Here's the Beef

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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."

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner