Abbreviated History (if You’re Pressed for Time)
Jerky harkens back to the Native American tribes of North and South America. The word “jerky” comes to English by means of the Quechuan word meaning “dried meat.” [Quechuan is a minority language spoken today in several of the countries of South America.]
The American Indians produced dried meat for preservation, as their nomadic lifestyle meant scarcity of access to food supplies. They did not have refrigeration in those days, so the best way to preserve the food was to dry it out using salt and other spices and take it with them on the move.
Fancy for the Europeans that when they discovered the New World, they also met with this wondrous and unique food.
For much of the same concerns that faced the Native Americans, the European settlers quickly adopted jerky-like meat into their dietary habits, especially when going off on long journeys into the unknown.
Jerky also reached their home continent, and the Europeans continued adjusting the recipes, adding spices and flavorings to improve its taste.
And so jerky continued to grow and remains growing to this very day. Jerky recipes are as varied as the people who consume the dried meat and as flavorful as the history is rich.
Longer History (but Still a Quick Read)
The origins of beef jerky might surprise some folks.
Bison Jerky began as a staple of the Native American diet. In fact, the word “jerky” is a loanword from the Quechuan language spoken by a tribe of the Incan people in ancient South America. Their term “ch’arki” translates into either “dried meat” or “burning meat.”
(Author’s note: Bison and Buffalo are often used interchangeably, although they’re semantically different terms. Bison are North American Buffalo as opposed to Buffalo from other continents.)
The word “chaqui” was quickly adapted into the vernacular of the Spanish Conquistadors. With several dialectical changes through Quechuan, Spanish, and English, the word “jerky” was born.
Although we know that jerky comes from the Native Americans, there is some debate as to how early it became a part of their diet. Some estimations point to buffalo jerky being consumed for thousands of years by various tribes while others claim it was much more recent, starting with the Quechua people in the 1500s.
The first recorded usage of the word “jerky” came in John Smith’s Map of Virginia made in 1612. Smith wrote: “as drie as their jerkin beefe in the West Indies.”
Regardless of its actual date of conception, jerky was popular among the Native Americans because it served as a portable source of nutrition. Any meat can be made into a jerky and the process allows the meat to be stored and carried for extended periods. This is a major benefit to hunters on long journeys and nomadic people in general.
The Quechua people made their jerky from the llamas and alpaca. The Native tribes of North America used their local animals: deer, elk, and of course, bison.
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How Native Americans Made Jerky
Irrespective of tribe origin or the meat source, the process of making jerky was the same. The meat was removed of its bones and fat, cut into thin slices, and covered in salt, before being smoked over a fire or dried in the sun.
A popular related dish among the tribes of the Cree American Indians was called “pemmican.” It involved a type of jerky from deer, elk, or buffalo that was mixed with the fat and protein from the animal and various ingredients for seasoning, normally dried fruit, such as berries, that had been crushed.
After the jerky or pemmican was made, the American Indians carried them in rawhide pouches for later consumption.
Europeans in the New World were immediately impressed by this food source and started learning the intricacies of the process from the Natives. The tribes taught the settlers how to prepare the meat by cutting it into long strips. They also shared with their new European country-mates various recipes out of an assortment of spices and seasonings.
Settlers Adopted Jerky from Native Americans
It did not take long for jerky to be adopted into the settler diet, with the new Americans soon preparing and cooking their own jerky from the knowledge they obtained from the Native wisdom. It quickly became a popular snack and portable meal among those who migrated to the New World.
The popularity of jerky reached a climax during the “Manifest Destiny” days of Americans reaching new levels of exploration into the Western frontier. Much like the Native American people who lent their knowledge to the American settlers, the explorers of the unknown valued jerky as an invaluable source of food on long journeys.
As with any exploration into the unknown, the Americans seeking to reach the heights of their new continent of dwelling understood that they could not rely on their ability to find fresh food sources along with their journey. They brought jerky of various meats, including that made from turkey and goose meat, on their travels. In fact, jerky was so well sought that exploration parties made sure that they had skilled jerky makers in their group in the event that they scored a big game and intended to save the meat for later.
Jerky remained a popular snack throughout the early days of America. Then, the product was quickly snatched up by American industries during the Industrial Revolution.
Packaged food products of all types were coming into fashion as new industrial techniques made storage easier. Jerky was no exception. Companies soon began producing large amounts of jerky to sell to the American people as a whole.
Although the number of specialized jerky makers has since dwindled as the process became simplified and shifted to factory production, the number of jerky eaters and enthusiasts boomed like never before. Today, millions of people across the globe consume jerky of all types on a regular basis in a relatively unknown homage to the Native American people who taught the European settlers so much of what constitutes their daily activities today.
Beef is the meat of choice in most American and European kitchens. As such, beef jerky is much more appealable than say, jerky made from llama or buffalo meat. That said, today’s jerky products have a great variety of flavors due to the added seasonings and continual improvements on the tried and true recipe.
“Drying Meat” a Dated Practice
Although our jerky traces its lineage back to the Quechuan ch’arki, the process of drying meat for storage is an ancient technique traced to many major past civilizations.
The most prolific account of dried meat comes the way of the Ancient Egyptians. Archeologists discovered remnants of preserved food upon their excavation of Egyptian tombs, proving that the process was an important part of their culture and dietary habits. In fact, much of the recovered food was relatively undamaged, displaying their prowess for mummifying more than people.
Jerky’s history also has ties to the American military, with beef jerky added to the updated Reserve Ration in the post-World War 1 days. Today, the military is working on methods of infusing caffeine into the soldiers’ beef jerky ration, adding a boost of energy to the already protein-heavy food.
This high protein content is partly why beef jerky remains a popular snack today. We no longer have the concerns of past peoples about the availability of meat products with supermarkets everywhere and freezers in our kitchen. However, beyond the great and unique taste, jerky enthusiasts prefer the snack in the hopes of a quick and easy protein intake.
Who could have imagined just how important the role of beef jerky was to early settlers and the Native Americans alike?
Jerky, particularly Beef Jerky, is a delicious, high protein food source with a rich history that originated from contact by European settlers with the Native Americans of North and South America.
So what’s your favorite jerky? And what’d you find most interesting about this article?
"You might be a redneck if you think that beef jerky and moon pies are two of the major food groups."
-- Jeff Foxworthy