Beef jerky: Popular with ancient explorers is a hit with U.S. soldiers

Beef jerky, a leathery-looking snack-food item often displayed at convenience store checkout counters, looks like it’s been around since pioneer days because it actually has been. The preserved meat has a long shelf life and an even longer history as nourishment for pathfinders on long journeys.

North and South American natives and the Spanish each had unique versions of preserved seasoned meat that they carried with them when setting out to discover new lands. The name, ‘jerky’, is an adaptation of “cha’arki”, a South American tribal word dating back to the mid 1500’s meaning ‘to burn meat.’ Then, freshly caught game was heavily salted, seasoned with whatever local spices were available, and laid out or hung in the sun to dry. After drying, it sometimes was stored under the saddle on a horse so the meat would be tenderized as the rider bumped along.

The rugged chews are enjoyed mainly as a grab-and-go snack these days; but palatable, adaptable and portable cured meat is still the sustenance of trailblazers even in the new millenium. American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts both counted on beef jerky as a staple in their diets while traveling and living in space.

Medford business sends jerky to Iraq

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Fittingly, a South Jersey couple’s fledgling beef jerky business was born out of supplying homemade jerky to American troops fighting in Iraq. “I was inspired to make jerky when my son-in-law was deployed to Iraq in 2009,” Jim Ewen, founder of Jim’s Jarhead Jerky, said. “I have an interest in cooking and experimenting in the kitchen so when a friend told me he was making jerky I decided to try and put my own twist to it.” After futzing around with different techniques and seasonings, Ewen settled on a taste-bud tantalizing teriyaki-hot pepper blend.

He tucked a few bags of his homemade creation into a care package destined for Iraq. It was an immediate hit with the soldiers. “I was asked to send all I could,” Ewen said. So, he did. Jim and his wife Joette started a round-the-clock jerky making business in their Medford, N.J. kitchen.

Dehydrating beef takes 10 hours

When making the jerky at home, Ewen started with fresh, hand-trimmed beef brisket, sliced thin. He steeped the slices in his proprietary teriyaki marinade for 24-36 hours and then popped the well-seasoned beef into a food dehydrator for an additional 10 hours. He explains that the dehydrator’s drying temperature is hot enough to evaporate moisture from the meat before bacteria have a chance to grow. The jerky then dries quickly before it can spoil. After drying, an additional layer of flavor was added and the finished product was packaged in airtight plastic bags.

“It was a continual process,” Ewen said. “We did ten pounds at a time. Two dehydrators were running 24 hours a day. I would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to make another batch.” The couple shipped hundreds of pounds of the popular beef jerky to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our jerky looks like a piece of steak and eats like filet mignon,” Ewen said.

Jim’s Jarhead Jerky was so well received that the Ewens took a big leap and contracted with a USDA approved manufacturing facility to produce and package the jerky to the Ewen’s specifications. They both work full time jobs during the week and sell Jim’s Jarhead Jerky on weekends at farm markets, fairs and festivals in South Jersey. They added a shredded variety as well, to use as a topping on pizza or in other recipes. The product can be purchased through their website and in the select stores.

It takes more than three pounds of beef to make one pound of jerky. “Good jerky is expensive to make,” Joette Ewan said. “Starting a business is a long journey but we are enjoying the ride. We really want to become successful so we can continue to donate to the troops,” she said. “We never planned to start a business but it grew legs and just took off,”

The Ewans have tapped into a growing snack food category. According to the Snack Food Association, unit sales of beef jerky increased nearly nine percent from 2010 to 2011. Jerky is low in fat and high in protein so has been embraced by enthusiasts of a low-carbohydrate lifestyle. Campers and hikers appreciate the product’s nutritional value and portability. Jerky aficionados have even created entire blogs devoted to reviews of brands and original recipes. Although beef jerky is the most common, more adventurous eaters can find jerky made from wild game including venison, elk, caribou, moose and even kangaroo meat.

Jersey Bites is a collaborative website of food writers in New Jersey. They write about restaurants, recipes, food news, food products, events, hunger relief programs, and everything else that tickles their taste buds.

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