Let’s Talk Jerky

The great, overlooked American charcuterie.

I couldn’t help but notice that when Jack and Ennis weren’t making love up on Brokeback Mountain, they spent some quality time making elk jerky. Easy to produce and not particularly glamorous, jerky is a lonely food, just right for lonely characters like Jack and Ennis. And yet it’s a powerfully popular one: The “salted meat snack” industry generated more than $300 million in sales in the last year. That’s nothing compared with the billions earned by potato and tortilla chips, but jerky way outstrips yogurt pretzels, ready-to-eat popcorn, and corn nuts.

Jerky has achieved cult status in this country: It is something people want to share. Last time I checked eBay, there were 200 odd lots of jerky, much of it homemade (and some of it “perfect if you have loved ones overseas defending our country against the evils of terrorism”). Jerky transcends carnivores—there is a market for vegetarian versions of the stuff. There are even direct-marketing Web sites that promise fun and profit through jerky sales. And yet, as a restaurant critic, I’ve never come across jerky in a restaurant, or seen it served at a party. Is jerky the great, overlooked American charcuterie?

In its purest form, jerky is produced more or less like other dried-meat products around the world: Tibetan dried mutton, South African biltong, Spanish mojama, even Italian prosciutto and bresaola. Meat—often salted, sometimes marinated—is left to cure in the open air. Contemporary jerky-makers might use a very slow oven or a dehydrator to hurry things up; they might also smoke the meat to add flavor. Although it can take a serious head-jerk to bite off a hunk of particularly tough jerky, the word is actually derived from charqui, the Spanish adaptation of the Quechuan word ch’arki,which referred to dried meat during the Incan empire. By cutting meat into thin strips and allowing it to air-dry, Native Americans in the Northern and Southern hemispheres could quickly turn lean meat into a stable, light source of protein—an early power bar.

The jerky habit that Europeans picked up from the natives proved valuable for survival on the American frontier. Westbound pioneers found that it provided nutrition between successful hunts, and a jerky variant called pemmican—dried meat mashed up with animal fat and berries—became a staple of the North American fur trade. Jerky is still practical for outdoorsy types. Because it is so light, it is prime backpacking food, and today’s hunters snack on jerky while they stalk and kill animals to turn into yet more jerky. Trappers, pioneers, cowboys, hunters: There is an unmistakable whiff of the masculine about jerky. In its basic form, jerky is essentially edible chaw. That it has typically been sold at gas stations does not help it seem more refined.

It was the recent low-carb-diet craze that helped diversify the meat snack industry. Hungry Americans—including women—were looking for an un-starchy nosh to fill the long breaks between bunless hamburgers and flank steaks. According to Meat Processing magazine, jerky manufacturers managed to get their products, long relegated to convenience stores and gas stations, into big chain stores like Wal-Mart and Target, where they found new fans. As the low-carb trend wanes, manufacturers are trying to hold on to their newly won customers by tenderizing jerky and upping the moisture level so it more closely resembles fresh meat.

Much mass-produced jerky is terrible: stiff meat coated with a lot of unnecessary stuff, including corn syrup, heavy surface flavorants, wheat gluten, and sometimes even hydrogenated fats. In a somewhat horrifying attempt to diversify its line, Oberto has introduced a new product, Beef Jerky Crisps, which are essentially potato chips made of meat. They taste ghastly. Although, to be honest, eating them is not much worse than snapping into a Slim Jim. The famous meat snack from ConAgra is not jerky but a skinny dried sausage in a tough casing: It is greasy, oddly tangy, and tastes a bit like canned vegetable soup. Among the big brands, I did find Jack Link’s Original Beef Steak palatable; its seasonings (which include MSG) are relatively muted so you can taste the meat.

Much more delicious is “craft jerky,” which might not have the complexity of serious charcuterie like Spanish ham or fermented Italian salamis, but is meaty and immediate and appealing. Jerky is a good way for small, specialty meat producers to market their products to people who might not be ready to buy, say, a whole side of beef. Each piece functions as an edible postcard from a given farm or ranch. American Grass Fed Beef makes a very meat-forward salt-and-pepper jerky that is about as good as any I’ve tasted: not too salty, not too reliant on external flavorants, chewy but not jawbreaking. Gary West makes fancy jerky from elk and buffalo as well as beef. Although his products are nice and meaty, I find their moisture a little unsettling—they’re meant to be tender, and thus high-end, but I found them a little damp. Another tasty, more traditional, jerky comes from a bigger outfit called SnackMasters, which sells its natural-beef line at my local crunchy grocery store. SnackMasters’ products are made with moist marinades that complement the meat rather than masking it. (Sometimes marinades are not so successful. Jim Beam, for example, markets its own brand, which tastes unsettlingly like it has been used to stir a Manhattan.)

I tried making my own jerky, too, using a recipe from Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman’s excellent book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. Since my oven doesn’t operate on a very low temperature, and I don’t have a dehydrator, my eye-of-round strips dried too quickly, even with the door open. Although the jerky was stiff, I did find it curiously yummy: The spicy chipotle marinade that coated the meat was tasty. Even better, there was something compelling about the primal gnaw it took to get through each piece. I began to understand what dogs see in those foul pig’s ears they become obsessed with.

Since I’d begun to appreciate jerky’s charms, I asked Ruhlman why one never sees it at a restaurant. He speculated that “it’s almost too simple for chefs to do,” and noted, “what would be cool would be to have beef jerky out on your bar.” But I suspect that jerky also resists being brought into social environments—restaurants, parties, brunches, and the like—because there is something a little untamed and private about it.

I wouldn’t want anyone to watch me tear my way through a piece of jerky—it is not a pretty sight. Jerky is better eaten surreptitiously, in the privacy of the outdoors, or in the cabin of my imaginary 18-wheeler. Eager as the big jerky vendors might be to diversify the jerky audience with swanky packaging, tender cuts, and an emphasis on protein, beef jerky is not made for social snacking the way tortilla chips are. Jerky’s appeal comes from its gnarled backwoods history—the slightly feral feel you get when you eat it. If jerky becomes too heavily processed, too tender, or too crispy, it might lose its crass charm without gaining any fans.