Everybody loves sauce. It’s an easy way to enhance, and sometimes outright save, the quality of an otherwise lacking recipe. But no matter how thick a sauce company might try to pour it on, there’s no culturally acceptable version of Jamaica’s famous and famously imitated jerk you can make simply by opening and tilting a bottle of sauce.
Scotchie Salter owns and operates Scotch Bonnet Jamaican Eatery in Southwest Atlanta. He’s a native of Kingston, Jamaica, and his permanently parked Campbellton Road food trailer is proudly painted with the colors of Jamaica’s Rastafarian flag. That same red, yellow, and green scheme applies to picnic tables under a covered seating area, and the bottom half of a large black smokehouse. Inside, large quantities of meats—pork sausage links, ribs, lamb racks, turkey legs, and, of course, chicken wings and thighs—are jerked daily, following Salter’s own recipe.
Salter’s family in Kingston didn’t grill food very often, he says. He learned how to jerk by watching others and mixing their methods with his own ideas until he had a style of jerk all his own. He gives new customers free samples of his jerked meats, to help them understand that asking for a side of jerk sauce is entirely unnecessary, since the food is already thoroughly infused with flavor, without needing a disingenuous culinary shortcut.
“For jerk fundamentalists and traditionalists, sauce is a no-no,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t want to come off arrogant, but we in Jamaica are going to frown on you if you give me jerk chicken and then give me a sauce.” He also insists that real jerk is grilled and smoked. “The secret to jerk, if anybody wants to know, is pimento wood. You can’t jerk something coming out of the oven,” he warns.
It is accepted that jerk will always vary slightly from cook to cook, but Jamaican jerk generally incorporates three key items: allspice, Scotch bonnet peppers, and pimento wood for smoking. All three are found easily in Jamaica, but not so much in Atlanta.
The jerk at Scotch Bonnet Jamaican Eatery, like other Jamaican restaurants’ versions, doesn’t follow strict traditional jerk preparation, for reasons relating to business. Levels of spice are usually points of personal taste, and Salter says when Scotch bonnet, cayenne, or ghost peppers are used to excess, it’s not just a pain-tolerance challenge, it’s an intentional distraction. “Anybody can make it spicy. They’re disguising the fact that they can’t cook,” he asserts.
Also, keeping bulk supplies of pimento wood, which is indigenous to the Caribbean, can be cost-prohibitive. Salter swaps in fruit woods like pecan and cherry, and smokes the meats on a 500-gallon, aboveground, steel-barrel setup in the smokehouse. It’s not pit-smoking but he gets similar results of flavor and tenderness in shorter time, and lines of local fans during lunch and dinner hours show that his recipe works.
It’s easy to treat jerk like the fake Caribbean accent you might hear someone adopt for their weeklong MoBay vacation. But these flavors aren’t just accents; they’re ancestral stories of survival. To understand the method and its meaning, you must look at the roots, which literally run through Jamaica’s rich soil.
Most historians agree that jerk originated in Jamaica’s legendary Blue Mountains, with Jamaica’s indigenous Arawak and Taíno people, who settled in the island’s easternmost ranges when Spanish colonists arrived in Jamaica soon after Christopher Columbus. The Taíno smoked and dried meats for preservation purposes (yes, “jerk” is historically related to “jerky”), not just in terms of sustenance but to avoid giving up their mountain positions to European occupiers. As meats cooked in underground pits, the smoke plumes were concealed.
The Taíno later intermingled with the Maroons, previously enslaved Africans who were brought to the island in the late 15th century and created free communities in the mountains after escaping Spanish slave traders. Maroons learned how to jerk and incorporated their own spices, including the Scotch bonnet. The result is true jerk, which is truly delicious.
Born of struggle and survival, jerk represents continuous cultural exchange. The technique and spices are still traveling the world today, symbolizing a culinary bridge between the island’s original inhabitants and those who were brought to Jamaica via subjugation. Jerk’s origin story of goodwill, shared existence, and secrets of sustainability birthed a style of cooking so beloved that you can find versions of it at chain restaurants and on supermarket shelves everywhere. With respect to the brands you’ll actually find in the homes of Caribbean people (like Grace and Walkerswood, which are best used as marinades, FYI), it’s important to know that sauce is not a sin, but jerk is not a sauce. And if you ever find yourself trying to replace the real thing with a liquid condiment, just know that ultimately the jerk’s on you.
Jerk Five Ways
When it comes to styles of jerked cuisine, ATL’s got options
Rock Steady’s vibey upstairs lounge pairs perfectly with its 72-hour marinated jerk chicken, while Negril ATL’s romantic, date-night-ready interior makes for an even spicier jerk chicken and waffle dinner.
You’ll find jerk chicken eggrolls, jerk mussels, and even jerked filet mignon at Rodney’s Jamaican Soul Food, while Continent offers 24-hour-marinated tamarind jerk wings and a jerk-spiced tomahawk steak.
The salmon filet at Marguerite’s Jerk Bistro in Grant Park is “jerked to perfection,” while you’ll find salmon, tilapia, and shrimp in jerk seasoning at Mableton’s Jamaican Jerk Biz.
Foxx Original Jamaican Restaurant’s chopped-up carryout jerk chicken is a longtime in-town favorite. Also delicious and easily accessible is Afrodish Restaurant’s heartily spiced jerk chicken in the Municipal Market.
The jerked bean curd “un-duck” at Healthful Essence is a plant-based alternative that tastes nothing like a substitution, much like the meatless jerked mushroom meal at One Luv Cafe.
Read the full feature: Atlanta’s Caribbean Vibes
This article appears in our May 2023 issue.