A History of Jerky, Part 1 (From the Dawn of Civilization to the Columbian Exchange)

The word “jerky” is the English version of the South American Quechuan word “ch’arki.” Depending on whose translation you believe, ch’arki could either be a verb, “to burn meat” or a noun, “dried, salted meat.” 

In any case, we mostly think of jerky as the dried beef. Actually, beef didn’t enter the jerky realm until after Christopher Columbus introduced cattle into the New World in the late 15th century. Columbus’s fortune-seeking successors, the Spanish Conquistadors co-opted the jerky-making process from the Incas, took it to Europe, where the public readily accepted it.

So, long before conquistador Juan Pizarro died from a rock thrown by an enraged Inca warrior in 1534, South American natives had perfected the art of preserving the meat from alpacas and llamas.  Those natives were the Incas of Peru and their rule over a large swath of South America lasted for about 100 years. 

Inca jerky had some interesting uses. Meat of any kind was a treat and a luxury for the common folk back then. In fact, jerky was a form of road tax payment banked and stored in warehouses and inns through the vast network of Inca roads. 

One Spanish friar and conquistador chaplain Bernabé Cobo wrote a firsthand description on how the Incas perfected the jerky preparation process. Cobo described the Peruvian cooks as preparing ch’arki by cutting the meat into slices, placing the slices on ice and then pounding the meat thin. The goal was to completely dry the meat at higher elevations by exposing it to the cold and elements. At lower elevations, they used a smoking and salting process.

However, the salting and drying process to preserve meat already existed worldwide thousands of years before people prepared beef jerky. Archeologists have found dried meat in the tombs of Egyptian nobles. Later, during the medieval period salted meat (usually of the fatty variety) was a dietary staple. 

Imagine the saltiest piece of pepperoni you have ever eaten. Multiply the salty taste by about 10, and you’ll get some idea of how medieval meat would probably have been too salty for our modern taste. Cooks would typically soak and re-soak the meat in fresh water before cooking it, but they could never get the salty taste completely out.

Likewise, in the Age of Exploration when sailing ships left the safety of the European coasts, salted and dried meat were a part of the rations that kept sailors going. Ships’ cooks were not about to soak the meat in their precious stores of fresh water, so meals of salt pork and hardtack must have kept the crew on the verge of mutiny.

Too bad those seafarers thought that salting and drying fatty pork was the key to sustenance and nutrition. If they had stocked our flavorful beef jerky, they could have enjoyed our original, teriyaki, sweet and spicy, and red chili pepper, and their crews would have been far happier and healthier. 

Who knows how lowering the salt intake (and blood pressure) of Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him might have resulted in a kinder and gentler interaction with people already living here. 

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