Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jerky: misunderstood food or man's best friend? Or both.

Can a movie change the way you eat?  For the better part of 25 years, the answer for me was yes.

Dial the clock back to 1983, when one of the all time great cinematic achievements made its way onto screens across the United States.  That movie, of course, was Trading Places.  My favorite scene (if I was forced to choose) was the one in which Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Akroyd), Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis -- looking great I might add) and Coleman (Denholm Elliott) are all dressed in disguise on the New Years Eve train, attempting to recover the orange juice crop report from the dreaded Clarence Beaks (the amazing Paul Gleason).

Billy Ray, disguised as Naga Eboko in African garb, says hello to Coleman, disguised as a priest:

Billy Ray/Eboko:  "Beef Jerky?"

Coleman/Priest:  "No son, it gives me wind, something terrible."  

These lines were indelibly etched in my mind for the next quarter of a century.  Beef jerky causes uncontrollable flatulence.  How could they make such a thing up, even in a movie?  It must be true.  For 25 years, I couldn't look at a Slim Jim without grimacing.

Two years ago, I gave myself a long hard look in the mirror.  I asked the wrenching question that I had been avoiding for so many years.  Was I a food bigot?  Was I willing to assume cheap, tawdry stereotypes foisted on my simple mind by Hollywood?  Was I a food profiler?  I looked deep in my soul, tears streaming down my cheeks, and I accepted the truth.  I had given jerky a bum rap, and dammit, it deserved better.

My moral failings aside, one might reasonably ask the question:  who cares?  Fair enough.  Here is why beef jerky matters:  very few calories and many grams of protein.  This translates into snacking and satiety glory.  One serving of jerky typically has 70 calories, 14 g of protein in a 1.1 oz serving.  In addition, they take a while to eat because they are hard and chewy.  These characteristics alone warranted a second look.

A couple of points about genus Jerkius.  I do not consider Slim Jim's to be beef jerky because they aren't.  They are beef sticks, and I still find this to be a concerning concept/descriptor (sounds like they come from a processed meat extruder, which they probably do).  Further, they have 150 calories, 13 grams of fat and only 6 grams of protein.  Not an awesome deal.  On the other hand, consider Oberto Beef Jerky:  70 calories, 2 grams of fat, 15 grams of protein.  That's what I'm talking about.  [Nutritional caveat:  I know that beef jerky has too much sodium.  I just choose to ignore this fact.  If it makes you feel any better, I never use table salt.]

It was time to give the jerky an open minded try.  I got some Trader Joe's buffalo and turky jerky, and gave them a shot.  Conclusion:  they tasted FANTASTIC and my G-I system remained in tact and non-offensive.  Another stereotype crushed!

Recently, I have tried to expand my purview of jerky to include some more artisanal/gourmet varieties.  Here are four that I've tried recently (I found these from a NY Times review from two years ago)...

1) Mahogany Gourmet Meats "Beef Slab".  How could I not try something labelled Beef Slab?  All organic, natural, lean meat was also a good call.

Assessment:  very tasty, great name, but a bit too tough.  There is a fine line between a piece of leather and a fine slice of beef jerky.  This variety was a bit too tough for my personal preference.  Others may prefer this style, particularly as it really does take a little longer to eat.

2) Gary West Buffalo and Elk Jerky.  Why should cows take all the heat?  In many respects, wild game is the perfect jerky given that elk and buffalo tend to be pretty lean cuts at the start.  Unlike the Mahogany, which was a slab, the Gary West jerky looked more like a meat stick (i.e., Slim Jim) except it was not perfectly round and didn't have that industrial extruded look.  Again, pretty much all natural except a little bit of Sodium Nitrite (tsk, tsk).

Assessment:  these sticks rock.  Really tasty and chewy/tender, not tough.  At 60 calories per serving, I can see these as a staple.

3) Texas A+M Aggie Brand beef jerky:  First off, how could I not support public education?  This stuff is made and sold by Texas A+M.  Probably the best part of the Aggie beef jerky experience is the purchasing process.  Quaintly, there is no online store, and purchases require the use of a telephone (seriously!).  Even better, they answer the phone "Rosenthal Meat Science Department, how may I help you?"  Seriously, the assistant for the meat sciences department answers the phone, takes your order and has your product shipped (she's VERY nice BTW).  That said, I couldn't stop imaging the range of experimentation happening near my meat processing.

Assessment:  unfreakinglybelievably great jerky.  Amazingly tasty and totally tender.  This stuff is almost too good.  It's also completely natural and unpreserved, so remember not to leave it on a shelf for four or five months.

Phone: 979.845.5651

4) Alaska's Best Salmon jerky, sold by Trapper's Creek in, where else, Alaska.  The Trapper's Creek guy found me via Twitter and put me to the challenge.  I was a little nervous about this one as dried fish doesn't seem quite as intuitive as dried beef.  I dug deep, manned up, and placed my order of dried fish (variety pack please!).

