Culinary Colonization

U.K. — October 20, 2020

Culinary Colonization

Reclaiming Jamaica’s Cultural History from Capitalism

Words bY Aaliyah Miller

About the Artwork ↑
This modern illustration is of Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons, an eighteenth-century female warrior who led the Jamaican Maroons to fight against British colonizers during the First Maroon War from 1720 to 1739. Much of her life isn’t found in history books, but her spirit is still honored by the people of Jamaica to this day. Her likeness can be found on the $500 Jamaican bank note.

Editor’s Note: This story is published in The Reboot Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

Walking down Bristol’s buzzing harbour, in the center of the city, there’s not a weekend that visitors won’t hear righteous reggae music blaring out the doors of the green, yellow and black themed restaurant. You’ll be greeted by island-style décor on arrival and a menu jammed with Jamaican dishes. With jerk chicken at the ready and reggae rum punch served in coconuts, what’s not to love?  

It may feel as if you’ve been transported to the Carribean, but the reality is the owner of this faux island paradise is Ajith Jayawickrema, a Sri-Lankan man who has lived in the United Kingdom since the age of fifteen. 

The “Caribbean” restaurant chain Turtle Bay is the largest of this cuisine in the U.K., consisting of more than forty branches boasting a revenue of £68.1 million in 2018. Caribbean culture is used as bait to entice diners by projecting a façade, while legitimate elements of Jamaican custom—such as Rastafarianism—are often demonised. 

This criticism toward Turtle Bay isn’t just a product of the personal cringe I feel at seeing my culture appropriated, but this criticism is also being discussed in the wider media. In 2015, Turtle Bay came under public scrutiny for its “#Rastafyme” campaign, which featured a marketing image of a white man edited to have darker skin and dreadlocks.

Cultural appropriation refers to “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture,” according to the Cambridge dictionary. Often, Black people are gaslit for taking issue when appropriation occurs; however, the insidious nature of such theft is not to be overlooked. 

This dire case of cultural appropriation made a mockery of Rastafarianism, minimizing something culturally sacred and spiritual into a joke. Rastafarianism is integral to Jamaican culture. In addition to cultural appropriation, discrimination is also persistent. When Black people wear their hair in traditional styles, such as cornrows or dreadlocks, it can result in being shunned by peers, kicked out of schools, or denied jobs.

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A conversation with Bristol’s Deputy Mayor Asher Craig also confirmed that no amount of power or status can abolish the racism and cultural disrespect the diaspora faces. Craig shared the ways in which she experiences racism daily as a politician, putting her “at the mercy of the bigots, misogynists and racists who hide behind their keyboards to spout their vitriol.” Craig is aware of the common misjudgment people make when she enters a room, with her dreadlocks visibly wrapped, revealing that her “presence alone discombobulates many,” just by nature of being a Black woman in a position of authority. 

It’s one thing to authentically indulge in another culture and respectfully enjoy elements of such; but it’s another to exploit a culture for its appeal, while also disrespecting it in the process. The Turtle Bay marketing campaign was not only distasteful and offensive, but demonstrated the ways in which Caribbean culture is often disregarded and only used for its appeal. Often, Jamaican people are reduced to stereotypes; in this case, it was by a company branding itself as Caribbean, and has built an empire in doing so. 

Bristol is a bright and bubbly city known for its authenticity and independent restaurant scene. Seeing Turtle Bay attract such booming business in Bristol offends even more because there are so many legitimate Jamaican businesses that are worthy of such attention. 

These authentic businesses should be the ones supported, and both credit and revenue should be circled back into the community this culture belongs to. By supporting a “Caribbean” charlatan, consumers also do themselves a disservice. Nothing can compare to authentic family recipes perfected over generations—recipes that have “grandma’s touch” to them thanks to the brilliant preparation of simple ingredients. Cuisine is knowing just how much to stir and just how much to knead; it’s knowing just how long to pour because of the years spent watching your mum prepare such traditional delicacies. 

Chef Branatic Neufville, owner of the well-known and respected Bristol restaurant Rice & Things, agrees his food is testament to this, explaining that his cooking “represents a part of my grandmother and her teaching,” with his deeply-loved food being an “homage to her memory.” This view is also shared by Chanté Innes, whose family owns another of Bristol’s valued Jamaican restaurants, Caribbean Croft. She emphasizes, “no two dishes will ever be quite the same because we are all taught from free-hand cooking passed down through the generations of our own families.”

The African diaspora has a long history in which its glory has been dulled due to harm done by those from other cultures. Our people have been stolen and enslaved, our countries have been looted, and our culture has been captured and warped. It’s no wonder the Black community has become gatekeepers over what is theirs. 

When elements of our culture are co-opted, Black people are removed from the picture. Instead, acts of appropriation come as a thief-like swipe of what we hold sacred, elements only to be displayed to the rest of the world as a shiny, avant-garde discovery by those to whom it does not belong. 

Dr. Barbara Brown, diversity strategist and wife of Chef Neufville, explores views on the importance of claiming culture with her belief that, “it’s food, our approach, heritage, and the cultural strength of our food that is central to retaining a piece of community which is dying with the Jamaican diaspora, and moving further away in generations from the Windrush migrants.” 

The African diaspora has a long history in which its glory has been dulled due to harm done by those from other cultures. Our people have been stolen and enslaved, our countries have been looted, and our culture has been captured and warped. It’s no wonder the Black community has become gatekeepers over what is theirs.

Alongside the issue that the originators of the culture are ignored is the fact that when elements of Black culture are adopted, they are done so inaccurately and offensively. Chef Jamie Oliver rightly attracted negative press when he released his packet “punchy jerk rice.” Jamaicans were dumbfounded by the blatant ignorance. Even Member of Parliament Dawn Butler expressed her concern, tweeting Oliver, “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.” 

