Give holiday meals a little "island energy" with Rosie Mayes' delicious jerk chicken recipe! And discover why this traditional Jamaican dish truly completes Rosie's holiday feast.
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I Heart Soul Food Cookbook recipe for Jerk Chicken
Rosie Mayes' Jerk Chicken
| Credit: Michael Kartes

My family's Southern roots run deep in our food. Even though I grew up in Seattle, everything we eat comes from my grandmother — Rosa Mae, for whom I'm named — especially when it comes to the holidays. Our Christmas buffet strains under the weight of turkey, ham, a big pot of gumbo, greens, candied yams, potato salad, cornbread rolls, and Grandma's special fried chicken with waffle batter — and that's before you even get to the dessert table.

Rosa Mae passed away when I was only two years old, but her 18 children — my mom and her 12 brothers and six sisters — raised me on her recipes. These days, I'm the only cook from my generation of cousins and I proudly carry on her traditions. But from a young age, I always felt that our celebrations were missing something, like there was a piece of my family that I couldn't quite taste, even with all those soul food secrets handed down over the years.

I love to cook — my book is, after all, called I Heart Soul Food: 100 Southern Comfort Food — and that passion comes from my mom and aunts, who got it from my grandmother. Rosa Mae cooked constantly for her giant family and also worked in the kitchen of a nursing home. But that passion stopped with her mother, my great-grandmother Beatrice. Beatrice rarely cooked. We weren't close, and I didn't get to know her well before she passed away when I was a kid. But I did know she was from Jamaica, and I remember my mom re-telling the stories she had heard about her grandmother's childhood on the island. As someone who lives through food, it became clear to me that what I felt lacking on those giant smorgasbords that my family put on was the food of my matrilineal roots: we needed some island energy in our soul food.

The only thing Beatrice ever made was her signature tea cakes — they were good enough that nothing else mattered, nobody ever asked anything else of her. If I wanted to cook Jamaican food, I was going to have to figure it out myself. Before I was even a teenager, I started searching the internet – back before we could even "Google," we had to "Yahoo!" it or something — looking for Jamaican recipes. I played around with the flavors for probably seven years, bugging my Jamaican friends to get insight, sneaking invitations to their house for dinner, and tasting my way through any Jamaican restaurant I could find. On trips to Louisiana, I'd see soul food restaurants that also served Jamaican food, hinting that other people shared my roots from the South by way of Jamaica.

By the time I was about 19, I felt like maybe I'd mastered jerk chicken. It was like filling a missing piece of my heritage — connecting me to the great-grandmother that I'd never gotten to know in real life. I chose jerk chicken as my signature Jamaican dish because jerked meat is such an iconic part of the culture, and the chicken felt safe — it's something I cook a lot and am comfortable with. I love smoking meat, and finding the intersection of my own style and the dishes I so badly wanted to learn about how to make gave me an entry point. When I hit start on the blender and the garlic, thyme, onions, and scotch bonnet pepper release their oils into the air, it smells like a homeland I've never been to. Adding the allspice, nutmeg, and ginger, I can't speak to the traditions of authentic Jamaican food, but I can speak to my own personal journey to find the authentic flavor of me.

Now, I throw the jerk chicken on the grill at the Fourth of July, and I smoke them up every year as part of the holiday meal. My family has strong Southern roots, even transplanted across the country, but when I started adding Jamaican food to the holiday tables, it suddenly felt like the spread was more complete. Our holiday feasts are a representation of the melting pot that is my family, with the Creole heritage represented by gumbo, and now the Jamaican side showing up with oxtails and jerk chicken.

The only other piece of my great-grandmother at those meals are her tea cakes, which always make an appearance alongside the buttermilk chocolate cake, sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, and pineapple upside down cake. But as I keep learning more about Jamaican food, my plan is to start learning more about the sweets next — so maybe next year's feast will have another little connection to my Caribbean heritage.

Rosie Mayes' Jamaican Jerk Chicken



1 medium yellow onion, chopped

5 green onions, chopped, plus more for garnish

5 large whole garlic cloves

7 sprigs of fresh thyme, stemmed

3 tablespoons store-bought browning sauce

1 scotch bonnet pepper or jalapeño pepper if you want it more mild

Zest and juice from 1 small lime, plus sliced lime for garnish

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons paprika

2 teaspoons ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon grated fresh ginger

4 to 5 pounds chicken quarters, cleaned

Vegetable oil, for greasing


1. In a blender or food processor, add all of the ingredients for the jerk marinade and blend until everything is well mixed.

2. Toss the chicken into a large ziplock freezer bag, then pour in the marinade. Close the bag and move the chicken around to make sure it's well coated with the marinade. Let the chicken marinate in the refrigerator overnight or for a minimum of 6 hours.

3. Once the chicken is good to go, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place the chicken in a lightly oiled 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake in the oven, uncovered, for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove the chicken from the oven, and let cool. Garnish with lime and green onion before serving.

This recipe was adapted from I Heart Soul Food: 100 Southern Comfort Food Favorites, by Rosie Mayes (Sasquatch Books, 2020).