Jerky: The History of the World’s First Snack

Jerky is touted as many things, including its status as the world’s first snack food. Jerky is fresh meat that is dried and salted to prevent it from spoiling. There reports of evidence of jerky being eaten in ancient Egypt. Ch’arki (dried meat) was prepared in the 1500s by the Spanish during the early American conquest. The first meats used included alpaca and llama by the South American tribe called the Quechua. They trimmed the meat of fat, removed bones, cut it into slices, pounded it thin, then rubbed the slices with salt. The meat portions were then dried in the sun or smoked over an open fire.

Native Americans produced a food that was made of dried meat, berries, and melted fat, which was a variation of jerky. The Native Americans called this snack food pemmican. There are also those that believe Native Americans made the first jerky from buffalo, elk, and deer. Regardless of the exact origin, jerky has been around for centuries, making it the world’s first snack!

Jerky was highly regarded by explorers because of its portability and shelf life. Jerky is a hearty source of dense protein that provided good nutrition to all. Settlers were taught about jerky by Native Americans. The settlers learned to cut and prepare the meat in long strips, as well as add various seasonings for flavor enhancements.

Traders exploring North America valued jerky for its intense delivery of protein and ease of production. Explorers could hunt meat anywhere along the trails during their travels, which meant that they could make jerky during their travels.

Jerky was a staple for early American cowboys, pioneers, and miners. Jerky was a food that could sustain them all while they were traveling far away. Low in water content and high in salt, jerky was a light, high energy food that could survive all conditions for long periods of time. The jerky curing process further developed with the early American pioneers. Drying meat was easily done by stringing it on ropes and hanging it on the outside of the wagon cover. The meat would be exposed to the sun for two or three days, until it was cured; then the travelers would pack the meat snacks into bags. When the twentieth century rolled around, people realized it would be safer to smoke the meat than hanging it to dry in the open air.

Biltong is a jerky that was produced through sun drying by South African travelers as they crossed the African Subcontinent. Folk stories tell us that African tribesmen would place venison strips under their horse saddles and the meat would become tender due to the chafing and spiced from the animal sweat. Since there was a large supply of vinegar, salt, sugar, coriander, and other spices in the Cape Colony, biltong was produced with more of these flavors. Some say there are biltong brine recipes that have been passed down for many generations.

There is a long history of jerky, the world’s first snack. As you have read, many cultures and ancient people created and developed jerky into the snack food we now know and love and our society continues to create new and exciting options for our snacking enjoyment.