Here's the Beef
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.
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.
European settlers discovered that pemmican was an excellent way to preserve meat for cooking later, which they would do by boiling it in water or stews. As people started moving West from the East and South, including Mexico -- the word "jerky" comes from the Spanish charquí, which originally meant "to slash into strips" -- travelers snatched up dried meat and pemmican from trading posts to help stretch provisions across miles of hot, dusty trail. Cowboys, in particular, appreciated the meat's keeping qualities: Jerky was a more sustaining alternative to chewing tobacco, which the American Indian had also introduced to the newcomers. Both took the edge off long days in the saddle, when there was little to do but stare at the scenery -- including cows destined to turn into jerky -- and long for a good home-cooked meal.
Jerky can be made from nearly any part of an animal (and in the past, it was), but these days the choicest parts are the chuck, rib, loin and sirloin cuts; they're also the most expensive. Most jerky makers agree that the meat from the back of the animal -- the rump, round and shank -- isn't the stuff of truly great jerky, although many commercial products are made from those cuts. The majority of the jerky available at the grocery store is made from rendered meat, which is what you get after the animal has been butchered and tiny little scraps stuck to the bones fall off as the carcass is boiled down or pressure-cooked. Then the meat is added to "binder adhesives" with names like carboxyl methyl cellulose, and the whole mess is compressed into strips or chunks. Called "ground and formed" or "chopped and formed" meat, this type of jerky has been cooked so long that it needs a lot of added flavoring, and often many chemical preservatives, to make it palatable and keep it from going bad on a supermarket shelf.
Jerky has come a long way since berries or cherries were the only available seasonings: Different parts of the country now lay claim to certain styles, such as the spicy El Paso version that Brooke McKinlay carries, or pineapple-sweetened Hawaiian, and flavors like pepper, honey, teriyaki and garlic are regular offerings today. And beef isn't the only animal that's turned into jerky: Buffalo, ostrich, elk, venison, salmon, trout, turkey, antelope, caribou, rattlesnake and alligator are also available.
Dried meat is expensive -- anywhere from $12 a pound for beef to $48 a pound for buffalo -- but that's because it takes about four pounds of meat to make one pound of jerky, since twelve ounces of moisture are removed from a pound of meat in the drying process. That's what keeps jerky preserved: Without moisture, bacterial, fungal and other nasty enzymes can't react with the food. Adding the chemical salt compound sodium nitrite -- usually necessary only in beef jerky because of its higher content of bacteria such as E. coli -- further inhibits enzyme reactions. That's not the only safety measure imposed on jerky, though. In the wake of concerns over mad-cow disease, the Food and Drug Administration now bans the sale of jerky made from wild animals; only farm-raised deer and elk are permitted. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that all meat being dried in a dehydrator be heated to 160 degrees first, although meat that's dried through the smoking process naturally reaches that temperature.
The USDA also has an official position on how long jerky can be kept; according to its Meat and Poultry Hotline, commercially packaged jerky will last for twelve months, the homemade kind only one or two months.
But as McKinlay and other roadside salesmen know, jerky's usually gone within an hour of a customer driving away from their stands.
McKinlay didn't plan to make jerky her career. Raised in Castle Rock before her parents divorced and she moved to Florida, she came back to Colorado to study technical journalism at Colorado State University. She imagined that one day, she'd take a job in public relations or some other communications-related field.
But then the mountain bug bit, and she found herself working in restaurants in Summit County. Eventually she took a job with Vail Resorts, managing some of their eateries and putting in long hours. During a particularly stressful stretch, one of her employees told her about his second job, selling jerky to passersby at various passes and rest areas around the county. "Not long after that, I went on vacation for two weeks to Mexico," McKinlay recalls. "When I came back, I quit. Three days later I was up on Fremont Pass, selling jerky."
The hours outdoors, short workdays and high pay are the reasons McKinlay and other jerky sellers usually give to justify their unorthodox profession. And the people. "I love meeting people," McKinlay says. She admits to a love of jerky, too, even though her doctor once told her to lay off eating it every day because her iron count was far too high. "And you do meet all kinds of people. People who love jerky are a special breed. They might have different reasons for loving it, like they think it's healthy, or they're on the protein-only diet, or they love that it's such an Old West kind of thing. But the bottom line is, they have to have it. And they want stuff that's better than the crap you get in a Slim Jim or some other grocery-store product that's been around for who knows how long and has a ton of chemicals in it."
