The Rich and Flavorful History of Jerky
People who study the rich and flavorful history of jerky quickly discover stories of innovation and exploration, conquest, and war. It is a far more dramatic tale than most people realize when they bite into their favorite meat snack. In this article, you will uncover the real story of what it took to make jerky what it is today. You will gain a greater appreciation for the Native Americans who developed it, the Spaniards who popularized it worldwide, and the people who still make this delicious food today.
Discovered by the Spanish
In the 1500s, Spaniards traveling to the New World came in contact with South American tribes that introduced them to all manner of foods, cultural artifacts, and tools. The Quechua tribe introduced the Spanish Conquistadors to a new process of curing meats so they could be saved for later.
It’s important to note that the Quechua didn’t invent jerky—they were the first people observed making the food, which the Spaniards quickly became interested in. The tribe got the meat from Alpacas.
Where Jerky Gets Its Name
If the word “jerky” sounds a bit odd to you, that’s because it isn’t strictly an English word. The Quechua called their meat process “ch’arki,” which literally means “to burn (meat).”
The Conquistadors called the meat charqui. Over time, this word has been corrupted into the term “jerky” we know today. Next time you enjoy a nice jerky snack, think about the history of its name and ask yourself if it would taste different had its name never been changed.
Soon after learning the recipe from the Quechua, the Spanish were making more dried meats than any group in America ever had before. In the decades of battles and wars that followed, this gave them a significant advantage. Feeding an army is one of the most difficult tasks in war. With a reliable recipe for fast, long-lasting meat, the Spanish learned how to maintain their access to protein.
As the Spanish moved to North America, they brought the charqui along with them. They quickly realized North Americans were making the exact same food. The Spanish mentioned their charqui to the North American natives, who had a completely different accent from the people down south. When they spoke the word, charqui became jerky.
Modern beef jerky is the outcome of two major processes. The Spanish Conquistadors discovered the first, and the second is the results of pemmican. The pemmican approach was used by North American tribes and involved a concentrated mixture of fruits and meats to create a balanced flavor profile. Because of its rich taste, pemmican became the popular method for making jerky in North America.
The basics of both techniques remained the same. First, an animal was hunted, and its meat had to be lean. In South America, that meant alpacas or llamas; in the North, buffalo, elk, or deer were common options. After deboning and defatting the meat, it would get sliced, pounded, and then rubbed with salt. This process is nowhere near as simple as it sounds, and it took the Spanish a long time to make jerky nutritional and beneficial.
Why Beef Jerky Became Popular
An exploration into the rich and flavorful history of jerky would be incomplete without some mention of its rise in popularity during the 16th century. The Spanish Conquistadors produced a low-fat, high-protein food that provided enough energy for their journeys and conquests in America. Since it would not spoil, the Spanish could depend on jerky to keep them well-fed even when they were faced with climates that made hunting difficult or impossible.
Jerky in the New World
The term “jerky” appeared for the first time on a document in the 1600s. Explorers, merchants, and reach traders all jumped to purchase the highly-valued, nutritional food. Its popularity exploded throughout this period. This was the time when we developed the current methods for producing jerky. People also started to add spices to the meat, which only made it more flavorful—and even more popular.
Jerky in the 19th and 20th Centuries
In the 1800s, cowboys carried jerky or salted meat in their packs as they moved from pasture to pasture. While they were working long hours, it made an excellent snack. Jerky began to develop a reputation as a pleasure food. Since it was now catered more to consumers than soldiers, companies in the 1800s saw an opportunity in having jerky mass-produced.
In the 19th century, jerky became widely popular, and a few of the largest names in the industry took staked their claim on it. Jerky also proved itself incredibly helpful during both World Wars as a necessary ration for American troops.
How We Eat Jerky Today
Although we no longer eat jerky as sustenance during wartime, the use of it in the modern era is not entirely removed from its usage in the past. Lots of people still love eating beef jerky as they travel. It is one of the most popular road trip snacks for people of all ages. It’s also wonderful to bring on camping trips.
We also munch on jerky for exercise purposes, much like how Native Americans benefited from its high protein content. Maybe our eating habits are not exactly the same as back then, but nevertheless, it’d be a mistake to think that we are completely disconnected from our past.
The history of jerky is one of conquest and travel, danger, and innovation. It took hundreds of years for the ch’arki created by the Quechua to be transformed into the jerky strips that we love eating today. In a world where food science is constantly changing and improving, who knows what jerky will look like hundreds of years from now? In the meantime, you can enjoy delicious hand-crafted jerky at Lee’s Market Jerky.