Over the holidays, my family drove across the beautiful voids of West Texas and New Mexico and stopped at a lot of convenience stores for gas. Every time I went inside to use the loo, I saw them: giant displays of dried meat in every size and flavor.
I remember jerky almost ripping my molars out on car trips when I was kid. It's been around forever. So why the comeback?
Americans have gone jerky crazy. We spent $2.8 billion on dried meat snacks last year, according to the market research firm IRI. It turns out jerky is the perfect food for the moment. Millennials are snacking more than ever, and people want more protein in their diet, according to the National Snack Food Association.
"It's a good all-around snack. It's ready to go. Good protein. Tastes good. You can't go wrong with it," says Chris Hart, a beer marketer from Fort Worth. I caught him at the huge jerky bar at Buc-ee's, a convenience store in New Braunfels, Texas, that boasts 37 kinds of jerky, such as bohemian garlic, cherry maple and ghost pepper.
"If it'll hold still long enough, we'll make jerky out of it," says store manager Dan Parkinson.
For thousands of years, human civilizations have cured, dried and salted animal muscle. In other words, jerky was paleo before paleo was cool. And today it has re-surged for the same reasons: It's lightweight, high in nutrition and can travel long distances without spoiling.
Jerky sales grew 12.5 percent last year, according to IRI. The big daddy of the industry is Jack Links, of Minong, Wis. Spokeswoman Kaila Fiske says the company claims more than half of all U.S. jerky sales. But there are hundreds of mom-and-pop jerky makers across the country, with more starting up all the time.
The Whittington family has been drying and smoking lean beef — rounds cut from inside the calf's hind quarter — and seasoning it with salt and pepper for 53 years in Johnson City, Texas. Lately, with jerky sales booming, the family's mesquite-fired smokehouses are in high demand with other commercial jerky makers.
"Everybody's trying to get in on it because it's such a big thing now," says owner Sam Whittington. "So they come to us. We're making all we can for other people right now. Every week I'm getting three or four requests for more."
Whittington's makes traditional jerky with the basic ingredients: meat, salt, spices and smoke. But with the exploding popularity of meat snacks, new artisanal producers are updating this ancient trail food.
A company called Epic, founded in Austin, is making all-natural, organic meat bars filled with nuts and dried fruit.
"We're big jerky people here," says co-founder Taylor Collins, "but there hasn't been a whole lot of innovation in jerky in a long time, maybe even hundreds of years. So we wanted to do something a little bit unique and different."
Collins is a long-haired, formerly vegan physical therapist who started the company with his wife, Katie. Among other novel flavors, Epic bars come in bison bacon cranberry, beef habanero cherry and lamb currant mint. Next year, Epic is introducing jerky made with salmon, venison and wild boar.
"There's been a shift in food. People for a long time were afraid of eating meat. But since then people are understanding that healthy animal protein is nourishing, and we evolved as a species consuming it," he says.
As proof of jerky's rising star, earlier this month the food behemoth General Mills acquired the Austin hippie meat bar. Epic will operate under General Mills' natural foods brand Annie's, and it will have competition. Today, at least eight other meat-based energy bars are crowding the market.
The protein notwithstanding, jerky is healthy only up to a point. As Marla Camp, publisher of Edible Austin magazine, points out, some beef jerky products contain a lot of sodium, sugar and additives like MSG and liquid smoke.
But it can also be a pretty simple food, says Whittington. "As we say in the jerky business, it's pretty cut and dry. There's not a whole lot to it."