gamut (2007-42)

They Call it Jerky

Behind the business of East Tennessee's dedicated flesh industry

Working behind the counter at the Beef Jerky Outlet, Kevin Crabtree and Corey Hitted field some peculiar customer requests. Just this morning, for instance, a man wandered into the Kodak, Tenn., store looking for the dried, chewy meat of our countryâ’s national bird.

â“He wanted bald eagle jerky,â” Hitted, age 17, recalls. â“He said it was probably the most unpatriotic thing heâ’d ever asked.â”

â“We get a lot of weird requests,â” Crabtree, 19, adds. â“Rattlesnake, bearâ we get a lot of requests for bear.â”

Political correctness aside, the inquiries arenâ’t really out of line considering the Outletâ’s vast and somewhat exotic jerky selection. Alligator, antelope, buffalo, wild boar, elk, ostrich, kangarooâ"walking through the store feels a little like wading through a box of animal crackers. Thereâ’s even fish jerkyâ"salmon and tunaâ"vacuum-sealed and suspended from a display case in the middle of the room. To be fair, though, the Outlet isnâ’t just for carnivores; a couple barrels of fruit jerky, mostly untouched, lurk in the farthest corner.

According to the storeâ’s teenage clerks, the Outlet, which has been open almost a year now, is constantly experimenting with new variations on the jerky theme. Its shelves are presently stocked with over 200 different flavors and styles, so even after you narrow your jerky quest down to one meatâ"say, turkey jerkyâ"you still have to decide whether you want it in a flat strip or a Slim Jim-style stick, and then you have to decide on the seasoning. While traditional flavors like black pepper, teriyaki, hickory smoke and sweet barbecue are the best-sellers, Crabtree explains, â“You can get jerky in every flavor. Thereâ’s fajita jerky, cappuccino jerkyâ but the ownerâ’s not going too crazy with all thatâ"not yet.â”

â“Yetâ” seems to be the operative word. Even though jerky has been around for centuries (â“jerkyâ” comes from the Quechua term charqui, which translates to â“dried meatâ”), itâ’s experienced a kind of renaissance here in East Tennessee of late. In the past year, two new beef jerky specialty stores have opened up in the Sevierville/Pigeon Forge area, with another Beef Jerky Outlet preparing to break ground in Alcoa. Of course, if youâ’re hurting for a fix, jerkyâ’s available at most gas stations and grocery stores as well.

Not bad for a foodstuff that shares several physical qualities with shoe leather. So whatâ’s the appeal? â“Itâ’s good for you,â” says Crabtree, reciting a list of its virtues: high in protein, low in sugar and fat, easy to carry, and filling. For these reasons, jerky is popular with the outdoorsy crowd; the Outlet receives a lot of spill-over business from its neighbor to the right, redneck superstore Bass Pro Shop. Jerkyâ’s long been a staple of astronautsâ’ diets, too.

â“Itâ’s just good,â” Hitted chirps. To illustrate his point, he snatches a sample from one of the barrels that line the Outletâ’s walls and flies it airplane-style toward his mouth. â“Mmmmm,â” he grunts.

It takes about three-and-a-half pounds of meat to make one pound of jerky, which is kind of surprising if you think about it. That means, when you bite into a big, juicy steak, over two-thirds of what youâ’re ingesting is water.

This is the kind of math Stan Hitch has to do every day. His company, Crockett Creek Beef Jerky, produces about 850 pounds of jerky every day, five days a week, which means they burn through almost 15,000 pounds of meat each week. The factory is housed in a warehouse off Highway 411 South in Maryville; itâ’s been there since 1998, and the Hitch family has been in the jerky business for 30 years. They credit their â“secret recipeâ” for Crockett Creekâ’s widespread success. (The brand is now carried by large retail outlets throughout the country, most notably Wal-Mart and Pilot gas stations.)

Walking inside, itâ’s clear that something meaty is cooking in the backâ"a woodsy, primal aroma permeates the air. One imagines that, just behind the closed double-doors that lead into the kitchen, burly men with butcher knives are sweating over massive piles of raw meat, hacking it into pieces and sliding it into fiery ovens.