Assessment:  Not bad!  Same kind of nutritional profile as the beef (70 cal, 2 g fat, 13 g protein).  If you like smoked salmon, you will probably like salmon jerky.  I did.  My only minor complaint is that they are a little oily, though not too fishy, which was more of an issue for finger tip clean-up.  I'm not sure if this will be my go-to dried chunk-of-meat, but it adds a nice bit of variety.

BTW, I've since been hearing about other varieties of jerky including meat free (incongruous for me) and even caffeinated jerky (should red meat and caffeine really be mixed?  Isn't this how crime sprees start?).  

Jerky is now a fixed part of my snacking routine.  In many respects, it really is perfect man-food (not that women don't also love the jerky -- they just don't love the jerks).  Eating it makes me feel a little bit like the Marlborough Man, and the sodium is much less dangerous than the cigarettes.

So there you have it.  For all of you adventurous Weight Watchers-friendly food lovers, give the above a shot and let me know what you think.

Please do share your own jerky thoughts (again, I'm referring to the food, not behavior) and any other similarly weird food loves.




  1. I LOVE jerky. The only problem is the sodium.
    Kroger grocery stores have a "honey bbq" that is the lowest in sodium I've seen by far - 290 mg vs Oberto which has 490 mg and most are higher than that.

  2. David, I nearly had tears streaming down my face at the beginning of this post due to laughter!!!! Here in BRYAN/ COLLEGE STATION, Home of Texas A&M we are certainly very proud of our beef & animal products!!! Especially those produced by TAMU. You should come visit the Rosenthal Meat Lab. There's a store in front and the processing in back of the small building. Literally your meat _walked_ in and was processed less than 15 feet from where you buy it! Lovin' the blog...I'm one of your Leaders in Bryan!! Come visit, we'll show you more wonderful things about Texas!

  3. I've never considered eating jerky as a healthy snack, but the idea of eating so few calories with so much protein is definitely appealing.

    I have to say that I laughed then felt a little sick reading this post. Not only did I learn (recently)that you had the audacity to attend Duke, you now buy your jerky from the Aggies? That's just...ewe. Kidding...kind of..

    I'll probably try jerky at some point because I think you might be on to something here, but it's going to take a little time for me to get over this Aggies development.

    Enjoy your jerky...Hook'em..

  4. Tofu Jerquee (as one brand is called) is pretty good, actually. Not sure of fat content,haven't had it in a while. I first tried it at VegFest, as a sample. Got some for my daughter who was a vegetarian at the time and needed a lo-fat high protein snack while in training for wrestling (long story). I love jerky, but yes the sodium can catch up with me, especially the day before weigh in. thanks for your blog, you are a very funny man!

  5. I found a great gourmet jerky that helped fill the hunger pains when I really need a snack. Ed's Roadhouse Jerky, its all natural with no preservatives. And the bags come small enough (2oz) so I don't over indulge.

    P.S. Love you blog

    Mary R.

  6. I love love love jerky. It's definitely on my regular snack rotation! Quick, non-refrigerated protein for the win!

  7. I enjoy venison jerky on the regular! Salivate when I see a herd of jerky, er deer rather! Thank U for this blog!

  8. I'm an Aggie (and a leader in Texas, too), so how nice to see my alma mater lauded for great snacks! Whoop!

  9. I am a jerky affectonado (from my pre-WW days of (pardon me) doing Atkins), and ended up making my own homemade beef jerky. One of the few "Ron Popiel" infomercial products I bought, their dehydrator really does a great job making beef jerky, and you can control the sodium by using lower-sodium soy sauce in the marinade -- as well as trim off all the fat. I highly recommend giving it a try.

  10. This gives me the license to eat beef jerky as a snack while driving long distances between Maryland and Connecticut. I will be eternally grateful.

  11. Thanks Dave- I've been suggesting jerky to the members in South Texas. I had no idea that Texas A&M made jerky, but bet your boots I'll give it a try. I also bought the dehydrator and make my own jerky. I like to use a little (or a lot) of Tabasco as a marinade. There are a lot of low sodium marinades that work well, and I'm trying my best to try all of them I can think of :)

  12. Hi David. Thanks for the great mention!

  13. Thanks David for the mention. We have a no-nitrite version of our elk jerky as well. Thanks for lovin our stuff!

  14. Thank you, David, for your wonderfully descriptive way of describing Aggie Beef Jerky. We were so pleased with this glowing recommendation that we have posted a link your blog on our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences website<>. Happy chewing. College Communications Staff

  15. @Kenz---I don't know what they teach you at that college down in Austin. If you are going to describe Aggies as gross please don't do it by calling us female sheep. The proper spelling of ewwww (gross) isn't with an e on the end.

    Rosenthal meat center rocks! I used to get breakfast there before Animal Science 101 with Dr. Hesby (RIP). The Aggie Special. The sausage is great too!


  16. Hooorat for TAMU jerky. I have a friend in that dept. Also try Whittington's beef jerky. They are google-able.

  17. Whoop for the Aggie nod, although I do prefer homemade. Also, I did not expect to see Dr. Hesby's name on here today, he was a great man.