultural appropriation. We here, I at least, deny the thing even happens, or that it’s even possible that it does.

The idea is that if we from some other culture then start to use something created by, defining or special to some other culture then we are appropriating that thing. Perhaps not taking that culture seriously, not respecting it, or even just plain flat out stealing from it. And of course, we pinkish and melanin deficient cannot start to say that our culture is being appropriated – the English language, electricity, machine woven clothes, all this civilisation stuff – because only the dominant and powerful can appropriate. Me waving an assegai around is cultural appropriation, a Zulu lad doing same with an AK-47 isn’t. Funny that. Actually, a Zulu lad laying claim to historically Khoi San lands at the Cape isn’t but some melanin deprived descendant of the Dutch whose ancestors have been there 200 years longer is. Odd concept really.

The things which are cultural appropriation can be odd. I’ve seen it seriously suggested that wearing hoop earrings is an appropriation of Latina – possibly Chicana – culture.

Which brings us to Jamie. Yes, the opening joke is appropriate as jerk usually refers to the marinade, or at least the method of preparing the meat, not the rice. But:

When Jamie Oliver launched his new “punchy” jerk rice in supermarkets, he hoped consumers would fall head over heels for a dish “made with love” and bursting with “attitude”.

But last night his “knockout” creation became the subject of an extraordinary backlash, as Dawn Butler, the shadow equalities minister, accused the celebrity chef of cultural “appropriation”.

Confronting Oliver on Twitter, Ms Butler questioned whether he understood what ‘Jerk’ was and suggested that he receive a “masterclass” from Levi Roots, the British-Jamaican reggae musician and cook.

Well, here’s a recipe for that jerk chicken which does seem to be close to being the Jamaican national dish.

8 -10 pieces of legs and thighs
1 lemon/lime
Salt and pepper to season
½ tablespoon cinnamon powder
1 sprig of fresh thyme
3 medium scallions (green onions) chopped
1 medium onion coarsely chopped
2-4 habanero pepper chopped
1 1/2 tablespoon Maggi or soy sauce
1 tablespoon bouillon powder optional
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
6 garlic cloves chopped
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon allspice coarsely ground
1 1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger chopped
1 tablespoon coarsely ground pepper

As far as I can tell those ingredients coming from, in order – the chicken, SE Asia via land cultural exchange to Europe and then the Americas by the Portuguese and Spanish. Sure, some evidence of Polynesian delivery but on West Coast only. The lemon, SE Asia, salt everywhere, pepper India or perhaps Indonesia. Cinnamon, SE Asia but introduction to European thus Caribbean cuisines through Ancient Egypt and thus into Greece. Thyme, the Levant and Ancient Egypt, scallions at least as far back as Ashkelon and further east than that. Onions, definitely Eurasian, habaneros definitively Latin American. Soy sauce, think we’ll allow Nippon to claim that, maybe China. Bouillon powder, industrial civilisation somewhere. Sugar, Indian subcontinent, garlic central Asia we think. Nutmeg and allspice the Spice Islands, now Indonesia. Ginger, South and SE Asia.

So, someone who makes this is accusing us of cultural appropriation if we make it?

Oh Aye?

All of which is, of course, to misunderstand the basic point about human beings. We’re apes, ones with a special and remarkable talent. We’ve this readin’ an’ writin’ stuff meaning that when we spot something that works we’re able to tell other people about it. In a manner rather more efficient than just teaching junior to do what we’ve learned to do. This is the secret of our success. That things once learned can be passed onto millions, billions, of other people. If we had to go reinvent the wheel each generation then we’d not all be rolling around in cars now, would we?

The very essence of our being the successful tool using species we are is that we copy. Appropriate that is. So insistences that we don’t “culturally” appropriate are demands that we stop being us, stop being human. Well, you know, good luck with that, however delightful the concept of cultural appropriation is as a method of having something else to shout about.