“This is what I feed my dogs in the afternoon,” Kathy Lee Gifford declared scornfully on America’s ‘The Today Show,’ as she sniffed some beef jerky. It was January 2015 and the show’s skeptical anchor was discussing with author Esther Blum the premise of her new book titled, Cavewomen Don’t Get Fat: Ancient Secrets to Rapid Weight Loss. Americans, Blum asserted, needed to eat more healthily. Her solution was a diet familiar to their ancestors that relied heavily on meat. Beef jerky – thin strips of dried, raw meat, stripped of any excess fat – was central to her proposal.
Dried, dehydrated or smoked in large ovens at a low, controlled heat (usually less than 70 degrees centigrade) today’s high-tech product is a modern manifestation of something centuries-old. In the 16th Century the Spanish Conquistadores entering Peru were invited by the Aztecs to taste something they called ‘ch’arki.’ Meaning literally ‘dried meat’ in their native Quechan language, these were de-boned strips of meat cut from the carcass of native llama and alpaca. Divested of the excess fat (which won’t dry) the meat was then salted and dried in the sun, or smoked over a fire.
When the Spanish ventured north they discovered Native American tribes like The Cree were making their own subtle variation, ‘pemmican.’ The raw material they used was game species including buffalo, deer and moose; the meat was left to dry until it was hard and brittle, then crushed with stones into small pieces. Melted fat was then added to the mix, as were any available dried fruits such as cranberries.
It is not hard to fathom the appeal of what the Spanish called ‘charqui,’ and which settlers two hundred years later knew as jerky. It explains why it was a staple of slaves’ diets on the plantations of the American South. Jerky is rich in protein and residual fat. It is also rich in salt, added during the drying process to inhibit bacterial activity. The same effect is achieved in South African biltong using vinegar. For someone who is tired and dehydrated, chewing on a piece of jerky gives a concentrated energy and nutrient boost. He or she is also chewing on meat that takes up little space – perfect for packing in a saddlebag. Plus it is inherently stable because all the excess fat and moisture has been removed – ideal in the days before refrigeration. Well-made jerky, that one German traveller referred to as strips of cardboard, will last for years if stored in an airtight container in cool, dark conditions. It is no accident that jerky is a staple ration of soldiers and backpackers.
On 25th April 2002 South African Mark Shuttleworth blasted off in a Soyuz spacecraft heading for the International Space Station. Buried somewhere deep in the pockets of his spacesuit were a few packets of beef jerky. This would not have surprised NASA, who have been taking it seriously for the last twenty years. Astronauts live in a gravity-free environment and the food they eat must address some very specific challenges. There are physiological challenges to consider. Food must not merely be nutritious; it needs to taste good. As any airline knows, food on the ground changes taste and texture when eaten at altitude. This is accentuated in space. Food also needs to be straightforward to prepare, simple to eat and easy to digest.
In 21st Century America, jerky can be made from almost any meat, including duck and goose. It is available shredded, in packets or in tins. The military, in a little-known facility outside Boston, is developing a high-octane, caffeine-infused jerky for the troops. A commercial version is already available to ordinary folk with the catchy brand name ‘Perky Jerky.’