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Here's the Beef

We brake for jerky, America's fastest-growing snack food.

The wind is just starting to die down on Fremont Pass when a faded-blue '71 long-bed Ford swerves onto the gravel. "Thank God," says the driver, a wiry little man dressed in jeans the color of his truck. "I was worried it would be too windy for you today. I saw you last weekend when I was hauling some wood, and then today I was thinking about you as I drove, hoping you'd be here. I sure am glad to see you."

Brooke McKinlay is used to this kind of greeting, and not because she's a 31-year-old looker with the kind of open face that makes people feel instantly at ease. No, over the past three years this Colorado native has discovered that she has something people desperately want, even on the top of Fremont Pass, facing the desolate remains of the Climax Molybdenum Mine.

Jerky.

The man rubs his hands together and looks over the wares McKinlay has carefully laid out on a red-and-white checkered tablecloth under her tent. "You can try anything you'd like before you buy," she says helpfully, and the man's eyes light up. "How about that one?" he asks, and she takes a pair of metal tongs and carefully extracts a chunk the size of a marble from a plastic container. He puts it in his mouth and chews. Slowly, thoughtfully. "Ohhhh, that's good," he says. "I'll take some of that."

As McKinlay reaches beneath the table and into a large plastic container that holds many small, vacuum-packed bags, three more vehicles pull up and empty their contents: an impeccable woman in business casual, a weary-looking family of four, a bored-looking dude wearing denim shorts that hang nearly to his high-top sneakers.

McKinlay has them where she wants them. "This is the best jerky you're going to find," says the quintessential saleswoman, dipping her tongs into another container and handing out samples to the mesmerized group gathered around her. "These are all handmade, all natural." They shove the nuggets into their mouths as one and commence chewing, the kind of chewing that starts out dry but turns into a glorious wet mass of salt and meat and spices. And then they start ordering, slowly at first, but getting bolder as the pile of vacuum-packed bags grows.

The wiry little man pays for his jerky and heads back to his truck, waving as he pulls out onto Highway 24 and heads toward Leadville. After plunking down money for their own purchases, the rest of the customers head out, too, leaving McKinlay to batten down the hatches of her tarp-covered booth as the wind again begins howling fiercely through the pass.

"That's how it goes," she says. "One car, and then four, and then none. You just never know what kind of day it's going to be. But I always know someone will stop. They can't help it. Jerky just gets in your blood, and then it's there for life."


Nationally, meat is the fastest-growing snack category. According to the Snack Food Association, the meat-snacks category, which includes all types of dried meats, grew 28.5 percent from 1999 to 2000, a surge that's expected to be even larger once the results for 2000-'01 are in. "Americans' on-the-go lifestyle creates a desire for convenience. That desire is the driving force behind the increases we've seen," says Jim McCarthy, SFA president. "If anything, we're just going to see that desire continue to increase."

"Meat snacks are finally getting their due in terms of health and nutrition," adds Ann Wilkes, SFA spokeswoman. "The meat-snack industry has also gotten better at targeting their audience, and by using the Internet to their advantage, has attracted a larger group who would normally only be grabbing a package of Slim Jims at the convenience store. Now consumers can access a whole world of meat products from all over, whereas previously they were limited to what they found locally."

Jerky didn't start with Slim Jims, though. Dried meat has been around for tens of thousands of years, with the first written references dating to ancient Egypt. But many food historians think man started drying meat as early as Homo sapiens emerged from Neanderthal man, about 38,000 B.C. The discovery of fire probably enhanced the snack's desirability, because hanging meat in smoke made it dry more quickly and gave it a better flavor; enclosing the smoke to make the meat more tender and then salting it to improve flavor came many centuries later. Still, by the time the first European settlers dropped their heavy feet on North American soil, Eskimos had long been making whale jerky; Africans enjoyed biltong, a thinner, cured type of jerky more reminiscent of prosciutto; and Native Americans had pemmican (from the Cree word pimikan), usually dried buffalo, deer or elk that had been cut into thin slices, dried in the sun or over a fire, pounded with stones and mixed with the animal's fat to preserve it even more, and maybe some berries added for flavor. The natives would store the meat for long winters, when animals were hard to come by, and take it on long journeys. Most tribes made two kinds of pemmican: one hard and longer-lasting, the other an almost buttery, tender type that turned soft when chewed.

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