Crazy For Jerky: An Ancient Trail Food Finds New Fans | KUOW News and Information

Crazy For Jerky: An Ancient Trail Food Finds New Fans

Feb 1, 2016
Originally published on March 29, 2016 12:58 pm

Over the holidays, my family drove across the beautiful voids of West Texas and New Mexico and stopped at a lot of convenience stores for gas. Every time I went inside to use the loo, I saw them: giant displays of dried meat in every size and flavor.

I remember jerky almost ripping my molars out on car trips when I was kid. It's been around forever. So why the comeback?

Americans have gone jerky crazy. We spent $2.8 billion on dried meat snacks last year, according to the market research firm IRI. It turns out jerky is the perfect food for the moment. Millennials are snacking more than ever, and people want more protein in their diet, according to the National Snack Food Association.

"It's a good all-around snack. It's ready to go. Good protein. Tastes good. You can't go wrong with it," says Chris Hart, a beer marketer from Fort Worth. I caught him at the huge jerky bar at Buc-ee's, a convenience store in New Braunfels, Texas, that boasts 37 kinds of jerky, such as bohemian garlic, cherry maple and ghost pepper.

"If it'll hold still long enough, we'll make jerky out of it," says store manager Dan Parkinson.

For thousands of years, human civilizations have cured, dried and salted animal muscle. In other words, jerky was paleo before paleo was cool. And today it has re-surged for the same reasons: It's lightweight, high in nutrition and can travel long distances without spoiling.

Jerky sales grew 12.5 percent last year, according to IRI. The big daddy of the industry is Jack Links, of Minong, Wis. Spokeswoman Kaila Fiske says the company claims more than half of all U.S. jerky sales. But there are hundreds of mom-and-pop jerky makers across the country, with more starting up all the time.

The Whittington family has been drying and smoking lean beef — rounds cut from inside the calf's hind quarter — and seasoning it with salt and pepper for 53 years in Johnson City, Texas. Lately, with jerky sales booming, the family's mesquite-fired smokehouses are in high demand with other commercial jerky makers.

"Everybody's trying to get in on it because it's such a big thing now," says owner Sam Whittington. "So they come to us. We're making all we can for other people right now. Every week I'm getting three or four requests for more."

Whittington's makes traditional jerky with the basic ingredients: meat, salt, spices and smoke. But with the exploding popularity of meat snacks, new artisanal producers are updating this ancient trail food.

A company called Epic, founded in Austin, is making all-natural, organic meat bars filled with nuts and dried fruit.

"We're big jerky people here," says co-founder Taylor Collins, "but there hasn't been a whole lot of innovation in jerky in a long time, maybe even hundreds of years. So we wanted to do something a little bit unique and different."

Collins is a long-haired, formerly vegan physical therapist who started the company with his wife, Katie. Among other novel flavors, Epic bars come in bison bacon cranberry, beef habanero cherry and lamb currant mint. Next year, Epic is introducing jerky made with salmon, venison and wild boar.

"There's been a shift in food. People for a long time were afraid of eating meat. But since then people are understanding that healthy animal protein is nourishing, and we evolved as a species consuming it," he says.

As proof of jerky's rising star, earlier this month the food behemoth General Mills acquired the Austin hippie meat bar. Epic will operate under General Mills' natural foods brand Annie's, and it will have competition. Today, at least eight other meat-based energy bars are crowding the market.

The protein notwithstanding, jerky is healthy only up to a point. As Marla Camp, publisher of Edible Austin magazine, points out, some beef jerky products contain a lot of sodium, sugar and additives like MSG and liquid smoke.

But it can also be a pretty simple food, says Whittington. "As we say in the jerky business, it's pretty cut and dry. There's not a whole lot to it."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next time you pull over for gas, take a good look at your surroundings. That's what NPR's John Burnett did on a decent recent drive across Texas and New Mexico, and he spotted something again and again.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: I noticed that all the convenience stores I went in had these giant displays of jerky, those long sticks of dried beef in plastic packages.

CORNISH: Jerky, as it turns out, is one of the fastest-growing snack foods. Americans spent nearly $3 billion on dried meat snacks last year, according to the market research firm IRI. John set out to learn why.

BURNETT: I'm here at Buc-ee's, which calls itself the largest convenience store in the world. It's on Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin. In the well-worn everything's bigger in Texas category, Buc-ee's 120 fuel pumps, 80 soft drink dispensers and 37 different kinds of jerky.

DAN PARKINSON: We've got bohemian garlic, brown sugar, cherry maple, ghost pepper.

BURNETT: Standing in front of the jerky bar is store manager Dan Parkinson, whose motto is -

PARKINSON: Well, if it'll hold still long enough, we'll make jerky out of it.

BURNETT: For thousands of years, human civilizations have cured, dried and salted animal muscle. It's lightweight, high in nutrition, and it can travel long distances without spoiling. Jerky was paleo before paleo was cool. Chris Hart, a beer marketer from Fort Worth, stopped by Buc-ee's for some bohemian garlic jerky on his way home.

CHRIS HART: A good all-around snack to have. It's always ready to go. Good protein, tastes good. You can't go wrong with it.

BURNETT: The National Snack Food Association reports that consumers in general want more protein in their diets, and millennials in particular are snacking all day instead of big sit-down meals. It's no wonder jerky sales jumped 12-and-a-half percent last year. The big daddy of the industry is Jack Links of Minong, Wisc. They claim more than half of all U.S. jerky sales. But there are hundreds of mom-and-pop jerky makers across the country, with more starting up all the time.

SAM WHITTINGTON: I'm Sam Whittington, and I'm the owner here at Whittington's Jerky in Johnson City, Texas.

BURNETT: His father began drying and smoking lean meat seasoned with salt and pepper 53 years ago in this hill country town west of Austin. Lately, with the jerky boom, Whittington's mesquite-fired smokehouses are in high demand with other commercial jerky makers.

WHITTINGTON: Everybody's trying to get in on it 'cause it's such a big thing now. So they come to us. Well, we're make it all we can for other people right now. And every week, I'm getting three or four requests for more.

BURNETT: Sam Whittington makes traditional jerky. Basic ingredients? Meat, salt, spices and smoke.

WHITTINGTON: As we say in the jerky business, it's pretty cut-and-dry. (Laughter) That's about it. There's not a whole lot to it.

BURNETT: With the exploding popularity of meat snacks, new producers are updating the ancient trail food. A company called Epic, founded in Austin, is making all-natural, organic meat bars filled with nuts and dried fruit.

TAYLOR COLLINS: I mean, we're big jerky people here, but hasn't been a whole lot of innovation in jerky in quite a long time, maybe even hundreds of years. And so we wanted to do something a little bit unique and different.

BURNETT: Taylor Collins is a former vegan physical therapist who started the company with his wife, Katie. You'll find Epic bars in Whole Foods in flavors such as bison bacon cranberry, beef habanero cherry and lamb currant mint. Next year, they're introducing salmon, venison and wild boar jerky.

COLLINS: There's been a shift in food. People for a long time were afraid of eating meat. But since then, you know, like, people are understanding, like, healthy animal protein is actually very nourishing, and we evolved as a species consuming it.

BURNETT: As proof of jerky's rising star, earlier this month the food behemoth, General Mills, acquired the Austin hippie meat bar. It will operate under the Annie's natural foods brand, and it'll have competition. At least eight other meat-based energy bars are crowding the market. Nutritionists caution jerky can be high in sodium and contain additives like MSG, artificial flavors and unpronounceable ingredients. Best advice? Read the label and keep it simple. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.