The History of Beef Jerky

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The next time you walk past that lowly package of beef jerky, you may be walking past a food that has graced the table of fabled Incan kings and was a key to the opening of the Wild West. While it may not look like much to you all brown and twisty in its plastic bag, jerky has a fairly long and interesting history.

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I am guessing that like most folks, you have never given it a second thought to wonder where the idea for this food and its name came from. It turns out that it has a history that is firmly tied to the North American continent and is quite exotic when you stop to think about it. It all began a little over 500 years ago, high in the Andes.

Native Food for the Road

The Incas were a very successful empire that was at its height around the 1500s in South America in an area now called Peru. They built a great empire that stretched across the Andes and connected the cities they built up in these mountains with great roadways. The distances between these cities was far and when travelling in these kinds of heights you need to have plenty of red blood cells running to oxygenate your blood. This is why a high protein and very travelable food like jerky was created. The Incas called it “Ch’arki” which we tend to pronounce as jerky.

The word literally means dried meat in their language and was used a great deal throughout the land. Anyone who travelled at all in the Incan Empire probably carried alpaca jerky with them on the road. It should come as no surprise that when the Spanish showed up, they discovered this very handy and portable food and copied it. Well, after killing off as many of the Incans as they could, of course.

Pemmican and Native Americans

The next time that Europeans ran into this food was when they were busy killing and conquering the Native American tribes in North America. In this part of the world the native people would take the meat from deer, moose or beaver and soak it in berry juice before drying it. They called this pemmican and the name still refers to dried meat that has been infused with berry juice before being dried.

They would carry this pemmican with them throughout the land and when early explorers travelled with them, they found the dried meat delicious and easy to make. They could store it and travel with it no matter where they were. As pioneers and early settlers moved across the land, they brought with them this recipe for dried meat. It was not only good for trappers and fur traders who were constantly on the move, but also for helping settlers have some kind of meat in the long winters when game could be scarce.

Today’s Beef Jerky

Today we mostly think of campers and hikers as the people who are most likely to be buying some kind of beef jerky. You could probably add survivalists to that list, though I am thinking they are more likely to be making it themselves and storing it in their hidden bunkers in case of nuclear explosions or other disasters. But whatever your reason for grabbing a hunk of tasty beef jerky, just remember, the Incas were there first.