The chef did not offer an apology, but instead defended his actions in a statement, claiming he used “jerk” as an adjective to justify where the inspiration was taken from for his dish. To many islanders’ disapproval, the packet rice still stands in shops to this day. Instances like this confirm that our feelings in regards to our own culture are deemed as secondary. 

Chef Neufville champions the belief in sticking to traditions. “To get to the root of your cuisine, stick to it. Get to the heart and soul of that cuisine, understand it, love it, and do not dilute it,” he says. “If it’s spicy, cook it with spice. If the food is meant to be cooked on the bone, cook it with bone. Do not move away from the truth of its heritage.”

Jerk dishes are a staple in Jamaica, with “jerk” referring not only to the jerk seasoning the chicken is coated in, but to the method of cooking to create such foods. This style of cooking is native to Jamaica with a history of over 2,500 years, beginning with the Indigenous Arawak who were some of the first inhabitants of Jamaica, The Arawak developed the concept of jerk seasoning as a means to preserve their meats, and would cook such foods over open fire pits.

After Western colonizers like Christopher Columbus enslaved the Arawak, forcing them to labour and exposing them to lethal diseases, this traditional method was passed down to Africans who were enslaved in Jamaica, a population that became known as Maroons.

The Maroons are famously known as “free slaves.” They demonstrated unfathomable strength by running from their insidious capturers and resided in the Blue Mountains in order to resist colonial rule. While doing so, they continued to employ the jerk method to preserve and cook their food. This method has since been shared throughout the diaspora while evolving to fit modern methods. 

Jamaican people know jerk rice is an impossibility—a fact that even a slight amount of research into the deep history of this staple cultural dish would have revealed. Considering prominent figures, like Oliver, it is evident that our culture is used merely as a marketing tool, while failing to consider and disregarding our cultural roots.  

This culinary colonization is portentously poetic. The roots of our cultural dishes have dark connections to the evil that was imposed on our ancestors, only for the ancestors of those colonizers to continue to encroach on us and take what isn’t theirs. The poetic justice extends further with one of the key ingredients for jerk marinades: Scotch bonnet peppers. 

Similarly to the passing of jerk methods was also the passing on of Scotch bonnet peppers, a staple of modern Jamaican cuisine. The carrying of this spice to the islands can be credited to the Taino people, a group that was an Indigenous Arawak population that originated in South America, and inhabited locales such as Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. However, they were subjected to abhorrent violence, with Columbus and colonization being responsible for the Taino genocide between 1492 and 1518. 

Jerk dishes, which were cooked using methods once utilized as a survival tool during colonialism, are now being colonized and co-opted away from the diaspora. Must we be stripped of everything?

This deep history is fundamental to Jamaican identity. In my conversations with Dr. Brown, she expresses that, “these stories should be unearthed and told so that more meaning and understanding is given to the islands.”

This case of appropriation spans wider than just being exasperating. It adds insult to injury that imposters commonly omit key elements, such as traditional cooking methods and authentic ingredients. The profiteering of fundamental parts of the Black experience commandeers such things away from the community. 

Tropical Sun is an example of this, being a Jamaican company not owned by anyone of Caribbean descent. It sells products for the Black community, including items like “Jamaican Jerk Seasoning” and “Jamaica Ackee.” This company uses similar marketing methods as Turtle Bay, flagrantly displaying the Jamaican flag alongside the island’s famous colors. 

The domination of the market by companies such as Tropical Sun leave no room for Black-owned businesses to succeed, and demonstrates a trend in which ownership of our own history is taken from us, forcing us to look outside for that which should belong to our community. Even when the Black community may wish to boycott brands like Tropical Sun, it’s nearly impossible because it’s often the only brand found on shelves that supplies the items the community requires. 

Large companies do not support Black-owned businesses, and are more likely to stock dominating companies such as Tropical Sun; meaning, a capitalistic free-market economy allows for one brand to dominate as well as prevent consumer choice.

While others are profiting off of Black culture, Black people are experiencing financial lack. Research done by Runnymede Trust shows that for every £1 a white British family has, Black Caribbean households have around twenty pence, and Black African households have approximately ten pence. Black people should not be deemed unreasonable for wanting to protect and profit off of what is rightfully theirs. 

A person preventing others from gaining access to something is accused of “gatekeeping,” but how can Black people be called gatekeepers for restricting access to what is theirs, when they have minimal autonomy over such things anyhow? Through this gatekeeping, they are merely taking back ownership of what is theirs. 

Black people are right to feel as if they have to hold things close in order to keep their autonomy after everything the diaspora has faced historically—and still face to this day. This is not only a financial issue, but an issue of cultural pride. It’s demeaning that things with such rich history, such as Rastafarianism, are used as advertising tools. That our cultural dishes and practices are not seen as worthy of respect, but are treated as inferior—this is the same way we are made to feel in our everyday lives.  

It’s time we were respected by other cultures, and that the things we own are treated as worthy of esteem. It’s time that people converse with us, sit, learn and listen. It is overdue that we are given back control over our culture, that we are treated as equals and not as an inspiration bank to pull ideas and profit from. 

The diaspora doesn’t just need a seat at the table, but space to build our own table, with room to nurture and support our own without interference. We need respect placed on our culture, as well as adherence to the boundaries we impose—not only the room to establish financial freedom, but as Chanté Innes says, a place to “do what you love, whilst making people happy.”

Our culture is undeniably incredible. It’s vibrant, it’s poetic, it’s nothing short of beautiful. So, by all means, engage. But ensure to do so respectfully by paying homage and by supporting the originators of such wonders. 

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