The Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians owns Umpqua Indian Foods. (Courtesy of Umpqua Indian Foods)

Jerky: The Bread of the Wilderness

Lee Allen
1/1/12

Jerky, and its predecessor, pemmican, has been a staple of native peoples for centuries because of the products accessibility, portability and high-energy value.

Traditionally a concentrated mixture of protein and fat in the form of dehydrated lean cuts of buffalo, rendered fat, and dried fruit, “It is arguably the only food that humans can healthfully exist explicitly off of,” according to the AOL pemmican web page.

Generally prepared with whatever specific ingredients were available, early day pemmican was often a combination of bison, moose, elk or deer mixed with bone marrow fat and berries. The meat was cut into thin slices and fire- or sun-dried before being mixed with melted fat in a 1:1 ratio. Historians of the North American Frontier lauded the fact that it was one of the most long-lasting foods, a usable lifetime of up to 20 years, without any preservatives.

Although pemmican in bar and bulk form can still be found today, the more popular contemporary form of the product is jerky.  “When Spanish Conquistadors invaded the Americas,” according to a report on FoodEditorials.com, “they were surprised to see natives of North America drying meat. Spaniards called it charqui, but accents soon changed the name to ‘jerky.’"

Today jerky comes in almost unlimited varieties from the most popular beef- and buffalo-based to specialty creations made from venison, elk, antelope, goat, emu, alligator, tuna and salmon—virtually any kind of meat that can be dehydrated.

Because they invented it, Native Americans continue to prepare the product both for themselves and for sale, adding a historical staple to the list of modern day revenue generators.

An online search for jerky turns up numerous sites—everything from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana to the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma to the Oglala Lakotas on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and Oregon’s Cow Creek Tribe, where that tribe’s wholly-owned and wholly-operated Umpqua Indian Foods promises “the best jerky on earth.”

“Our Jerky for Life is the ultimate healthy choice, the first of its kind that is sugar-, gluten-, and preservative-free, crafted specially for children and diabetics,” says Operations Manager JudiAnn Buhl.

All processing for the Umpqua Indian Foods ready-to-eat meat products takes place in a company-owned USDA facility in historic Canyonville, Oregon.  There are few beef jerky production companies left that produce product by hand and this is one of them.

“Our production is an artisan process,” Buhl says with pride. “We use only choice and select grades of all-natural beef from vendors in the West or Midwest that we’ve used for years to ensure quality standards in every single piece of jerky we make.”

Journeymen meat cutters start with 50-pound slabs, hand-trimming and tenderizing ¼-inch-wide jerky strips to be marinated in a specially-formulated brine. “Our spice recipe is proprietary,” says Buhl. “We use non-genetically modified spices mixed by hand for each batch of jerky so quality, consistency, and freshness are guaranteed. No matter what flavor we’re producing, it comes out of an all-by-hand 50 pound batch.”

Meat strips are added to the brine and stirred by hand before being placed in a walk-in cooler to continue marinating overnight. The following day, marinated strips are loaded onto screens placed on smoke trucks and transported to the smoke house to cook for between five and six hours depending on the flavor of jerky being produced on that particular day.

Once cooked, the batch moves to the packaging area where it gets cut by hand with traditional old-school pizza rocker knives to create uniformity in size, and then spends another night in the drying process.

Old-fashioned candy scales are used to weigh jerky product—again, by hand—in 4- and 8-ounce bags, sealed and ready for customers from behind the counter at the tribes retail store, or sold (by phone or online) and shipped to an expanding customer base around the world.

Not content with being totally traditional, “We challenge ourselves to invent new recipes,” Buhl says in announcing a new Brew Pub product line that contains “just a hint of beer.”

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