In reality, jerky-making is as much a science as it is an art (and the burly men probably have to wear hair nets). The marinated meat has to be dried quickly to limit bacterial growth, but at a low temperature, so that the meat doesnâ’t overheat and become brittle. Most commercial jerky producers achieve this balance by using ovens equipped with fans that pump out the moisture. After the meat is dehydrated, itâ’s either smoked or salted to add flavor and complete the preservation process. Variations in that formula account for the different tastes and textures of jerky.

â“The jerky we carry is more like trail steak,â” explains Ken McMahon, manager of Smoky Mountain Jerky & Smoked Meats, which opened last November at its current location on the parkway in Pigeon Forge. â“Itâ’s a lot softer, a lot easier to chew, a lot more tender. We didnâ’t want to carry the stuff that breaks your jaw when you bite into it.â”

If Crockett Creek Beef Jerky is a domestic draft, enjoying wide distribution in a variety of venues throughout the United States, Smoky Mountain is a microbrew, cooked in smaller batches and sold at select, mostly regional stores, including the Beef Jerky Outlet and its own store on the Parkway.

Smoky Mountain Jerky prides itself on the quality of meat it uses, which directly affects its taste and texture. The meat needs to be lean and muscled, and some cuts are better than others. Flank steak and brisket, for instance, are too tough and fatty to make good jerky.

Nowadays, some mail-order jerky companies are even peddling organic jerky, made from grass- or grain-fed cattle. Fun fact: â“Donâ’t panic, itâ’s organic!â” was the tagline for a 2002 short film, The Truth About Beef Jerky, in which a Ted Nugent-esque beef jerky czar lures a group of hippies from Santa Cruz, Calif., into the woods to be hunted for sport and processed into beef jerky.

East Tennesseeâ’s burgeoning jerky industry, which will soon encompass at least five jerky specialty stores, is deceiving. The majority of jerky companies are boutique in nature, selling their wares over the Internet or in locally owned stores. Bigger stores, like the Beef Jerky Outlet, are few and far between: Thereâ’s a Beef Jerky Emporium in Oklahoma City, Okla.; a Beef Jerky Outlet in Sterling Heights, Mich.; a Beef Jerky Store in Las Vegas, and The Jerky Hut franchise, which has about 25 locations around the United States. Jerky-making and -selling is an independent sort of venture, with no real rules or governing body to keep track of how much jerky is getting produced and by whom.

But even without a set of hard-and-fast numbers to prove it, beef jerkyâ’s popularity appears to be on the rise. Cathy Lee is president of The Beef Jerky Store, a jerky specialty shop wedged between casino-hotels in downtown Las Vegas. It may seem a strange location, but

Las Vegas and the Sevierville area, where three of Knoxvilleâ’s jerky specialty shops are located, share one common denominator: tourists. And for whatever reason,

tourists seem to like beef jerkyâ"and clam and tofu jerky, to list a couple other big sellers at the Jerky Store.

Lee attributes the rising popularity of beef jerky in general to the low-carb diet craze thatâ’s swept the nation in recent years. â“More people are making it, more people are getting into it,â” she says. â“Itâ’s the perfect thing for that dietâ"low in fat, low in carbohydrates. The only bad thing is that itâ’s high in sodium, because salt is used to preserve the meat.â”

But one senses that manâ’s affections for jerky run deeper than that. Itâ’s something more primal, empowering, this realization that youâ’re carrying a slab of teriyaki-flavored wildebeest in your pocket, just like your Indian ancestors might have a thousand years ago. The knowledge that you could carry it around for two weeks, or two years, and it wouldnâ’t even start to stink. And the reassurance that, if the Jell-O hits the fan and we all have to go underground, youâ’re not going to go hungryâ"at least not for a day or two. Itâ’s not much, but in an age when our fears come in government-issued shades of yellow and orange, itâ’s something.

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