I was at the convenience store the other day and I saw a man buy ten sticks of beef jerky. I made a funny face at him. He chomped off a chunk with a violent tug. “It’z Atskinz,” he said, slurring his reference to the Atkins diet. But I thought he said “rat skins.” So I nodded in understanding: jerky has the taste and texture of rat skins, indeed. It’s man’s version of the dog biscuit. Like a fob of leather, it’s something we like to teeth on. And apparently jerky is in high demand like cigarettes and candy bars, all tempting to seduce you into making an impulse purchase, right there at the point-of-sale. Who can resist? Who doesn’t drool at the sight of dried and salted flesh?
I’m no vegetarian, but I have to admit I have an aversion to jerked meats. Heck, I blush just saying the words. And I probably don’t need to tell you how sick “snapping into a Slim Jim” really sounds in my ears. All puns aside, I’m not even sure what jerky really is. All I know is that it’s a form of “cured” meat, but even that doesn’t sit right with me. Why do they call it “cured” meat, anyway? I mean, it’s dead already…so what’s to cure?
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the appeal of beef jerky. It’s nature’s convenience food, passed to us long before there ever were Seven-Elevens and Mini-Marts and roadside gift shops called “Buckskin Charlies.” Beef jerky is a throwback to the frontier days, when Native Americans taught bear trappers how to cure strips of meat so they wouldn’t have to take up so much space packing the whole dead cow on the back of their burro. This allowed them to eat the rotting carcass at their leisure and not have to gobble the bloated festering corpse in a panicky rush before the maggots beat them to the good bits. Salt, smoke, and sun shrunk the meat down and cooked it up like bacon. The invention of jerky was a breakthrough that turned the decomposing body into a salty bite-sized snack, handy enough to fit all your favorite bits and pieces into one small saddle bag. And why not? Eat the jerky on the way to the mine. Eat the burro when you get there. Dietary planning at its finest!
On the day jerky was invented, dead meat became fun. Like salt water taffy. Only meaty. What’s more entertaining than champing down on salted animal tissue and shaking your head from side to side like a dog on a chew toy? Very little. Except doing so naked with a friend. Or something as simple as saying the word itself: “jerky.” A truly snicker-worthy term if there ever was one. All its connotations are quite bizarre and unseemly. Does jerky crassly refer to the method of stripping the meat off the bone? To the ugly body motions necessary to tear off a bite? Or is jerky a term of affection, like “Petey” or “Billy” — something you call a little jerk? Or is it simply just a term for the last (dying) action performed by the very same muscles and sinew you’re chawing on?
You’d be surprised. My research tells me that “jerky” is actually a bastardization of the term “charqui” (pronounced “sharkey” in Spanish) — not to be confused with actual shark jerky (which is pronounced “yuckie” in English) or with a certain argumentative butter substitute with a smart mouth. “Charqui” used to be cut in large strips that were dried and cured and later cut up and put into stews — and back the days of yore it still resembled meat to some degree. Jerky probably had nutritional value of some kind then, too. But today, it’s mostly all “formed” from whatever strange meat still clings to the bone after the slaughterhouse has had its way with old Besty the cow. Modern jerky is a lower level of hotdog. Nothing in nature is so perfectly shiny and cylindrical as the meat sticks I’ve seen at the convenience store.
Of course, you can get organic jerky made of 100% USDA Grade A beef, hand-twisted and custom-jerked by some unknown farmer in Muskogee who probably doesn’t wash his hands very well. You can flavor it up in exotic smokes and rub it down with mystical spices. You can jerk exotic animals, too, from koalas to kangaroos. But no matter how pure the meat, no matter how cute the critter, it’s still just a glorified dog treat when all is said and done.
Sure, jerky has its benefits. It’s high in protein. It’s preserved so well you can take it camping or hunting with ease. You can store it in your survival shelter for eons. One dead cow can feed a family of twelve without the modern convenience of a refrigerator for months and months. It’s a miracle food! It’s even been sent with astronauts to the moon and back. Sounds as neato as Tang, right?
Not to me. For one thing, lots of crazy things have protein in them — from parrot parts to pavement puke. Protein alone is not reason enough to eat jerky. And the very idea of jerky in space is a scary science-fiction story waiting to happen. What sort of message would it send the aliens who discover it? I can imagine a capsule coming back from the stars, with strips of astronaut jerky dangling inside. And a message from the stars: send more.
Which raises the question: Is man-jerky Atkins-approved? Only Jeffrey Dahmer knows. The serial killer experimented with preserving techniques and used to snack on his cannibal candy between meals. I know he was crazy, and he ate a lot of people in any number of taboo ways, but I also know the man-eater wasn’t exactly fat when they arrested him. He looked rather fit, actually. Lean, even. Low on carbs, for sure. Mmm.