Jerky is the delicious result of a pre-historic meat preservation technique developed in many locations around the globe by complex prehistoric peoples some 12,000+ years ago. Based on bone finds Archaeologists suggest that Neanderthals made jerky, which could have been made from horse, red deer, woolly rhinoceros, bison and even mammoth. Ancient Egyptians ate jerky, so did early cultures elsewhere in Africa and in the Andes.
The principal purpose and outcome of the process of drying meat was to reduce water content and weight. Ancient peoples learned, salted and fully dried jerky inhibits microbial growth and can result in an effective shelf life of at least 3-4 months (but under the right conditions can be much longer) and that the weight ratio of fresh meat to Jerky varies between 2:1 and 4:1 by weight, but the protein and nutritive value remains equivalent. For ancient hunter-gatherers Jerky was an essential survival staple.
Decendent of Ch’arki
Our American Jerky (or at least the name) is a direct decedent of Ch’arki (or hispanicized spellings charque, charqui, charquí) which is literally translated from the Quechuan language as “dried meat”. Ch’arki originates from the Incas of the South American Andes. The earliest written record of Ch’arki comes from the Spanish friar and conquistador Bernabé Cobo. Writing in 1653, Cobo wrote that Peruvian people prepared Ch’arki by cutting it into slices, putting the slices on ice for a time and then pounding it thin. (Did you know you don’t need an oven to make Jerky? The Inca used a freeze drying process.) Easily transportable, nutritious and boasting a prolonged shelf life Ch’arki was an important pre-Columbian Andian subsistence resource.
Oregon Trail and Cowboys
In North America Bison was the main staple for the native Indians and dehydration was used to preserve meat. Drying racks were assembled from sticks bound with leather and thin strips of fresh meat were hung on the racks and allowed to dry in the wind. For anyone not able to hunt everyday, preserving what you did have was critical. These techniques were picked up by the explorers surveying the American West and later used by the Cowboys and travelers pushing westward in search of a new home.
Mid-Century American Road-Trips
Jerky has been a long-time favorite of people on the move. From the wagon trains of the American West to the state storehouses along the Inca road system (to provision imperial armies), Jerky has been the staple of the Road Trip. While refrigeration had removed Jerky from the status of survival food, in the post World War II the hay day of highway travel, Jerky became the stuff of legend along the highways and byways of America. Every gas-station and truck stop offered this hearty fare to weary travelers. Sales of Jerky re surged with a new generation of travelers hitting the road.
Currently the Jerky market is dominated by a couple national brands. Jack Links and Oberto own the convenience-store/truck stop market with an estimated 70% of the market. But in recent years there has been an explosion of artisan Jerky brands. The internet has allowed small producers to find an eager audience hungry for the “good stuff”. This has brought a flood of boutique brands offering healthy, hearty and flavor-rich Jerky to the masses. Jerky Aficionado is dedicated to spreading the word about this resurgence of this American gastronomic delight.