These days they can get it from dozens of savvy jerky sellers -- some legal, some not -- who park their tents and vans by the side of Colorado highways and byways, near the trademark, handwritten yellow and black signs that are a jerky fan's cue to pull over. "Fresh Jerky," they all say, which, of course, is a bit misleading, because any meat must be preserved in order for it to become jerky. "Yeah, but this is fresher than the grocery-store stuff, so we want to make that clear," explains McKinlay, whose company is called Climax Jerky, after the mine across the road. "Plus, we only sell jerky that's made in the West. A lot of companies make jerky these days, but the guy I get it from in Kremmling gets it from as close as possible, and I go over to Kremmling every week to pick up more. That way, there's a high turnover. You're not going to get that at the local food mart."
McKinlay's Kremmling jerky source, Bob Gillette, supplies many of this state's roadside sellers. And while much of his stock comes from manufacturers in Utah and Arizona, they're generally smaller outfits than those that produce the meat snacks sold in supermarkets.
While many jerky fans start out eating grocery-store Slim Jims -- the lowest form of jerky, made from such meat products as "mechanically separated chicken" -- true connoisseurs quickly figure out that moving up the jerky ladder, first to chopped-and-formed, then to natural-style, means a move up in flavor and texture.
"I love the taste of really good jerky," says Trina Wilkins, a frequent McKinlay customer as well as a member of the Jerky of the Month Club, an online company that provides monthly meat-snack samplers from all over the country. (Climax Jerky has a Web site, too.) "But the other important thing is the chewing, especially on road trips. I hike and bike all over the state, and I stop at every place I can to try jerky. There's Brooke, and there's the place on 285 near Conifer, and there's a guy up in Frisco, and there's the woman in Minturn. I'll pull over anytime, anyplace."
Wilkins's truck always has an open bag of jerky sitting in the otherwise spotless ashtray. "I used to smoke," she says. "Now I eat jerky. I always crack myself up, because I notice that I chew really hard and fast when I'm passing somebody, like going up through the foothills, and then I'll slow down my chewing once I'm past them. And I just crave jerky, any kind, when I'm driving. It must be a chemical thing in my brain."
In fact, chewing does increase serotonin levels, the brain chemical that regulates mood, according to recent research at Princeton University. "Repetitive motor activity increases the production of serotonin," professor Barry Jacobs reported. "People who repeatedly chew gum and perform other types of ritualistic acts may simply be self-medicating to overcome a serotonin deficit."
"Hey, I'd much rather eat jerky than take Prozac," Wilkins says. "The only bad thing is, eventually my jaw shuts down."
Like McKinlay, Larry Smithwick didn't set out to become a jerky vendor. He started in the restaurant business. Originally from Texas, Smithwick came to Colorado in 1984 when the real-estate market in his native state went bust; he'd heard that there were plenty of restaurants for lease here. "Me and my wife, Joy, wanted to live in the mountains, and we initially picked Basalt," he says. "But when we came up to buy a locale there, a man from Austin had come up and snatched our site. I just drove through Summit County and found a location in Dillon."
The spot was Mountain Barbecue, which specialized in Smithwick's favorite food: smoked meats. A few years later, he opened Smithwick's BBQ Smokehouse Restaurant on Main Street in Frisco. But by 1997, Smithwick decided to close both eateries and concentrate on his real passion: jerky. "We had been playing around with making our own jerky in the restaurant for a few years," he explains. "I wasn't sure how those stands did, money-wise, but I just thought, 'Heck, I'll go out and try it.' So I did."
First he tried it at the top of Loveland Pass. "But the Forest Service didn't have any sense of humor," he says. "They ticketed me and I left." Then he tried to test-market his jerky at seventy convenience stores around the state. "But the USDA didn't have any sense of humor," he says, chuckling. Now Smithwick sits by a tarp-wrapped black barrel smoker in the parking lot of Antler's in Frisco 120 days a year, smoking buffalo and beef jerky in a variety of flavors. (When the weather goes south, Smithwick's jerky is still available inside Antler's, as well as at the Buffalo Bar & Restaurant in Idaho Springs.)
Smithwick calls his meat "camp jerky." It's a thicker, chunkier style that became popular with hunters in the eighteenth century because they could hack the meat up more easily while they were out in the bush than tear it into strips. It's chewier and more dense than commercial jerky, and the flavors have a purer, meatier quality. Smithwick buys his meat from Colorado purveyors, and because he doesn't use any preservatives, his jerky is more perishable than most, good for weeks to months, "depending on the humidity you're in." He also tries to make it less salty than commercial brands. "I soak the meat in cold water to leach the salt out after I cure it," he explains. "The salt in it can raise your blood pressure." When the jerky's done, he bags it in Ziploc baggies and slaps on a Smoke Jerky Co. label, which includes an e-mail address in case a customer wants to get on Smithwick's mail-order list.
