Here's the Beef

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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."

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner