A half-slab of jerk ribs | Photo courtesy of Jerk Taco Man [Instagram]

The People is our section for all opinions concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, fellow Chicagoan Mylissa Veal explores why Caribbean cuisine is so popular in the Black Chicago community.

Jerk, jerk, jerk, jerk, jerk, jerk, or whatever Rihanna said. Chicago’s Jerk Taco Man is making its triumphant return to the West Side. After two years of running his South Side location, Julius Thomas is coming back to where it all started on Pulaski and Jackson in Garfield Park to reopen the popular restaurant. With menu expansion plans, the owner projects he will open more locations in the Chicagoland area and even open up some franchise sites due to high demand and interest. This news begs to ask the question: Chicago, how much jerk is too much?

It’s a running joke in our beautiful city that we ‘jerk’ everything from chicken to fish to Kool-Aid, and every joke is rooted in some truth. We love us some spicy tings, but it begs the question: why is Caribbean cuisine the favorite in our community? 

We’re spoiled with some of the best restaurants in the world, boasting different palates for the tourists’ tongues, along with eateries for the locals. From the upscale steakhouses and Michelin-rated culinary coves to the down-to-earth, hole-in-the-wall hood spots with bulletproof glass, you’re bound to stumble upon a great meal anytime of day in almost every part of the city. 

This may be the Second City, but our food is top two and not number two. So with all these flavors to choose from, why is jerk the most popular? What is it about those spices that make us slather them on anything we can get our hands on? I have a theory or two on the matter.

Let’s just be honest — Black people love spicy food. We love to not only taste our food, but to feel its impact.  This is how soul food got its name, and you can blame our Southern (and usually modest) upbringings. If anybody knows their way around some herbs and spices, it’s probably your Mississippi-born Big Mama who had to make meals out of crumbs. 

Growing up in the South for some meant taking simple things like a chicken from the family’s coop, some potatoes and collard greens from the earth, and creating a tasty experience. So many of our ancestors came from the Caribbean and brought their traditions and kitchen know-how with them to the United States. 

These recipes crafted from the minds of our past have become staples in our present, with the legacies passed down to our generation and beyond us. That chopped myriad of peppers, garlic, onions and everything in between are part of a Chicagoan’s cooking artillery. So of course it’s natural that we seek out these similar recipes in our city’s food scene. No jerk meal shall prosper against a hungry Chicago-born resident. 

The heat of our favorite dishes keeps our histories alive and well, producing offspring that will one day jerk their first chicken to carry on the family name. Dramatic? Maybe a little, but you have to admit — if we’re not serious about anything else in this city, we will defend our food. 

This city is a melting pot of so many cultural distinctions and traditions just within the Black community alone. When we jerk everything, it’s almost like paying homage to those before us that just wanted to add a bit more spice to life. It’s like a thank-you card sealed with stained fingertips from an Uncle Joe’s or Jerk Villa chicken meal with extra sauce. When you live in a city where it’s cold about 75% of the time, it always helps to have a meal that warms up the soul and also clears your sinuses for the week.

 Long live the Jerk.

Mylissa Veal is a content creator  and creator of OkSoBoom, a blog about the experiences of Black women and Black mothers.