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MP Accuses Jamie Oliver of Cultural Appropriation Over ‘Jerk Rice’

Labour’s Dawn Butler tweeted that jerk “is not just a word you put before stuff to sell products”

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Jamie Oliver has been accused of cultural appropriation over a new “jerk rice” product. The Labour MP for Brent Central, Dawn Butler, called Oliver out for his misrepresentation of the Caribbean preparation, evolved by escaped African-American slaves on Jamaica in the 1700s. Butler, who is British and born to Jamaican parents, said:

#jamieoliver @jamieoliver #jerk I’m just wondering do you know what #Jamaican #jerk actually is? It’s not just a word you put before stuff to sell products. @levirootsmusic should do a masterclass. Your jerk Rice is not ok. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop.

The mechanism of cultural appropriation — dominant cultures profiting from the preparations and traditions of other cultures while those cultures are unable to do the same — is at work, with Oliver using the cultural resonances of the term to market and sell a product that bears little to no relation to those cultural resonances.

The newly-launched “jerk rice” contains ginger, garlic and jalapeño chilli, absent of the allspice berries and scotch bonnet peppers integral to jerk seasoning. Jerk also refers to a specific method of cooking protein — usually chicken, pork, or fish — over coals in an oil drum, which, of course, is not what happens to rice in a microwave. The term “jerk” originated from Arawak traditions of preserving meat and evolved to encompass spicing and preparation after the combination of birdpepper, allspice, and scotch bonnet that the Jamaican Maroons used when cooking pork in mountainous Jamaican communities. The word is derived from ch’arki, or charqui, a south American method of salting meat that passed over from the Incas to the Spanish, and then to the Arawak after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492; Jamaica was colonised by the British from the mid 1600s to the mid 1900s.

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Oliver himself later reflected on his approach to cooking: while “learning and drawing inspiration” is to be celebrated, the naming remains misguided: the rice still bears no relation to the seasoning and process it is named for. Here, the inspiration and learning is lacking.

I’ve worked with flavours and spices from all over the world my whole career, learning and drawing inspiration from different countries and cultures to give a fresh twist to the food we eat every day. When I named the rice my intention was to show where my inspiration came from.

Dispiritingly, many responses at large suggest that Butler is implying that Oliver cannot cook Caribbean food, and, by (wild) extrapolation, that people should only cook the food of their own culture. Neil O’Brien, Conservative MP for Harborough, wrote: “If Jamie Oliver isn’t allowed to make jerk chicken because it’s cultural ‘appropriation’ she’s going to go mad when she finds out about Jamie’s Italy.”

Of course, that isn’t the actual problem: Oliver is not making jerk chicken here, and, more pointedly, he already has, multiple times. Oliver collaborated with Jamaican chef Levi Roots on a jerk chicken video; his book, 30 Minute Meals, features a “killer jerk chicken” recipe. Both iterations use the scotch bonnet, allspice, and five spice; neither use jalapeños nor ginger. They are respectful of the sociocultural history of jerk.

That is what matters. As seen in the reaction to racist content from ex-Som Saa chef Shaun Beagley, and the restaurant’s turning a blind eye, the question of cooking other cultures’ food being permissible is not what is up for debate. It is the question of how to do that with respect, for both the culinary traditions and the history in which they evolved and continue to evolve. Naming a Caribbean-adjacent rice and bean pouch after a highly-specific, meaningful spice mixture and preparation does not show that respect.