Then he sits back and waits for them to come.
And come they do, as many as a hundred people a day, evenly divided between "loyals and lookee-loos," Smithwick says, but buying enough jerky that he can earn in "the low six figures" each year. "I get 'em with the smoker being here, because that smell will literally pull them right off the highway. And jerky's a good traveling snack, because it'll fill you up pretty darn quick." He understands jerky's addictive qualities. "I'm always testing the batches, which I make every day, so I've always got some jerky in me," Smithwick adds. "But when I'm away from it for a week, look out. I get a hankerin' for it like you wouldn't believe. And that's when I'd drive just about anywhere to get me some jerky."
He pauses. "But mostly, around here, I think people come looking for jerky because it's one of the last pieces of the Old West we've got left," he concludes.
"I don't give a shit about the Old West," says Bryan Boynton. "I'm out here to make some money, not feed into some tourist's idea of pretending to be Buffalo Bill." The cowboy hat perched on his buzz-cut head and the Marlboro clenched between his fingers notwithstanding, the Chicago-born Boynton says he's not really into the Western thing: "I just wear this hat 'cause it's the best thing to keep the sun off my head."
On this early-fall day, Boynton has parked his white van on the shoulder of the road leading off I-70's Buffalo Bill exit. Because he doesn't pay taxes on his jerky, he has to move around a lot, and he's always avoiding the law.
The state prohibits commercial businesses from operating on public highway right-of-ways. "The guys who are going to be enforcing that are the county sheriff's departments," explains Colorado State Patrol technician Rob Marone. "There's a fine the first time, and we would definitely be looking to enforce any infractions. It's not just a police issue; it's a Department of Revenue and a Department of Transportation issue, too."
Legitimate vendors like Smithwick and McKinlay, who pay taxes and secure the property owners' permission to run businesses on their land, consider renegades like Boynton jerks. "Those guys had better watch out, because we'll turn them in the second we see them," says McKinlay, who has the okay of Phelps Dodge, owner of the nearby mine. "They ruin it for the rest of us."
Boynton will often muscle in on another seller's turf, setting up shop if the legitimate guy doesn't show up by noon on weekends. "That means I'm out there in some pretty lousy weather," he admits. "If those guys aren't at their regular spots, that's because it's raining or too windy."
Sometimes he buys his jerky from other stands and marks it up, and sometimes he gets it wholesale from a jerky seller he won't name, who charges him a buck or two more for it and pockets the profits. "But, hey, I'm making enough to make payments on this van and have a condo," Boynton says. "And the whole point here, really, is for me to snowboard through the winter and not have to work."
He jumps up when a small green Toyota from Minnesota makes the turn into the parking lot, drawn by the hand-painted "Jerky" sign. "Howdy," he says, faking a little bit of a drawl.
"Do you have any samples?" the tourist asks as she looks over his offerings. "Uh, no, ma'am, I'm sorry, not today," he says. "I haven't gotten my delivery yet, so I'm running low." She opens her wallet and hands over a twenty for a $15 four-ounce package of elk jerky. He grins, hands her back a fiver, and tells her to have a nice day.
"You bet," she says, and starts heading back to her car before turning back to admonish him, "And you're welcome, young man."
"Jesus Christ," Boynton shakes his head after she's driven off, but not before two more cars have pulled up to his van. "The shit I have to put up with."
Boynton doesn't know the half of it.
Monty Nuss does things the hard way. He not only sells jerky at his store, Monty Nuss Beef Jerky, located in Lone Tree's Heritage Hills shopping plaza, but he also makes it there.
Jerky is a second career for Nuss, who's been a popular photographer -- "I do mostly family stuff," he says -- in the Littleton area for decades. When he first started making jerky at home a decade ago, he offered it to family, friends and loyal photography customers. "You know how it goes," he says. "People start saying, 'Hey, you should market this stuff,' and I was foolish enough to believe them."
He started out in a small shop with a commercial kitchen at Arapahoe and South Broadway in Littleton; four years later, RTD knocked on the door and said it needed its lot back. But in the meantime, Nuss's business -- and well as his flavor line -- had been growing. "In the first few years, I just thought jerky was jerky was jerky," he says. "Then I started hearing about all of these different things you could do with it to give it more flavor, and customers just kept egging me on." Two years ago, Nuss found his current location, where you now can buy his freshly smoked beef jerky at $32 a pound, as well as margarita jelly, a locally made scone mix or a wooden carving of a dog smoking a cigar.
