The incomplete but interesting history of jerky
Drying meat and fruit is one of the oldest methods of preservation known to humankind. What was probably an accidental discovery allowed humans to both store food for long periods of time, as well as having an easily carried nutritionally dense source of nutrition to take with them on journeys. Jerky is both flavorful and compact and almost any meat (and many other foods) can be made into jerky.
No one knows the true origins of dried meat (jerky) however it is assumed that early humans found that dried meat lasted a great deal longer than fresh meat, and was not subject to the decay and insect infestation that plagued the storage of fresh meat. While the dawn of jerky is mysterious we have evidence that it was being produced en masse thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt and notably in the mid part of the last millennia. The word ‘jerky’ comes from the Native (South) American Quechua term “ch’arki” (which means “dried meat”), and was well received in Europe by the Spanish in the 1500’s when it was introduced during the early conquest of the Americas. Pemmican, a food made of dried meat, berries, and fat, is a variation of jerky made by Native (North) Americans as well, and was also greatly valued by explorers of the New World. Jerky’s popularity was rekindled during the expansion into North America where it was prized as a valuable source of nutrition by traders and explorers as they traveled areas without ready access to fresh supplies. Its light weight and longevity made it a superior food source as the world was tamed and settled.
Jerky making is now done in carefully controlled environments with strict attention to the process due to modern sanitary requirements. Jerky is both mass produced and crafted by artisans who create jerky products that exploit the creative process. It is no longer hanging a slab of meat on a line. High quality jerky products are readily available to consumers, as well as the simple ingredients required to make jerky at home. Making jerky is a surprisingly simple process, however more sophisticated procedures will produce more dramatic results, as well as highlighting the inherent complexities of the source meat, the flavorings (the marinade), and the curing process.