I’ve always had some sense of “beef jerky” over my lifetime. It’s always been in gas stations and convenient stores. And I’m certain I’ve eaten jerky before. Not en masse, but a bit. And not on a dare, even.
But it’s been quite a while. It seems like in the past 10 years, there’s been a minor explosion in the jerky industry. It dawned on me during a recent grocery trip that the “jerky section” of the supermarket snack aisle had grown substantially. With cousin dry-meat snack Slim Jims nearby, the jerky biz has carved out a fairly substantial section in most markets. The brands are limited store to store, but there is some clear variety.
Over the course of a few weeks, I began tossing a bag of jerky into my cart during shopping adventures, ending up with a total of seven different brands and flavors. I wanted a jerky refresher, but the jerky world ain’t what it used to be.
Jerky — essentially dried, often marinated meat strips — has a certain reputation. It has a long shelf-life and is easy to store and carry, so it’s popular with campers and doomsday preppers. Hunters love it for those reasons, as well as its “rugged” essence — jerky’s notorious “toughness” (as in, it’s very tough to chew) makes eating it feel pretty primal. Shooting animals that you can turn into the stuff you’re shredding with your teeth is probably a meta mindfuck.
Those jerky stereotypes give the meat snack an air of backwoods food staple, but the more I researched jerky, the more it became clear that — along with its popularity in cultures all over the world — the processed meat is, from a scientific standpoint, one of the most ingenious food innovations ever.
The invention is widely attributed an Inca tribe in 16th century Peru, but Native Americans are also often credited with creating jerky.
South Africans also adapted a similarly prepped meat (biltong) early on.
The early jerky prep was pretty straightforward — say, buffalo meat sliced, rubbed with salt, dried in the sun and low-cooked over fire. Today, the lifespan of jerky has been greatly expanded. The original concept of using salt to keep it preserved (and bacteria-free) longer is maintained — jerky is high in sodium — but chemicals are often added to mass-produced jerky and maintain as much moisture as possible.
Outside of a little sodium nitrate, jerky is very healthy. Surprisingly low in fat and unsurprisingly high in protein, its popularity with outdoorspeople makes even more sense. The protein also gives a jolt of energy.
Which leads me to Perky Jerky, one of the more recent spins on jerky that promotes itself as especially energy-boosting. Available in Target’s growing food aisles, it contains about the same amount of proteins as its competitors. It does contain guarana, a natural stimulant, and claims no preservatives. Heavy on the Worcestershire sauce, it’s moist and flavorful. It seems aimed at the 5 Hour Energy crowd.
Jerky can (and apparently is) made of every animal that’s edible (even camel). Jack Links, which is like the Coca-Cola of the jerky world, has a Turkey Jerky. Turkey products are sometimes healthier than their pork or beef counterparts, but this turkey jerky matches up evenly from a nutritional standpoint. It’s moist and tastes exactly like cold turkey bacon.
The range of jerky bought between Meijer and Kroger represented the spectrum of the jerky rainbow — with flavors like barbecue, teriyaki and “Hot” and textures ranging from bone-dry and cardboard-ish (the generic store brands) to moist and flavor-bursting (the Oberto brand’s BBQ Pork Jerky).
Shelf-mate Slim Jim has muscled its way into jerky’s territory and has an appealing line of “Dare” jerky. I love it when food comes with “Caution” notifications, no matter how tongue-in-cheek. I went with the “three-pepper” (out of three) Habanero version, which lived up to its “Really Freakin’ Hot” designation. It’s a bit dry, but the heat is the gimmick. It has that element of surprise, that spiciness that comes with certain peppers and Indian food — just as you finish thinking, “This isn’t too h …,” you run for the milk jug. Good times.
Most of the bags of jerky I found had those tiny oxygen-preserver pouches used for freshness. I always thought jerky must last decades, but usually it’s only good for a year or two. And some of the packages even insist you eat the whole bag five days after opening.
So, warning to those expecting the Apocalypse this Friday who might try to hunt me down for my jerky stash — I’ve opened all seven bags. So if you can’t find me after a week, try to find that smarter guy with the bunker. I bet he has soup.
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