Nuss uses brisket from Montana for his jerky, selected for its lean qualities, according to Mike Martinez, Nuss's head smoker. "You lose less meat that way," Martinez explains as he and his assistant, Abel Montoya, cut the brisket by hand and then drop the thin slices into a large plastic bin filled with secret liquids and spices. "We only end up losing about 25 percent, which is way better than the 75 percent you usually lose when you're smoking." But first the meat spends the night marinating in a walk-in cooler; in the morning, it's spread out on a five-foot-tall metal unit with screens for shelves, where it sits for about an hour before the whole thing is rolled into a six-foot-tall Pro Smoker 'n Roaster to smoke for four hours.
When the meat comes out, it has a tender texture and one of seven flavors: Tenderfoot, a mild, traditional style, and the first flavor Nuss made; Kick Ass, with extra black pepper; Red Devil, with crushed red and black pepper; Salty Dog, with extra salt; Teriyaki; Red Hot Sweety, a combination of teriyaki and Red Devil; and Habanero, so hot the store keeps it in the back for customers in the know.
Unlike even legal roadside jerky sellers, who don't have to deal with the health department because their wares don't require refrigeration, Nuss's store is inspected regularly by the USDA.
"If there's no handling of raw materials, processing or packaging at the roadside places, and if the final product doesn't need to be refrigerated, then we don't need to be involved in what we call 'non-potentially hazardous food,'" explains Patti Klocker, assistant director for the consumer-protection division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "But if there is processing or packaging going on, then they need to have a license from the health department, and they need to be inspected routinely." When jerky's involved, the most important things her department looks for are sanitation, good storage practices, temperature control and getting the materials from approved sources, she explains.
According to Amber Caldwell, who runs the register at Monty Nuss Beef Jerky, a USDA inspector shows up every day to inspect the facility. "They're so adorable," she says. "These little inspection guys come in all serious in their white uniforms and their little clipboards. Can you imagine what they're like at home?"
But some customers are just as predictable. "I was sent in by this woman who comes here every day," a woman holding a cell phone tells Caldwell. "I need to get her on the phone to find out what it is exactly that she wants." Caldwell stops the woman before the call goes through. "I know who it is," she says. "It's the woman who gets five bucks' worth of Red Hot Sweety. Every day, that's what she gets. She never gets tired of it."
As the weather turns, the outdoor jerky season starts winding down.
McKinlay has been working every weekend day and holiday since March; she'll stay on Fremont Pass until sometime later this month, when the snow starts falling in earnest. Last year she earned enough from her jerky sales to quit bartending during the winters, so now she anticipates kicking back in the off-season, occasionally selling at holiday markets. She and her boyfriend just moved in together, so she plans to spend some time fixing up their house, too. "I might add concerts, though," she says. "Concerts are earlier in the summer, which is slower. September is the peak, because of the leaf-peepers. They all want elk, all of those out-of-towners."
One out-of-towner was an exception. "This guy who looks really familiar pulls over one day with another guy, and they're looking at all the jerky, and I'm trying to remember who he is," McKinlay remembers. "He buys a big package of honey-glazed beef, and he's really nice, but the other guy got it that I obviously didn't know who it was. He says, 'By the way, that's Robert Duvall.' How cool is that? That's the only celebrity I think I've had, though. Most of them are just regular folks who like jerky."
Today McKinlay is at the Evergreen farmers' market, in the Wal-Mart parking lot, a weekly gig that gives her hope for the future of her chosen career. "You know, I can't see hanging out at Fremont Pass forever, because that's getting old in terms of the weather and the commitment," she says. "But I could see doing these markets, where there's a kind of microculture of people who help each other out and look out for each other. Yeah, I could do markets forever."
A little boy named Blake suddenly runs up to her stand. "Hi. I want some jerky, please," he says, pawing through the packages. "The elk is my favorite." Two young girls from the Hatch chile booth across the way hurry over, too, anticipating McKinlay's generosity. And she comes through: She's a sucker for kids who like jerky, and the samples fly free and fast.
Blake's mom arrives, laden down with other goodies from the market. "Blake, honey, which one do you want this time?" she asks. McKinlay greets her warmly. "It's been a while since you've been by," she says, and the woman sighs. "I know, I know. The jerky was lasting for a month at a time there for a while, but all of a sudden, we just went through it really fast. I think I'm going to have to start buying it every two weeks."
She plunks down $70 for Blake's choices. "It's the only meat I can get him to eat," she explains.
As her satisfied customers wonder off, McKinlay smiles. "That's how it goes," she says. "They're getting the jerky in their veins."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.