SOME JERKY HISTORY
The word jerky comes from the Quechua language of the Incas, who called their dried meat “charqui.” But they were hardly the first people to make it.
Neither were Homo sapiens, we can deduce. Homo erectus emerged 1.5 million years ago, and evidence found five years ago in a South African cave suggests Homo erectus that built campfires.
The remains of animal bones and plant ash could be dated to a million years ago. [source]
By the time Homo sapiens emerged, 195,000 years ago, man had been enjoying barbecue, and by extension jerky, for some time.
Drying food is one of the first three food preservation techniques, along with salting and, in northern climes, packing with snow in ice caves or cellars.
Meat dried over a smoky fire is protected from egg-laying insects and multiplying bacteria (they need moisture to live). Cutting it into thin strips makes it easier to chew.
All the fat is trimmed from the meat because fat doesn’t dry. The dried meat could (and can) then be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration.
While the prehistoric method of drying the meat was used by other ancient peoples, it was not known in Europe.
The first visitors to the New World found Native Americans making jerky† from the meat of any animal they hunted (that which wasn’t consumed immediately).
In addition to helping early colonists stave off starvation, later pioneers who headed west quickly learned to make jerky. It was easy to transport, and was an important, high-protein addition to their diet.
The meat for jerky could be anything from buffalo to whale. Today jerky can be found in proteins as common as turkey, tuna and salmon, to exotics such as alligator and ostrich.
Today’s jerky eaters have the luxury of enjoying it as a snack rather than a necessity. We also have the pleasure of using tender cuts of meat marinated in a variety of spices, salt and/or sugar—seasonings that were not available to most ancients jerky-makers.
Modern jerky is dried in low-heat smokers, as opposed to the ancient technique of hanging strips of meat racks to dry in the hot sun. (The campfire could hold only so much.)
If your only experience with jerky has been dry and tasteless jerky, you deserve some of the good stuff.
*Some brands or flavors within brands may use soy sauce or other glutinous ingredient in the marinade.
†The pemmican you may have read about in tales of early America was dried meat mixed with dried berries and rendered animal fat. It was invented by Native Americans and used extensively by immigrants in the fur trade. Many years later, it served as a high-calorie food for Arctic and Antarctic explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen.